Snowden asylum sets back 're-set' US-Russian relations

Russia's grant of asylum to intelligence leaker Edward Snowden marked a sharp set back to already strained US-Russian relations, experts and lawmakers said Thursday.

US President Barack Obama's administration once hoped to "re-set" relations with the United States' former Cold War foe, but his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin has remained frosty.

Snowden, a former intelligence contractor, is wanted by Washington for leaking secret details about US surveillance programs and he had been holed up at a Moscow airport for more than a month.

But Russia refused to extradite him, instead providing the 30-year-old safe haven for a year on Thursday and allowing him to promptly slip away to a secret location.

"This is not good news," said Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

Prominent members of the US Congress slammed Russia's move, seeing it as a dent in relations between Washington and Moscow, already strained by the conflict in Syria and the conviction of Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny.

"Edward Snowden is a fugitive who belongs in a United States courtroom, not a free man deserving of asylum in Russia," said Robert Menendez, chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"Regardless of the fact that Russia is granting asylum for one year, this action is a setback to US-Russia relations."

Republican Senator John McCain, meanwhile, issued a sarcastic response on Twitter.

"Snowden stays in the land of transparency and human rights. Time to hit that reset button again #Russia," he wrote.

It remains to be seen whether the White House will go so far as to boycott a planned US-Russia presidential summit in early September ahead of a G20 summit in St. Petersburg.

But White House spokesman Jay Carney on Thursday seemed to suggest that was a possibility.

"We're extremely disappointed," Carney told reporters. "We're evaluating the utility of a summit in light of this."

"We're extremely disappointed that the Russian government would take this step despite our very clear and lawful requests in public and in private to have Mr. Snowden expelled to the United States to face the charges against him," Carney said.

"This move by the Russian government undermines a long-standing record of law enforcement cooperation, cooperation that has recently been on the upswing since the Boston Marathon bombings."

Pifer, for one, suggested a moderate response was the best way forward.

"I'm not sure that pushing back really hard is going to help," said Pifer, a former ambassador to Ukraine.

"We don't know what motivated this particular decision by the Russians now, but Putin has shown that he reacts very badly to threats."

While Obama is sure to be criticized if he does make the trip, "the real question is, is Putin prepared to make that summit productive enough so at the end of the day there are results that would justify the political cost that the president's going to pay at home," he added.

"Our relationship with Russia, as is the case with other important countries around the world, is based in realism," Carney said.

"And it is a simple fact that the so-called reset in our relations with Russia produced positive benefits for American national security and for the American people."

The Russian decision also comes at a time when the Obama administration faces criticism in Congress over the spy programs, with the aftermath of Snowden's leaks providing what is likely the best chance since the attacks of September 11, 2001 to rein them in.

On July 24, the House of Representatives narrowly beat back an effort to cut funding to NSA programs that scoop up telephone data on millions of Americans.

Under mounting pressure from lawmakers, the Obama administration, in the name of transparency, on Wednesday declassified a court order authorizing the collection.

And on Thursday afternoon, Obama was due to meet with bipartisan lawmakers in the Oval Office "to discuss key programs under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act."

Administration officials are "trying to find a way to protect programs that they still believe are important for national security, and the public revelations has put a spotlight on these programs," Pifer said.

"There are now a lot of questions that they're going to have to answer if they want to sustain congressional support for the programs."