A frequent contributor to these parts, David Satter is an adviser to Radio Liberty and a fellow of the Hudson Institute. His latest book is It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past.
We talk about Edward Snowden’s asylum request and the U.S.-Russia issues surrounding him.
KJL: Has Putin made this Snowden airport transit zone more of a circus than it has to be? Has the U.S. done the same by revoking his passport?
DAVID SATTER: A new law compels Russian human-rights groups that have received foreign grants to register as foreign agents. Members of some of these groups were invited to a press conference given by Snowden. If they had refused to go, they would have been depicted as tools of the U.S. But by showing up, they lent support to Snowden’s accusations, which is what the Kremlin intended.
It is true that by revoking Snowden’s passport, the U.S. made it likely he would go to Russia. But if Snowden’s passport had not been revoked, he would have been able to travel freely and, potentially, do even more damage to U.S. security.
KJL: Can Putin get away with giving him asylum? What could that means for U.S.-Russia relations? What should it mean?
SATTER: Putin can grant Snowden asylum but he obviously wants to his true motives. The references to “temporary asylum” and Russian “conditions” and demands that Snowden “not hurt our American partners” are an attempt to create the impression that Russia is acting not out of enmity but out of principle. In fact, “temporary asylum” is a ruse. The goal is to make it possible for Snowden to escape American justice without making it obvious that this is Russia’s purpose. It shows what should have been obvious long ago – that Russia is a hostile power with no regard for the security of the U.S.
KJL: Has Putin crossed diplomatic lines in his comments about Snowden?
SATTER: Putin has declined to return a fugitive who broke the law in the U.S. despite the existence of a U.S.-Russian legal assistance treaty and the U.S.’s record of returning 1,700 Russian citizens to Russia in the last five years. He is guilty of crossing more than diplomatic lines. By ignoring the U.S. request for Snowden’s return and then comparing Snowden to the Soviet human-rights leader Andrei Sakharov, he has treated the U.S. with barely disguised contempt.
KJL: Does the average Russian actually believe Snowden would be tortured here, as his asylum application suggests might happen?
SATTER: Most Russians understand that the U.S. is more democratic than Russia, but the majority of Russians get their news from the state-run national television networks, a fount of anti-U.S. propaganda that may make their viewers more amenable to the suggestion. Russians are also quick to believe accusations of torture because, in police stations all over Russia, torture is an accepted method of extracting confessions.
KJL: Are there historic equivalents of any kind here?
SATTER: During the Soviet period, there were cases of anti-Communist Russians who passed on secret information to the CIA. Those that were uncovered were almost without exception shot. In the post-Soviet period, Russian researchers have been sentenced to long prison terms for espionage for performing analyses of the Russian defense forces and the military industrial complex based exclusively on open sources.
KJL: Putin has been taking on a bit of an evil -illain persona in U.S. culture. What do you make of him and his future? What’s in it for Russia – or what is Russia in for?
SATTER: Putin is the head of a small group of corrupt leaders who monopolize power and property in Russia and intend to rule for life. Insofar as their corruption has a tendency to increase and the country that they control is steadily deteriorating politically and economically, the collapse of the regime is only a matter of time. It is this underlying instability that motivates much of Putin’s anti-Americanism. The problem is that it threatens the well-being of the Russian population and could become a danger to the whole world.