Snowden’s only safe choice may be to stay in Russia indefinitely

June 27, 2013

(Alexei Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images)

Assuming that Edward Snowden has not already been spirited away from Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport to yet another international destination, he may want to buy an ushanka and find a nice dacha. Russia, though it was initially supposed to be a stopover, perhaps on the way to Ecuador, might be Snowden's best bet for permanent shelter away from the United States's requests for extradition.

Snowden's other options look risky or have already fallen through. He fled Hong Kong when it became clear that the Chinese special administrative region would not guarantee his asylum and that he might face jail time pending the U.S. extradition request. Snowden had earlier said he wanted to seek refuge in Iceland. But the government there, which recently shifted to the right and has an economic interest in not upsetting the United States, has downplayed its willingness accepting him.

Shortly after Snowden arrived in Moscow, he was said to have booked a ticket on a flight to Cuba and, presumably, on to Ecuador. He wasn't on the flight, but some Cuba-watchers have since pointed out that the island nation might feel compelled to turn him away, owing to its 2006 pledge to stop sheltering American fugitives.

Ecuador, still considered his most likely final destination, has indeed dropped high-level hints that it would take him. And that would be consistent with the country's decision to shelter Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in its London embassy. It would also be consistent with Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa's efforts to position himself as a nationalist not afraid of tweaking Western powers – and his efforts to restrict political rivals and critical journalists by suggesting they're working with the hostile Americans.

Ecuador's foreign minister has since downplayed this possibility a bit, saying it could take "months" for the country to decide on offering asylum to Snowden. (This comment has been misconstrued a bit; asylum proceedings often take months, during which time the host country does not expel its asylum-seeker.) He made similar comments in the weeks before Assange fled to the country's embassy in London, so don't read too much into it. But they are a reminder that Ecuador's decision to shelter Assange and potentially Snowden are driven by Correa and his personal brand of foreign policy.

The questions Snowden might want to ask himself is what happens when Correa leaves office? Ecuador has a number of economic interests in maintaining a positive relationship with the United States. Even if Correa believes that his country is better served by sheltering Snowden, his successor could very plausibly feel differently. It's not hard to imagine the next president of Ecuador wondering if extraditing Snowden would improve relations with the United States enough to help through a favorable trade deal or two. Correa is term-limited to leave office in 2017. His legislature did generously amend the constitution to allow Correa to take a third term, but that might not continue indefinitely.

So what kind of choices does that leave Snowden with? Sure, there are another 160-plus countries in the world that might plausibly shelter him. But there are three different kinds of problems that might rule many of those out as potential Snowden havens.

The first is what you might call "the liberal democracy problem," embodied by, for example, Iceland. Liberal democratic countries tend to place a very high premium on their reputations for rule of law, fair dealing and cooperation with fellow democracies. Government officials in a country like Iceland or Denmark or New Zealand might be sympathetic to Snowden but will also feel obligated to balance that against the need to uphold legal and diplomatic standards. Snowden's case for asylum is, under international law, arguable but not a slam-dunk.

The second issue is the same problem Snowden might face if he tried Cuba, Ecuador or some other country that has sufficiently hostile ties with the United States that it might not mind infuriating Washington, or would even be eager to. And that problem has to do with globalization, economic integration and the fact that the United States is the richest country in the world. Simply put, everybody wants to do business with the Americans, even their enemies. Iran is hinting it wants to negotiate an end to the years-long standoff. Cuba has seen its remittances from the United States soar by $1 billion since President Obama loosened restrictions, making them awfully reliant on the United States. Even North Korea lobbies for food aid, albeit in its own charming way. The smaller the country, the more sensitive its economy is to any advance or setback in economic relations with the United States. Even if it wants to shelter Snowden today, it could presumably change its mind tomorrow, particularly if the government changes.

The last problem is sort of what we saw with China, the leaders of which either conspicuously avoided offering Snowden shelter or, according to some reports, eased him out of Hong Kong. China, the world's second largest economy, is way too powerful to be afraid of a few angry U.S. members of Congress. It's also never really been shy about criticizing Washington. But it's precisely because China is so big and powerful that it may have decided against sheltering Snowden. Beijing, as a global player, has so many ongoing disputes, agreements and negotiations with Washington that Chinese leaders may have not wanted to upset it all for a 30-year-old former NSA contractor.

Russia, on the other hand, would seem to get around all three of these problems. The country is not a liberal democracy, or at least not widely viewed as such, meaning Moscow would risk little international credibility by defying a U.S. extradition request. It's big enough that it doesn't need to worry too much about upsetting the United States, which it clearly doesn't, and is economically mostly tied to neighboring European and Asian states anyway. But Russia is also geopolitically weak enough that, unlike in the Soviet era when it was a true global power that negotiated frequently with its rivals, Moscow doesn't have lots of crucial ongoing deals with the Americans. The biggest ones, cooperation on terrorism and Syria, are mostly stalled anyway.

Maybe most important, though, is Russia's long history of sheltering Western fugitives, unbroken even by the fall of the Soviet Union and complete transformation of the Russian government. Deposed heads of state, shunned by most of the world, get luxurious homes in the upscale town of Barvikha, a little Paris custom-built for high-profile exiles. British intelligence officials who were caught spying for the Soviets and fled there half a century ago are still under Moscow's protection; George Blake, now 91 years old, is still living on a Soviet KGB officer's pension, though neither the KGB nor the Soviet Union have existed in 20 years. Neither Mikhail Gorbachev, who pulled the Soviet system down from the inside, nor Boris Yeltsin, who fostered warm ties with the West, gave up the old British spies. If Blake can spend several comfortable decades in Russia even after the fall of the Berlin Wall and Russia improving ties with the United Kingdom, then Snowden should be just fine.

Why does Russia do it? The New Republic's Julia Ioffe called Russia a "geopolitical racketeer" that often looks for a way to profit from some international incident. The Guardian's Andrew Rykin wrote that Russia loves to "photobomb" American foreign policy, finding low-risk but high-publicity opportunities to assert its significance, a strategy that allows it to maintain its self-image as a superpower rival without actually flexing superpower-level muscle.

Very little about this vast, complex geopolitical network has anything to do with Snowden, his leaks or his mission. But if he really wants to keep himself free from the very long arms of American justice, Russia might offer him the closest he can get to absolute security.

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