Tensions between Russia and the United States have once again flared over NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s apparent sojourn at a Russian airport, with Moscow on Tuesday vehemently rebuffing US claims that it is harboring America’s most wanted man.
But Russian experts are uncertain about whether the affair will significantly affect already poor relations between the two countries, suggesting either that Snowden may have turned into a bargaining chip or that Moscow is uninterested in direct confrontation with Washington.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday became the first Russian official to publicly comment about Snowden, telling reporters that the American security contractor hadn’t technically crossed the Russian border and slamming charges that Moscow was acting illegally as “unfounded and unacceptable.”
“He chose his own route, and we found out about it — like most people here — from the media,” the state RIA Novosti agency reported him as saying.
President Vladimir Putin waded in Tuesday evening, acknowledging that Snowden had arrived in Russia but adding that criticism of Moscow was “nonsense.”
He also said that Russian security agencies "did not work and aren't working" with Snowden.
The White House responded Tuesday by repeating a request for Snowden's extradition.
“While we do not have an extradition treaty with Russia, there is nonetheless a clear legal basis to expel Mr. Snowden based on the status of his travel documents and the pending charges against him," said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden, adding that Washington doesn't want the affair to "negatively impact our bilateral relations."
The Russian comments came in response to US Secretary of State John Kerry’s earlier strident urges for the Russian authorities to extradite the former security official to the United States.
"We would hope that Russia would not side with someone who is 'a fugitive' from justice," Kerry said Tuesday while in Saudi Arabia.
"We are not looking for a confrontation," said Kerry, in an attempt to soften the tone of US demands.
While speaking at a joint news conference with his Saudi counterpart, Kerry said, "We are not ordering anybody. We are simply requesting under a very normal procedure for the transfer of somebody."
The heated exchanges represent only the most recent diplomatic row between the two countries, whose relations have become increasingly tumultuous since Putin’s return to the presidency last year.
He has reinvigorated Moscow’s hawkish stance against the United States, assailing US support for Syrian rebels as well as answering Washington’s critique of human rights in Russia by banning an array of American officials from the country.
Last year, the Kremlin ordered the closure of the Russian office of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
As for harboring critics of Western policies, the state-run, English-language television network Russia Today recently offered WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange, another sworn enemy of the US intelligence community, his own talk show.
Some had feared the Kremlin would further anger the United States by making good on its original offer to extend political asylum to Snowden, who has since won a valuable ally in WikiLeaks.
But it now appears that offer was more for show.
Alexei Cherniayev, a US and Latin America researcher at Moscow State University, told Kommersant FM radio on Tuesday that it would be “inconvenient” for Russia to provoke a "head-to-head conflict" by offering asylum to Snowden.
“But it’s another thing for Russia to play this little game, hiding Snowden, for a rather long time,” he said.
Cherniayev added that Moscow may continue standing tough on Snowden, keeping in mind its own citizens Washington has arrested despite official protests from Russia — most notably convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout.
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But other experts agreed outright confrontation probably isn’t part of the plan.
Russian security expert Andrei Soldatov, author of “The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia’s Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB,” suggested that the Kremlin is using Snowden as pawn to push its efforts to gain a greater say in governing the internet.
He pointed to recent efforts by both Russia and China to wrest more control from the US-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which essentially helps coordinate all internet activity.
Those countries have been pushing — so far without luck — to transfer that authority to the UN, which would give individual countries greater control over their sovereign internet networks.
“Now, all this information provided by Snowden might make a very good excuse to get back to this question and try to renegotiate this,” Soldatov said.
“Russia would be very interested in exploiting — and actually, they’re always trying to exploit — external relations for their own benefit.”