Russian officials aren’t wasting any time capitalizing on the debate over NSA surveillance.
Earlier today, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said of Snowden’s attempts: “If such an appeal is given, it will be considered. We'll act according to facts."
Later, Putin jumped in with his own criticism of US surveillance methods.
“Such methods are in demand. But you can’t just listen to the phone call in Russia; you need a special order from court. This is how this should be done in civilized society while tackling terrorism with the use of any technical means. If it is in the framework of the law, then it’s ok. If not it is unacceptable.”
In the same Russian television interview, Putin condemned American policy on a number of other fronts as well – aid for Syrian rebels, alleged State Department agitation of Russian opposition groups, and hostile rhetoric towards Iran.
Putting aside the hypocrisy of Putin’s critique (see 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis), this grandstanding on the part of the Russian government signals the latest elevation in tensions between the two powers. Mitt Romney was pummeled for labeling Russia our "greatest geopolitical foe" last fall, but he was essentially correct. In terms of their nuclear arsenal, UN Security Council obstruction, and support for the Iranian and Syrian regimes, Russia is our most formidable rival on the state level. It may not pose the imminent threat of Iran and North Korea, and it may lack China’s economic clout, but no other state has routinely blocked long-term American interests like Russia.
Today’s posturing from Putin and his associates could aggravate the situation to a level unseen as of late. If Snowden actually seeks asylum in Russia – and it’s not clear that he will – we could have a full-fledged diplomatic crisis on our hands. The Justice Department is already preparing charges for Snowden, and many within the government are calling for severe prosecution to discourage future security leaks.
It’s doubtful that the Obama administration will let Edward Snowden ride off into the Siberian sunset, and Peskov’s comments suggest that the Russian government would welcome such a confrontation. This could all boil down to the sort of harmless political bravado you’d expect among world leaders (especially those with an ego like Putin’s). But if Snowden really does end up finding a summer home west of Alaska, then all geopolitical bets may be off.