Russian-US relations strained as whistleblower stops over in Moscow

By bne IntelliNews June 24, 2013

bne -

US officials expressed fury on June 23 as National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden flew into the Russian capital on his way to asylum in Ecuador. The case puts extra strain on the problematic relations between Washington and Moscow.

The former US intelligence contractor was revealed last week as the source behind leaks detailing the US government's massive internet and phone surveillance operations known as "Prism". He flew from Hong Kong to Moscow as the first leg of a trip scheduled to leapfrog US allies. He is expected to head to Cuba on June 24, before flying to Venezuela, and then finally Ecuador, where he will apply for asylum.

The US, fearful of more secrets being revealed, is desperately trying to intervene. However, it appears that China, Russia and the collection of Latin American states are colluding to keep Snowden out of its grasp. Washington said in a statement that it expects the Russian government to "look at all options available" to expel the former analyst to the US on spying charges. However, Russia retorted that it has "no grounds" to do so.

Media reports cited officials at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport as saying that Snowden would not be allowed to leave the premises because he did not have a Russian visa and would therefore only be able to fly to a third destination. Moscow's Ecuadorian ambassador reportedly visited the airport on the evening of June 23. Some reports claim, however, that the whistleblower had been taken into Moscow in a car bearing diplomatic plates.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for over a year as he seeks to avoid extradition to the US on similar charges of spying, while Snowden is accompanied by WikiLeaks lawyers and advisers. WikiLeaks said in a statement that Snowden is "bound for the Republic of Ecuador via a safe route for the purposes of asylum". Ecuador's foreign minister confirmed on Twitter that the analyst has requested asylum from Quito.

Poor relations

Having failed to persuade the authorities that govern the Chinese territory of Hong Kong to detain their man, Washington issued a somewhat desperate statement calling on Moscow to help out. "We expect the Russian government to look at all options available to expel Mr Snowden back to the US to face justice for the crimes with which he is charged," Caitlin Hayden, US National Security Council spokeswoman, said in a statement, according to the BBC.

However, an unnamed Russian official told Interfax: "Snowden has not committed any crimes on Russian territory. In addition, Russian law-enforcement agencies have received no instructions through Interpol to detain him. So we have no grounds to detain this transit passenger."

Hayden attempted to highlight the "intensified co-operation" between the US and Russia after the Boston Marathon bombings in April, and their record of working together on law enforcement matters. However, the hide-and-seek between reporters and the US fugitive around the Moscow airport is the latest chapter in a story of deteriorating relations between Russia and the US.

The pair are at loggerheads over the ongoing civil war in Syria, and the atmosphere was tense between the two countries' presidents at the recent G8 meeting. The passing of the Magnitsky Act in the US - which blacklists dozens of Russian officials and police figures due to their alleged role in the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky - provoked fury in Moscow. Russia promptly passed a ban on US adoptions of Russian children, citing abuse cases that have regularly hit the headlines in Russian media.

Last month, Moscow paraded a bewigged US spy before the cameras, after claiming to have caught him red-handed with a special agent's kit, complete with cash and a letter offering a potential informant a long-term deal. A more serious side of that debacle came when Russian intelligence named the top US spy in Moscow, a move analysts said is outside the accepted rules of the game.

Even though Russia's role in Snowden's flight remains unclear, Moscow is certainly not going to help Washington get its man.

The US revoked Snowden's passport before he left Hong Kong on June 23. That means both China and Russia are effectively ignoring the fact that he is traveling without valid documents. Russia, of all countries, is famously pigheaded over even the smallest discrepancy in official documents, so to allow someone to enter and then leave on documents that are clearly invalid implies a certain level of complicity.

That risks deepening the freeze in relations between the two countries, and US officials are already pushing that angle. Senator Lindsey Graham warned Russia that there will be "serious consequences" if Moscow is proved to have actively thwarted attempts to prevent Snowden's trip from continuing. However, there's little Washington can actually do - while with relations close to a post-Soviet nadir, there's little either it can realistically expect from Moscow.

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