Fuelling friction

Russia’s refusal to extradite National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden to the United States has raised hackles in Washington. Snowden faces espionage charges in the US for leaking classified details on intelligence programmes run by the NSA. He fled to Russia after Chinese authorities allowed him to leave Hong Kong.

 He is now believed to be in a transit lounge at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport and reportedly seeking asylum in Ecuador. The US is seeking Snowden’s extradition fearing he will reveal to Russian authorities secrets to which he was privy. Russia is not acting illegally by turning down the US request. If Snowden is indeed in the airport transit lounge he is technically not on Russian soil. Besides, the US and Russia do not have an extradition agreement. Thus Moscow is not obliged to hand him over, although American officials expect Moscow to do so out of goodwill and respect for bilateral co-operation.
   The US has warned Russia that bilateral relations will suffer if it does not hand over Snowden. Ties between the two have been fragile with differences flaring repeatedly over missile defence, Iran’s nuclear programme, the Syrian civil war and so on. Snowden’s extradition will fuel this friction. However, it is unlikely that either the US or Russia will risk damaging relations.  Although US officials and analysts have been talking tough, president Barack Obama has sought to tone down the hostile rhetoric and appears to be seeking a quiet solution.

Snowden is likely to have been debriefed already by Chinese and Russian authorities. They do not need to hold him much longer. But Russia could keep him for a few days as this will allow president Valadim Putin to impress his people that he does not succumb to US bullying. He is unlikely to hand Snowden over to the Americans but will make them stew a bit before sending him to a country that provides him asylum. This is a propaganda coup for Russia, an opportunity to embarrass the sanctimonious Americans and show up their flimsy commitment to transparency, human rights, etc. It has provided Russia with an opportunity to teach the Americans a lesson. In 2010, US operatives nabbed Viktor Bout, a former Soviet air force officer with alleged links to Russian intelligence, in Thailand. The Obama administration ignored Russian pleas for his extradition. For Russia, this is payback time.  
 

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