23 August 2019
Turning Edward Snowden over to the US may scare off US billionaires and celebrities who have sought asylum in Russia in order to dodge heavy taxes. Photo: Reuters
Turning Edward Snowden over to the US may scare off US billionaires and celebrities who have sought asylum in Russia in order to dodge heavy taxes. Photo: Reuters

Why Russia might let Edward Snowden go

Former CIA director Michael J. Morell told the media recently that Russian President Vladimir Putin should consider turning Edward Snowden, the former CIA contractor who currently remains in exile in Russia, over to the US authorities as a token of Moscow’s goodwill to the Trump administration.

The suggestion is being considered by the Kremlin, NBC reports, citing Russian sources.

I doubt whether Moscow would really turn Snowden over to the US at least in the short run, because it is obviously against Russian interests to do so.

Even though President Putin had implied that his government would take the initiative and improve relations with Washington once the Trump administration assumed office, I don’t think Putin is likely to repatriate Snowden, whom President Donald Trump calls a “traitor”, as the young American defector remains a valuable asset to Russia.

On the intelligence level, despite the fact that the “spy war” between the US and the former Soviet Union, and now Russia, has been going on for decades, over the years Russian spies have been largely unsuccessful in their attempts to infiltrate the National Security Agency (NSA), America’s leading government institution overseeing national security.

However, the defection of Snowden and the secret information in his possession in fact have offered Moscow an extremely rare glimpse into the heart and soul of US intelligence.

Snowden has reiterated that he hasn’t handed over any US state secret to the Russian authorities but as long as he remains on Russian soil, there is always a way for the Russian authorities to make him talk.

On the other hand, as far as propaganda value is concerned, Snowden could prove even more invaluable in this sense.

Over the years, Putin has been strongly criticizing the “hypocritical nature” of American democracy as a way to justify his personal dictatorship in Russia.

Given that, what is a better proof of American hypocrisy than project PRISM unveiled by Snowden?

In fact, the more ferociously the US comes after Snowden, the stronger the impression both within Russia and in the international community that he is a dissident and victim of political persecution, thereby enhancing Putin’s image as a protector of human rights and freedom.

Perhaps one should take notice that shortly after former US president Obama had pardoned Chelsea Manning, the US soldier who had been convicted of turning over highly classified information on Washington’s mass surveillance program on its own citizens to WikiLeaks, Russia announced that it would extend Snowden’s length of stay to 2020, suggesting that Moscow is desperate to keep Snowden on its soil.

However, while Snowden might still prove a valuable asset to Moscow, he might become a liability or even a source of trouble in the eyes of the Kremlin if he stays in Russia indefinitely, not least because he has been critical of Russia’s human rights record and Putin’s dictatorship.

Besides, Snowden has also been criticizing Moscow’s own mass surveillance program, calling it “not cost-effective, not necessary, and obviously oppressive”.

Given Snowden’s potential for becoming a vocal critic of Moscow, perhaps the best outcome for the Kremlin is for him to leave Russia after his visa expires and seek asylum somewhere else.

Turning Snowden over to the US will not only undermine Putin’s international image but may also scare off US billionaires and celebrities who have sought asylum in Russia in order to dodge heavy taxes.

Losing these rich and influential foreign guests might eventually turn out to be an even bigger loss than losing Snowden.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 23

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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