MOSCOW BLOG: Snowden fracas another US-Russia political football

By bne IntelliNews June 28, 2013

bne -

The case of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who is holed up in a secret location in the transit lounge of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, has become the latest political football. The rules of the game are: say anything you like irrespective of the evidence, blame the Kremlin for everything, dismiss anything the Kremlin says as KGB-style disinformation.

The latest player is US Senator Lindsey Graham, a senior Republican from South Carolina, who said he is preparing a package of measures to pressure Russia into extraditing former CIA employee Snowden.

"We are exploring what are the leverage points. I'm trying to put together a package to let the Russians know how serious we are," Graham said in an interview published Thursday, June 27. "We have to respond, this is a defining moment in the relationship."

Except there are no "leverage points" nor is there legally anything the US can do to force Russia to extradite Snowden. The US doesn't have an extradition treaty with Russia, and without one there is almost no chance that the Kremlin will send Snowden home. Especially when there are several other fights on extraditions ongoing where the US is digging its heels in.

Graham declined to say specifically what measures he and fellow US lawmakers might pursue, and instead waffled on in general terms about how Russia ignores the rule of law both domestically and abroad, adding that Russian President Vladimir Putin is "trying to recreate the old Soviet Union attitude and image."

Russia has become a favourite whipping boy for politicians around the world who are suffering in the polls. When Gordon Brown took over as UK prime minister he also went in hard on Russia in the hope of burnishing his strongman image.

The calculation that many politicians make is: "We have no real trade or investment ties with Russia (its oil is a commodity and so anonymously available on international markets), Russia is weak and unimportant since the fall of the Soviet Union, relations are terrible anyway so there is no political cost to us, and its comic book-like evil enemy profile is a PR gift to make me look like the shiny superhero saviour in contrast."

The trouble is that several of these assumptions are not true, as Russia is clearly a rising power in Europe, thanks to the relevancy of its Soviet legacy on the international stage and its growing importance as a market in Europe.

The pointlessness of all this hot air is painfully apparent from the empty rhetoric coming out of the Senate: "Snowden has overstayed his welcome at the Moscow airport," Senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, said in a statement. "I call on the Russian government, in the interest of justice, as well as US-Russian relations, to release him into the custody of the US Government today."

Happily, US President Barack Obama, who actually has to manage relations with Russia, has taken a much more pragmatic line. While he can't shut the Republicans up or even prevent them from passing relation-damaging laws like the "Magnitsky act", which bans Russian officials accused of human rights abuses from entering the US and seizes any assets they have there, he does his best to contain the damage. Obama said Thursday, June 27 he would not engage in "wheeling and dealing" to win the extradition of Snowden and basically admitted the US was powerless to do anything.

"I have not called President Xi personally or President Putin personally and the reason is... number one, I shouldn't have to," Obama told reporters during his trip to Africa this week. "Number two, we've got a whole lot of business that we do with China and Russia, and I'm not going to have one case of a suspect who we're trying to extradite suddenly being elevated to the point where I've got to start doing wheeling and dealing and trading on a whole host of other issues."

Likewise, following the passage of the Magnitsky act, the key to the legislation was who would be on the list of names. There were reports of over 200 senior Russian officials but in the end only 18 were included, all relatively minor officials and almost all directly connected to the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky who worked for investment fund Hermitage Capital, after whom the law was named.

Obama appears to "get it" when it comes to the increasingly obvious need to attempt to build some sort of pragmatic working relation with Russia, which is reasserting itself steadily on the international stage. The showdown over Syria - another football issue that has eagerly been picked up by politicians everywhere - has shown the international community really does need Russia's help to resolve that problem. (And China too, although given the wests intoxication with China it is never included in the football games).

The Europeans have come to this realisation a lot sooner, although their opposition leaders are also prone to kicking the football about. The torch bearer for improving relations with Russia was former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who facilitated a huge amount of direct investment, the Nord Stream gas pipeline line linking the two countries, and built real and geopolitically significant ties between the two countries. His successor Angela Merkel, who was in St Petersburg last week, has somewhat reluctantly continued the policy simply because German investors are making so much money in Russia and Germany is a big importer of its energy.

Other leaders have been a bit later into the game. Italy's former PM Silvio Berlusconi was also a friend of Putin's, whose daughters regularly holidayed with the Italian leader. France "got it" a bit later. Towards the end of Christine Lagarde's tenure as France's foreign minister she was in Moscow every three months or so pushing for closer ties; France's investment and trade doubled as a result.

Even British Prime Minister David Cameron has belatedly started to make the effort to mend fences with a trip to Moscow last year and hosted Putin for talks on Syria last month.

The point is that these politicians can already see there are definite economic benefits to better ties with Russia, but they are also starting to see that the football players' assumption that there is no political cost to being rude to Russia is not true. The Syrian issue has already made that plain. But more worryingly, the ongoing Russia bashing of the last decade has clearly convinced Putin that the West, Russia's "natural ally", is never going to be a true friend, so he has launched a hugely expensive programme to rearm the Russian military and the prospect of a new Cold War in Europe is looming.

Western politicians need to tone down their rhetoric and become more realistic in their attitude to Russia, else all they will do is score an own goal.

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