Legislators from both sides of the political divide have been pressuring President Barack Obama to somehow punish Putin for harboring a man wanted in the U.S. for publicly disclosing information about the National Security Agency’s electronic surveillance operations. The White House has suggested that Obama might cancel a summit with Putin scheduled for next month.
It’s hard to imagine what such retribution might achieve. Whatever damage Snowden could do to U.S. interests is already done. If he had any further sensitive information to divulge, it’s reasonable to assume that Russia already has it or soon will. Disseminating that information publicly would only destroy its value, so Russia has no motivation to do so, or to let Snowden do so.
If the U.S. government’s aim, beyond bringing Snowden to trial, is to punish him, it’s already succeeding. Snowden is restricted to living and traveling in parts of the world that don’t have extradition treaties with the U.S. He may become something of a celebrity in Russia, but eking out an existence there under the watchful gaze of the counterintelligence service will be no picnic.
There’s a long list of good reasons for the U.S. to disengage with Putin. He’s an illegitimate, dictatorial leader who presides over a deeply corrupt regime. As exemplified by the case of blogger Alexei Navalny, he’s willing to imprison his political opponents on specious charges. As demonstrated by the 2009 death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, he tolerates the persecution and even the killing of people who dare to investigate corruption.
Throwing a hissy fit over Snowden, in contrast, will succeed mainly in signaling to Putin that he has a valuable bargaining chip for future negotiations. A much smarter approach would be Obama’s initial reaction back in June, when he said the U.S. is “not going to be scrambling the jets to get a 29-year-old hacker.”
Presumably, the reason the U.S. engages with someone like Putin is to understand him, to get a sense of his values, which might be useful in negotiations over, say, how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program. If the U.S. sacrifices that over Snowden, it will do more damage to itself than to Putin.
As for Snowden, the U.S. interest is to do everything possible to bring him home. That means talking to Putin.
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