In the two weeks since Snowden arrived in Moscow from Hong Kong, U.S. officials had publicly urged Russia to return him but largely declined to criticize the country as harshly as they have during past disagreements. Snowden, after all, had been conspicuously quiet in Moscow and apparently unable to communicate even with his own father. American officials may have felt they had the Russians to thank for that isolation, which kept Snowden from leaking more secrets or drawing more attention to himself.
And Putin, for his part, had made what appeared to be, for him, a significant concession to the United States: He said that Snowden could only stay in Russia if he stopped leaking information damaging to the United States. Only in the ever-troubled U.S.-Russia relationship could that conditional asylum offer be considered a gift to Washington. But it did seem like something, given Russia's often-standoffish approach to the United States and its history of sheltering Western defectors and deposed dictators.
Then, in Friday afternoon news conferences at the White House and State Department, as Buzzfeed's Evan McMorris-Santoro and Rosie Gray document in quote after fiery quote, the gloves came off. The U.S. spokespeople expressed some measure of scorn and outrage at Russia for allowing Snowden's public meeting.
"Providing a propaganda platform for Mr. Snowden runs counter to the Russian government’s previous declarations of Russia’s neutrality and that they have no control over his presence in the airport," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. He added, in a bit of headline-friendly and well-calibrated outrage, "We would urge the Russian government to afford human rights organizations the ability to do their work in Russia throughout Russia. Not just at the Moscow transit lounge."
It's difficult to imagine that Carney, the White House or the State Department were actually surprised to learn that the Russian government has control over Snowden's movements (that's been clear since he first arrived) or that they've just now realized that Moscow's sheltering of Snowden might look a bit hypocritical compared to its treatment of Russian dissidents. So what explains their sudden critical attention – they're shocked, shocked! – on Russia's alleged intransigence?
Maybe the Obama administration is just hoping to deter Moscow from allowing another Snowden news event or maybe this is part of a larger push to pressure Russia into dealing with Snowden a certain way, ideally by extraditing him. Presumably, Obama raised how he'd like Moscow to handle this in his phone call with Putin.
Though the United States still says it wants Russia to extradite Snowden, and has listed legal and political bases for that request, surely the Obama administration sees that Moscow, whether rightly or wrongly, is guided by more than just the Kremlin's interpretation of asylum and extradition laws at this point. Snowden's case isn't just about his legal status any more, and it's not just about the public service value of his leaks: It's about the symbolic diplomatic and political value he's increasingly accrued and, at times, cultivated. And that could make it a lot more difficult for Russia to quietly hand him over.
For Russia, the idea of being cowed by American demands is a profound humiliation, a reminder of its painful fall from superpower status. The harder the Obama administration pushes, the tougher it might be for Putin to acquiesce. And given that Russia has not given up defected British spies who have lived in the country for decades, much less deposed dictators who were puppets of the now-gone Soviet Union, giving up Snowden seems, for the moment, unlikely. But that doesn't mean the Obama administration is ready to give up on pressuring Moscow – and, after all, the two countries have enough ongoing business that Washington does have some leverage.
There are grey areas between shipping Snowden back to the United States and giving him a platform as a high-profile dissident in Moscow, of course. For example, Putin's earlier offer to Snowden, asylum conditioned on ending the leaks, lets Putin save face while the United States can know that Snowden is under wraps. Or there could be other deals to cut; we may never know exactly what the United States and Russia work out. But, more broadly, what we're seeing here is no longer really a discussion about international asylum and extradition law; it's high-level diplomacy between two large, powerful and once deeply antagonistic countries, a negotiation of American and Russian national interests as their leaders see them. Snowden isn't in the driver's seat anymore; that ended the moment he landed in Moscow.