The Corner

What Asylum for Snowden Means

The granting of “temporary asylum” to Edward Snowden by Russia should finally put to rest any hope that Russia will cooperate with the U.S. on security matters.

Snowden needs to be returned to the U.S. not only because he has broken the law, but because a proper damage assessment by the NSA is only possible if Snowden is in American custody.

By sheltering Snowden, Russia makes such a damage assessment impossible. Instead, it creates the conditions for him to be milked for secret information by Russian intelligence. According to the Russian press, this process is already taking place.

There is an irony in Snowden’s seeking protection from a country that does not respect human rights and does not have the rule of law. But, in fact, it is also only logical that a computer geek who sought notoriety by violating his country’s trust would end up in one of the few countries that would glorify behavior by Americans that it would never tolerate in one of its own citizens.

Alexander Litvinenko, a former agent of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) who broke with the agency over an assassination attempt and presented evidence that the 1999 apartment bombings that helped bring Putin to power were carried out by the FSB, was poisoned in 2006 with radioactive polonium. The Russian authorities refused to cooperate in the investigation of the case and when the British requested the extradition of the principal suspect, Andrei Lugovoi, a former KGB agent, the Russians not only refused the request but organized Lugovoi’s election to the Russian parliament.

President Putin has said that Snowden would have to stop harming “our American partners” in order to receive asylum. But leaks have continued while Snowden was under Russian control, with the latest appearing only days before the announcement that Russia is giving him asylum.

In fact, Russia’s true intentions should have been clear after the Boston Marathon bombings. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the bombers, was in contact with members of the radical Islamic underground in Dagestan during the six month period in 2012 when he was in the region. Two of his contacts were killed during this period by the Russian forces. None of this, however, was communicated to the CIA or FBI. Tsarnaev left Russia for the U.S. without interference and began preparing for the attack that, had the Russians been forthcoming, might have been prevented.

If there is any positive result of the Snowden affair it is that the U.S. may now begin to assess Russia realistically. The Russian authorities are determined to treat the U.S. as an enemy to distract Russians from their government’s own massive corruption. This is why the atmospherics associated with the “reset” policy were always futile. We need to see Russia as it is. And Snowden may also have an opportunity to discover something, too. His Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, said that Snowden needs times to “adapt to Russian realities.” Once he does, he may finally begin to grasp the helplessness of his situation and the enormity of what he has done.

— David Satter is an adviser to the Radio Liberty and a fellow of the Hudson Institute and Johns Hopkins University. His latest book is It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past

David Satter has written four books about Russia, including, most recently, The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship under Yeltsin and Putin, now available in paperback. He is the only American journalist to be expelled from Russia since the end of the Cold War.