Russian President Vladimir Putin is normally trolling the global media at this time of year by posing shirtless and engaging in various camera-friendly summer sports like swimming and fishing. But this summer, he's being out-trolled and is stuck answering questions about an entitled American twerp living in Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport.
Secret-leaking former NSA contractor Edward Snowden recently attended a press conference inside the airport's transit zone and indicated that he would seek asylum in Russia -- well, until something better comes along. The fugitive with a revoked passport who has yet to secure asylum said that he intends to travel to all the countries that have thus far offered him refuge, out of the more than 20 to which he has applied to date, to thank their governments and people.
Putin must have had trouble holding down his breakfast. Welcome to the club, Vlad. It's one thing for Putin to leverage Snowden's de facto multiple-jurisdictional defection to stick it to the West, but it's another thing to have to put up with the insulting shenanigans of a disloyal opportunist.
If Snowden is to remain free, it will be strictly by Putin's good grace. So how rude or divorced from reality would you have to be to say aloud, while on Russian soil, that you'll take Russia's offer of asylum along with any and all others, thank you very much, and will also be planning a world tour to visit all the jurisdictions hostile to America that have offered to leverage your theft of intelligence in exchange for safe haven?
Here's the thing about defectors that Putin no doubt understands as a former FSB director and KGB chief: There are those who defect out of allegiance to the enemy, and those (mainly fugitives on the lam) who are straight-up opportunists. Putin doesn't seem to suffer any delusions over which category Snowden fits, explaining to the media how Snowden's position jibes with Putin's asylum condition that Snowden stop leaking intelligence.
"He is familiar with the conditions of granting political asylum, and judging by the latest statements, is shifting his position. But the situation has not been clarified yet. ... [Snowden] said, 'I want to continue my activity, fighting for human rights. I think the U.S. is violating certain international regulations and intervening in private lives and my goal is to fight this.'"
Right -- people with actual morals and convictions rather than just a finger in the wind tend to be clear. Much like they are willing to face a jury of their peers if they are truly acting out of personal conviction and objectively in the public interest. Whatever Snowden is doing, it manifestly isn't that.
Meanwhile, everyone knows that defectors are only supposed to leak intel to their new overlords in exchange for protection, and this guy wants to blow out of Russia as soon as he can and go on an international tour?
Putin must be at his wit's end trying to balance all of his interests in this affair. Does anyone believe that if Snowden was a defector from Russia, he'd be permitted to loiter around the pre-customs area of a Moscow airport as if he were under diplomatic immunity? An airport isn't an embassy. Pretending that it is merely serves as a convenient rhetorical buffer for Putin while he figures out how to balance three competing interests: wanting to stick it to the West, denouncing treason in general, and trying to prevent Snowden from hijacking Russia's foreign policy position vis-à-vis the United States.
Putin's trying to do as much as he can with rhetoric, giving himself and Snowden the space they both need to serve their respective agendas, but apparently only one of them is astute enough to realize it. Never before has Putin so often spoken of "our American partners," yet he refuses to arrest or detain the American fugitive who's been loitering in the airport for several weeks. Words aren't consistent with actions. It's reminiscent of the 2011 Russian parliamentary elections, after which authorities promised increased transparency by trotting out actual transparent ballot boxes.
The rhetorical cover is the standard modus operandi of Russian intelligence. And it should be noted that one of the "human rights advocates" appearing at the Snowden press conference, Olga Kostina, founded the human rights organization "Resistance" but is also a Russian domestic intelligence agent, as explained in Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan's 2011 book The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia's Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB.
Russian parliament member Ruslan Gattarov recently told the New York Times, "We need to quickly put these huge transnational companies like Google, Microsoft and Facebook under national controls. This is the lesson Snowden taught us."
Nice blowback, Ed -- now Russia wants access to the private data of American companies, too.
Snowden is way out of his depth in this house of mirrors, and increasingly he has something in common with Putin's usual summer wardrobe: They're both at risk of getting doffed.