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How much is Putin really in charge of the Snowden crisis?

Russian President Vladimir Putin at a press conference in Moscow. (EPA)

The Obama administration's decision Wednesday to cancel a planned summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in large part over NSA leaker Edward Snowden winning asylum there, has reinvigorated debate in Washington over Putin's stance toward the U.S. and his handling of the Snowden case.

The predominant view has been that Putin is deftly manipulating Snowden in a sort of chess match against the United States; my sense has been more that he is reacting and trying to make the not-worst of a tricky situation. The difference has to do with, among other things, how we think about Putin and what he's able to do.

One part of this debate, in many ways about the merits and track record of the U.S.-Russia "reset," is turning around Putin's level of responsibility or blame for the Snowden crisis. That point has been getting a bit contentious lately, as evidenced by this heated Wednesday evening exchange between MSNBC host Lawrence O'Donnell and the New Republic's Julia Ioffe, which has been generating lots of discussion since airing:

The clip's attention-grabbing features as a piece of cable shoutfest aside (Ioffe, a veteran of Russian media outlets, knows how to hold her own), it does get to an interesting point. How we judge his approach to the United States in general and l'Affaire Snowden in particular is one that, we often forget, can have as much to do with how much power Putin actually wields as it does with his abilities and his intentions. And that's an important aspect of understanding the U.S.-Russia relationship and the degree to which it's slipped.

O'Donnell says at one point of Putin and the Russian government, channeling a view that seems widely held in the U.S., "They have and have had complete control over [Snowden's] every breath in that country." His argument, a common one, is that Putin has "controlled every second" of the Snowden crisis and that we should thus take it as a slap in America's face and an effort to embarrass the U.S. while extracting information from Snowden. But, as Ioffe answers, it's easy to overestimate Putin's level of internal and external flexibility and control as head of state.

There's a common misperception in the United States toward not just Russia but authoritarian states generally that, because the head-of-state has lots of power within the system, and because the state can intervene very minutely into peoples' lives, that autocrats like Putin have the ability to exercise direct control over every little thing within their countries. In this thinking, it makes sense that Snowden would be a high priority and that Putin would carefully guide the case and its resolution every step of the way.

What this often misses is that authoritarian systems tend to attract and create lots of rent-seekers, corruption, divergent interests and internal squabbling, which make the system unwieldy and unresponsive. In Western-style democracies, where rule of law is robust, we take it as more or less for granted that government officials actually have all the powers they're supposed to have. In Russia – as in China – the ostensible head of state is actually more the head of a big, messy, sprawling system. It's a more indirect form of government than we often perceive it to be.

There are indications that Putin does not exactly posses fine motor control over every event in his vast country. A trove of U.S. diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks in 2010 portrayed Putin as held back by "fatigue," "disengagement" and "isolation," struggling to deploy his limited "ability to find workable compromises among the Kremlin elite." The New York Times' C.J. Chivers wrote at the time:

The cables portray Mr. Putin as enjoying supremacy over all other Russian public figures, yet undermined by the very nature of the post-Soviet country he helped build.

Even a man with his formidable will and intellect is shown beholden to intractable larger forces, including an inefficient economy and an unmanageable bureaucracy that often ignores his edicts.

So what does all this have to do with Snowden? To be clear, we can't know the Russian government's internal deliberations or Putin's thought process from the outside; we can only make inferences. Based on the common view of authoritarian leaders as all-powerful masterminds of every movement within their country, it would make sense to conclude that Putin planned each step of the Snowden crisis, using the NSA leaker as a pawn in a chess match against the Americans. But that view changes when we understand that the Russian government's internal workings are not nearly so graceful or organized as we might think, and that Putin is, just like Western heads of state, typically more reactive than proactive.

Since Snowden landed in Moscow, the Russian government has given every indication of being unsure of what to do with him. First it insisted that he was not really on Russian soil and so they had no authority, perhaps hoping to dodge the issue altogether, as China had done by quietly shuttling the former contractor out of the country. Recall that, when Snowden was still in Hong Kong, Putin had actually gone on state-financed TV to defend the U.S. surveillance programs. When it looked like the Russians wouldn't be able to ship Snowden off to Latin America – the incident with the Bolivian president's plane closed off that option – there were a couple of weeks of tersely unhelpful official statements and one or two public mutterings from Putin. If the goal was to hold up Snowden as a symbol of American intransigence or to flex Russian muscle, they weren't doing a very good job.

None of this is to deny, of course, that Putin is almost certainly now playing a significant role in major decisions over Snowden or that both he and state-aligned media are surely doing their best to extract gains from the Snowden affair. But that's not the same as controlling Snowden's every breath, deftly manipulating a big messy crisis for maximum strategic gain or even really wanting this headache in the first place.

It's true that Putin has clearly not made satisfying the Obama administration or following extradition protocol particularly high priorities. Still, it's not clear that he's motivated primarily by a desire to actively embarrass the U.S. so much as to minimize his personal losses and maximize personal gains. The stakes are much higher for him domestically than they are within U.S.-Russia relations, which were already falling apart for want of sufficient mutual interests, and many Russians don't want to see their leader bowing to the Americans.

(Many, including Ioffe, have argued that the U.S. would never extradite a Russian Snowden, although I'm not sure this is necessarily true or even really an appropriate comparison. Recall, for example, that the U.S. refused to shelter Wang Lijun, the former vice mayor of Chongqing and a rough "Chinese Snowden" approximate, who sought asylum at the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu.)

As Ioffe wrote earlier today, she found while working in Moscow that Russians "assumed that the U.S. and its government was one sleek, well-functioning monolith, that Obama was omnipotent, and that everyone in the world, including other important (and nuclear!) world leaders, act and must act as Russia demands it should, using Russian foreign policy calculus, and with only Russian interests in mind." Sound familiar?



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Max Fisher · August 8, 2013

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