Since Snowden’s arrival here from Hong Kong on Sunday, the United States and Russia have danced around each other like two boxers sparring in the ring, neither seeking a knockout but eager to take a few swings — Russia had no legal grounds to help, Putin insisted. They have a tense relationship that both sides find exasperating but neither wants to destroy.
It appears likely that the dispute over Snowden, which has engendered sharp rhetoric, will fall short of serious confrontation, according to Russia watchers who say neither side wants to permanently jeopardize the ability to talk over the issues that dominate their relationship — Iran, Afghanistan and even Syria.
The dynamics of the relationship stood in sharp relief as Putin discussed Snowden with reporters at a news conference in Finland. First he said that Snowden was a free man who was welcome to go on his way, ignoring the ardent U.S. desire for his return. But he also suggested that was hardly a reason to cause a dispute among friends.
“I hope this won’t affect the businesslike nature of our relations with the United States,” Putin said. “I hope our partners will understand this.”
Secretary of State John F. Kerry has said repeatedly over the past few days that Russia was defying international convention by allowing an American fugitive to remain unhindered in a transit zone at the airport.
“There are standards of behavior between sovereign nations,” said Kerry, who is traveling in Saudi Arabia. “There is common law. There is respect for rule of law.”
“We are not looking for a confrontation,” he said. “We are not ordering anything. We are simply requesting.”
While the two sides were fighting over Snowden, their representatives were meeting in Geneva, trying to hammer out a deal for a conference on Syria. Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meet next week in Brunei.
When Putin says the Snowden affair won’t affect relations, he probably believes it, said Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University. Stent, who has a book on U.S.-Russian relations coming out soon, said Russia tends to compartmentalize its dealings with the United States, which tends to see linkages between issues.
“From Washington’s point of view, we want to be able to work with the Russians on Syria, if this conference ever comes to pass,” as well as Afghanistan, Iran and other issues, said Stent, who is on a visit to Russia. “We don’t want other extraneous issues to intrude.”