Don Murray: How Russia gains from sheltering Edward Snowden

For Russia's Vladimir Putin, granting political asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden was almost a no-brainer, Don Murray writes. Apart from Snowden's increasing popularity in Europe, the move cloaks the Kremlin in the rare guise of international law.

Vladimir Putin's newest 'catch of the day'

Edward Snowden's Russian asylum papers. Valid for a year, or until the mood in the Kremlin changes. (Reuters)

Vladimir Putin is a little man with a penchant for big catches. Just a few days ago he reeled in a huge pike, weighing 21 kilograms, if the Kremlin press service is to be believed. Then he kissed it.

On August 1 he hooked another. 

Edward Snowden slipped quietly out of the transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport and disappeared into the Russian capital, there to pursue his reading of Dostoyevsky. He has apparently already read Crime and Punishment.

Snowden is the man who leaked the NSA's global spying secrets and is being sought by the U.S. government. It wants him extradited back to face trial on charges that presumably would be similar to those Private Bradley Manning has just faced for sending over 700,000 government documents to WikiLeaks.

Manning was convicted of 20 counts of espionage and theft but not of the most serious charge of "aiding the enemy." Washington expressed its anger and disappointment at President Putin. Snowden expressed his thanks at being given a one-year Russian asylum visa. "Over the past weeks we have seen the Obama administration show no respect for international or domestic law, but in the end the law is winning," he said.

A show tool

The law is winning? These words have a distinctly bizarre ring in the shadow of the Kremlin.

Vladimir Putin's big pike, from his fishing holiday last month. Some Kremlin critics have dared challenge its size. (Reuters)

The little man who presides there treats the law like his fishing expeditions: as a tool for show. And the show is designed to intimidate.

There were the two trials of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once one of Russia’s richest men, now in prison for a tenth year and facing four more.

His second trial, for theft and embezzlement, was described by the International Bar Association's Human Rights Institute as "flawed."

There was also the recent conviction of Alexei Navalny, the emerging face of the opposition protests against Putin last year.  The U.S. and the European Union both said the trial raised questions about the rule of law in Russia.

Both men were seen by Putin as political threats, threats to be removed. The trials merely added the window-dressing of legality.

Tit for tat

The most grotesque of Russia's recent trials was that of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian accountant and auditor. 

On July 11, while Snowden was sitting in the transit lounge at Moscow's airport, Magnitsky was found guilty of fraud and tax evasion.  He did not attend his trial; he had been dead for three and a half years.

Magnitsky's real crime, according to his family and business associates, was to have unearthed a massive fraud scheme run by Russian tax officials themselves, and then to have reported it to the police. 

For this he was thrown into prison, beaten, mistreated and denied proper medical treatment. He died in prison.

The world's reaction surprised and infuriated the Kremlin. The U.S. Senate passed the so-called Magnitsky Act, and President Barack Obama signed it into law.

It lists Russian officials declared complicit in the imprisonment, mistreatment and death of Magnitsky and bars their entry into the U.S. and their use of American banking institutions.

The Kremlin and the Russian parliament reacted with measures of their own.

All Russian aid or human rights' groups receiving subsides from abroad were ordered to register as "foreign agents." Americans were barred from adopting Russian children.

And then came Snowden. Putin's first reaction was to speak soothing words; Snowden's presence in Moscow's airport was not to be allowed to damage relations with Washington. 

But as the weeks dragged on and the revelations of NSA snooping kept coming, the reaction, particularly in Europe,  was increasingly unsettled and angry. 

Privacy loving Germans take to the streets in Berlin last week as the pro-Snowden, anti-state-spying sentiment grows. (Reuters)

In Russia itself, Snowden was seen almost as a hero, according to opinion polls. Almost half polled said he should be given asylum.

For Putin, there was little to worry about, perhaps a cancelled meeting with Obama. 

He would be twisting no law; there is no extradition treaty with the U.S. Trade sanctions would be harmless. 

Russia's trade with the U.S. is small. It does four times more business with Germany (where there has already been large pro-Snowden rallies). It has the fourth highest foreign currency reserves in the world — $525 billion. 

And on the Middle East, particularly over Syria, the two countries are already in open opposition.

Thus the temporary asylum visa.

Snowden, in the Putinesque scheme of things, is not a small fish, but neither is he a huge pike. 

He is a medium fish, hooked, on the line and allowed to roam until he exhausts his usefulness.

He doesn’t need to be kissed; the medium fish, swimming semi-free, has offered a kiss of his own with words of praise for the rule of law in the shadow of the Kremlin.