No Use Crying Over Leaked Milk – Let Alone Threatening Sanctions Over It

My latest for Experts Panel/Voice of Russia:

The Panel states, “On future occasions, Russia might well require Washington to cooperate in similar circumstances; and if such is the case, its handling of the Snowden affair could prove decisive as to how Washington chooses to respond.”

Well, let’s imagine this scenario. One fine day, an FSB contractor named Eduard Snegirev takes a flight out to Dulles International Airport and proceeds to spill the beans – though as with PRISM and Boundless Informant, it’s pretty much an open secret anyway – on SORM-2 and how the Russian state spies on its hapless citizens. Would Immigration and Customs Enforcement turn him away? Would the FBI rush to honor a Russian extradition request on the basis of his violating Article 275 of the Criminal Code “On State Treason”? It is impossible to even ask this question without a smirk on one’s face.

Don’t get me wrong. It is entirely reasonable to agree to and honor extradition treaties covering “universal” crimes such as murder, rape, or – shock horror! – financial fraud (even if official London would beg to differ). But this approach breaks down when we get to “crimes” such as those of the real Snowden or the hypothetical Snegirev because it is not universal, but asymmetric and relational: Asymmetric because a traitor in one country is a hero (or at least a useful asset) in another, and relational because a traitor to some people is a whistle-blower to others.

Sergey Tretyakov, otherwise known as “Comrade J,” betrayed his sources and fellow agents in the SVR when he defected to the US in 2000. Yet on his death, many of the people discussing his life at the blog of Pete Early, his official biographer, called him a “patriot.” Not just an American patriot, mind you, but aRussian one as well – as if he had done his motherland a favor. They are free to think that but it will not change the fact that in his homeland about 98% of the population really would think of him as a traitor through and through. Or take Vasily Mitrokhin. In the West, he is overwhelmingly considered as a heroic whistle-blower, risking his life to chronicle the crimes committed by the KGB abroad. But he neither concealed the identities of Soviet sources and existing agents – unlike Snowden or Assange, nor did he reveal his documents to the entire world – opting instead to give them wholemeal to MI6. Nonetheless, demanding the repatriation of either one would be inherently ridiculous and only make Russia into a laughing stock – which is why it never even thought of doing so. No use crying over spilt (or should that be leaked?) milk.

The US, too, was usually reasonable about such matters, quietly accepting that their espionage laws have no weight outside their own territory and the territory of their closest allies – as has always been the case in all times and for all states since times immemorial. This is why the hysterics this time round are so… strange. While John “I see the letters K-G-B in Putin’s eyes” McCain is a clinical case, it’s considerably more puzzling to see similar fiery rhetoric from the likes of Chuck Schumer or John Kerry (although the latter soon moderated his tone). Such attitudes probably proceed from official America’s tendency to view itself as a global empire, not beholden to the normal laws and conventions of international politics. Now while its closest allies (or clients) might humor it in such delusions, even its “third-class” allies like Germany do not* – not to mention sovereign Great Powers such as China and, yes, Russia.

In any case, as far as the Kremlin concerned, it is now almost politically impossible to extradite Snowden even if it so wishes. Though they have been no official opinion polls on the matter, online surveys indicate that Russians are overwhelmingly against expelling Snowden. 98% of the readers of Vzglyad (a pro-Putin resource), and even 50% of Echo of Moscow’s readers and listeners (one of the shrillest anti-Putin outlets), support giving him political asylum. Apart from that, it would also destroy Russia’s incipient reputation as a sanctuary for Western dissidents – a great propaganda boon against the legions of Western commentators who vilify it every day as a ruthless autocracy.

To his credit, Obama seems to more or less realize this: He knows that he can’t issue orders to Russia or even Ecuador, and that it is not worth threatening sanctions or “scrambling jets” just to “get a 29-year-old hacker.” While the neocons and “American exceptionalists” will get their 15 minutes of blowing hard on TV and the op-ed pages, the episode is – and has been from the get go – likely to end in just one way: A quiet and untrumpeted retirement for Snowden in Quito, Caracas, or Barvikha.

* So what on Earth’s up with that anyway? Here is the most worrying theory I’ve been able to come up with:They actually take George Friedman seriously.

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