Ties between the US and Russia are at their lowest point recently, but if Washington truly wishes for better relations with Moscow, it isn't going to get it through imposing sanctions as a consequence of granting amnesty to NSA whistleblower Snowden.
The US Senate has passed a bill authored by hawkish Senator Lindsey Graham that will enable Washington to move towards sanctioning countries that are seen as "aiding" Snowden. The message being sent is clear -- American authorities are dead set on getting their "fugitive" and they are even willing to take the unprecedented move to impose sanctions on other countries for their failure to extradite a US citizen. Such a move completely undermines an individual's right of asylum as specified by international law, and is a deeply hypocritical stance for a country that loves to posture itself as an arbiter of righteousness and a haven for asylum seekers and dissidents.
During his speech to the Senate Appropriations Committee, Graham went on an anti-Russian tirade and made clear Putin's administration will be in the thick of the proposed sanctioning effort. Such is the folly of US policy, which aims to get others to comply with little in return, or face punishment of sanctions. To add insult to injury, Moscow knows that the US would never concede to the demands it is currently placing on Russia if the tables were turned.
Throughout the media frenzy surrounding the Snowden case, commentators have painted him as everything from a patriot to a treasonous criminal -- some also accuse him of being an undercover CIA operative posing as a dissident. Mainstream media outlets in the United States have framed their coverage around analyzing (and mostly assassinating) his character, but regardless of what labels are placed on Snowden, it is important to reflect on the information that has entered the public domain because of him.
Whether it's spying on foreign leaders, bugging foreign embassies, or just plain old data swallowing mass surveillance, the leaks brought to light expose how Washington narrowly pursues its own interests with impunity regardless of the legal or constitutional precedent. Washington will justify its actions by harping on "protecting-Americans-from-terror" rhetoric. But with no public accountability to speak of, these programs will ultimately be used to monitor political dissidents and to steal data that would be seen as politically and economically viable to the US. (No wonder the Kremlin is reverting back to old-school typewriters).Washington says "Nah" to dismantling mass surveillance
A recent amendment introduced by Representative Justin Amash in the US House of Representatives would have effectively reined in the NSA's mass surveillance apparatus by preventing the collection of phone data from individuals not currently under investigation. Unsurprisingly, the NSA colluded with members of Congress in a top-secret meeting that amounted to arm-twisting by the White House to prevent the amendment from becoming law. Even after the torrent of public opposition to these programs, the White House has refused to yield -- and in an unprecedented move that should rightfully raise eyebrows, the Executive branch sought to crush Amash's amendment ahead of any public discussion by condemning it in a press conference. Sure, the public can debate about the best way to safeguard privacy and national security, but Obama is only willing to "welcome a debate" because the cat is already out of the bag.
Such a debate is one the administration is forced to have as a face-saving measure resulting from an unplanned disclosure, not a voluntary discussion brought to the fore by the administration itself because it was concerned about the public's two cents and its own accountability. Even with a massive budget and all the gifted public relations agents that money can buy, it's no easy task to mask the ugly reality of the Obama administration's war on whistleblowers. Under Obama, whistleblowers and leakers are pursued with increasing intensity as establishment media outlets portray sources of controversial information as being treasonous and anti-patriotic in nature. Meanwhile, CIA persecutors, torturers, and other purveyors of US war crimes will continue to be cushioned from ever being held accountable for their actions.
The situation looks increasingly grim when considering the Obama administration's press freedom credentials. It is remarkably insincere that Washington tries to downplay the press freedom levels of other countries when it seizes phone records from the Associated Press and threatens to bar reporters if they ask uncomfortable questions. The Teleprompter-In-Chief has conducted the fewest first-term press conferences in recent history and has subjected himself to the fewest opportunities to receive unscripted questions. Obama's record of fulfilling Freedom of Information Act requests is worse than that of his predecessor, and the Executive branch continues to execute controversial policies with impunity. Snowden's leaks allow the average citizen to get a clearer picture of how global surveillance ops are undertaken, and in addition to embarrassing Washington through high-profile intelligence disclosures, the Obama administration's cat and mouse game with the whistleblower has set off a diplomatic row and exposed it as an increasingly impotent superpower.The layover from hell
Snowden has been living in Sheremetyevo airport for over a month, and there is no doubt that the lack of fresh air, dietary options, and ability to move freely has put enormous strain on him. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki was on record stating "any move that would allow Mr. Snowden to depart the airport would be deeply disappointing," despite efforts by Snowden's legal team and Russian human rights organizations to speed up the process that would allow for the whistleblower to apply for asylum. Obama, in a move to appear restrained, said his administration would not "scramble jets" to intercept an airliner believed to be carrying Snowden to a third country -- but Washington clearly has no trouble grounding jets believed to be carrying Snowden. International law was completely tossed aside when Bolivian President Evo Morales' free passage across European airspace was denied, forcing him to land in Austria over suspicions that Snowden was on board, thanks in no small part to several phone calls from Washington.
The move prompted South American countries belonging to the Mercosur trade bloc to withdraw their ambassadors from European countries involved in the grounding of the Bolivian president's plane. Would Obama's Air Force One ever be forced to ground over foreign airspace on the suspicion that he was harboring a rouge individual? Of course, Washington can never be made to succumb to the humiliating double standards it imposes on others. Snowden's attempts to seek asylum in Latin America are too dangerous to pursue at this point, and he is widely expected to be given some form of political asylum by Russian authorities, allowing him to move freely within Russian territory and even find a job.
American officials have no reason to scratch their heads over the perceived lack of cooperation from Moscow, such is the result of an uneven partnership, where Washington is keen to make demands of Russia while scantily doing the same for the latter. In the eyes of many, Moscow is doing the right thing by protecting Snowden from a fate similar to that of Bradley Manning, or worse.
Aleksei Navalny, opposition leader and Moscow mayoral candidate, with his wife, Yuliya, at Moscow's Yaroslavsky Railway Station after arriving from Kirov. (RIA Novosti/Andrey Stenin)
Washington's condemnation of the recent trial of an opposition figure in Russia who was found guilty of embezzlement begs an important question -- what would Obama do if Aleksey Navalny was stranded in the transit zone of an American airport with his passport suspended? The truth is that if Snowden were Russian, Chinese, or Iranian, and arrived in the US to blow the whistle over dubious programs conducted by those nations, you can bet that Washington would never cooperate with extradition requests.
Navalny -- the prominent Russian blogger, opposition activist and Putin-critic -- is a darling of the West; the BBC went as far as likening his plight to that of Nelson Mandela, but polls show that some 59 percent of Russians do not even know who he is and up to 35 percent disapprove of his activities. Comparisons between Snowden and Navalny can only go so far; the former being a low-profile tech-geek whose disillusionment with rogue wiretapping prompted him to blow the whistle, while the latter is a politically ambitious nationalist on the far-right of the political spectrum who has shined the light on the foul deeds of others while keeping around questionable sponsors.
The act of honoring Snowden's international right to political asylum will only hasten scathing attacks on Putin in US media outlets such as the Washington Post, which hawkishly insists that Russian elections are rigged and that the Putin administration engages in massive theft of state revenue and resources, while hysterically likening Navalny's case to that of Stalinist show trials of the 1930s.
There will be no shortage of interesting developments as the Snowden case develops and concludes, but in order to move past the current diplomatic stalemate that Moscow and Washington find themselves in, the Obama administration must engage in something it hates doing -- showing mutual respect to Russian authorities in the context of an equal and inclusive partnership.
If Washington has the cheek to slap Russia with any kind of sanctions over the Snowden case, Moscow is entirely justified to respond with its own regime of sanctions -- a move that would likely be supported by other countries threatened by Uncle Sam that have had a hand in helping Snowden escape a cruel and unjustified fate.