The suspense did not last long: Soon after his flight from Hong Kong landed in Moscow, we were told that National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden had applied for political asylum in Ecuador.
It was in Hong Kong that Snowden publicly disclosed the existence of Prism, a top-secret U.S. National Security Agency program providing the NSA with access to the servers of top Internet companies like Miscrosoft, Apple, Google and Yahoo! Hong Kong has an extradition treaty with the U.S., where Snowden is sought for revealing classified information. Though the region's parliament left it for the mainland Chinese authorities to decide whether or not to hand Snowden over, his situation was too uncertain to stay on. Hong Kong officials facing pressure both from the U.S. and from Beijing, which is reluctant to take orders from Washington, must have heaved a big sigh of relief as Snowden boarded an Aeroflot flight to Moscow.
It was hardly a random destination: Russia has no extradition treaty with the U.S. Since Snowden had not made his plans known before skipping Hong Kong, some politicians in Moscow believed he might seek asylum here, and welcomed the opportunity to stick it to Uncle Sam. "Some are already saying that granting Snowden political asylum would be an act of cold war," tweeted Alexei Pushkov, head of the Russian parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee. "But if wig-wearing spies are not committing one, granting asylum is not such an act, either."
Pushkov was referring to the recent apprehension of a U.S. diplomat in Moscow as he walked to an alleged rendezvous with a potential Russian asset. The diplomat was apparently wearing a blond wig, and the whole episode was more comical than cloak-and-dagger.
Parliament deputies, however, are not authorized to make asylum decisions, and official Moscow never gave any indication that it would welcome the whistle-blower. U.S.-Russian relations are at their lowest point in two decades, and straining them further just to provide refuge to an American spouting anarchist rhetoric would hardly be in President Vladimir Putin's best interest.
No matter how he might like to see Americans embarrassed, for Putin, a former intelligence oficer, embracing Snowden would be too much of a departure from his personal views. Toughness on terrorism and a strict law-and-order stance are the Russian president's trademarks. So Putin has stopped short of condemning the U.S. electronic serveillance methods revealed by Snowden. "On the whole, such methods are in demand," Putin told the state-owned TV channel Russia Today. "It is normal if it is done in accordance with the laws governing the work of special services."
On the other hand, keeping Snowden out of Russia altogether may have been too friendly toward the U.S. for Putin's taste. The whistle-blower was not issued a Russian visa, but neither was he prevented from using the nation's state-controlled flag carrier. Sources close to Aeroflot suggested to the state-owned news agency RIA Novosti that Snowden would go on to Havana, Cuba, and thence to Caracas, Venezuela, two more destinations that have no extradition treaties with the U.S.
If Snowden had indeed booked tickets to Havana and Caracas, they must have been for backup: It soon emerged that Ecuador was his Plan A. Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patina Aroca tweeted that his government had received an asylum request from Snowden.
It would have been ironic if a man who proclaimed disgust with what he saw as human rights violations by U.S. authorities had allied himself with a dictatorial regime such as the ones in Cuba, Venezuela or even Russia. Ecuador, on the other hand, is a democratic country with a defiant leftist government that is likely to shield him from U.S. wrath: It has already harbored WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at its London embassy.
Russia is not likely to hinder Snowden's transit to Quito, but his revelations will have left a mark here. Many Russian officials, already paranoid about omnipresent American spies, will now distrust more than just the U.S. Internet giants. High-ranking legislator Alexander Torshin has already suggested that the government go back to keeping its most sensitive information in paper form.
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Leonid Bershidsky at firstname.lastname@example.org