“Such a present ... Merry Christmas.”
That statement by President Vladimir Putin sums up the irony Russia faces in having Edward Snowden on the premises. For Moscow, the renegade American intelligence analyst represents both political pawn and political problem.
The leader made the Christmas-in-July reference while meeting with a group of students on an island in the Gulf of Finland. Addressing these young people, Putin played the martyr.
According to this scenario, Snowden was merely a transit passenger, heading elsewhere, when the Americans froze further flight. The Kremlin is being held captive by Washington’s exploitation of world-travel regulations. Poor Putin can do nothing.
In fact, the Russian government controls this situation, which is being milked for every last drop of propaganda advantage. One legacy of earlier totalitarianism is active monitoring of travelers. When Snowden departed from China to Russia, rest assured that the situation was being closely watched by these once-close old communist allies.
Even the selection of Finland as backdrop for Putin’s performance was likely carefully calculated, an opportunity to exercise public influence in a historically vexing neighbor.
During the Cold War, the Finns accommodated Moscow but were never under direct Soviet control. The Russo-Finnish War of 1939-40 was ended through negotiation. This was embarrassing for Soviet leader Josef Stalin and the Red Army, which had anticipated easy victory.
Meanwhile, Snowden continues in limbo in the transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport.
While his actions provide Russia and also China short-term propaganda and possibly intelligence advantage, longer-term he represents a serious potential political problem. His permanent residence in Russia would only draw further international attention to the serious human rights problems there.
In March 2012, onetime KGB career enforcer Putin was once again elected president of Russia, after ally Dmitry Medvedev served as interim place-holder to satisfy constitutional term limits. Putin’s return to the top job argues powerfully that a cabal of cronies holds continuing control.