It is impossible to miss the irony. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is not exactly known for caring a lot about human rights and individual freedoms. So its decision to grant temporary asylum to Edward Snowden cannot have been inspired by any concern for human rights. Mr Putin obviously wants to use Mr Snowden, who is wanted by the United States of America for leaking documents related to its National Security Agency’s foreign and domestic surveillance operations, as a diplomatic pawn. The Russian strongman must have weighed the advantages of granting Mr Snowden asylum against those of giving him up to the US. Latin American countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua, which had earlier offered to give asylum to Mr Snowden, may have been prompted to do so by their ideological positions vis-à-vis the US. Mr Putin’s action seems to have been inspired by different motives. Mr Snowden would have faced prosecution and possible punishment if he were extradited to the US. But it is certain that he would not be a free man in Russia. Mr Putin would try everything in his power to extract from him information relating to the US surveillance system and to use him in order to strike hard bargains with the US.
However, the embarrassment that the Snowden affair has caused the US exposes the limits of its influence in international affairs. The resolve of not only Russia but also the Latin American countries to defy US pressure shows that Washington cannot have its way on all matters and with all countries. How the US reacts to the Russian action could have a major impact on some critical international issues. The international community’s efforts to mediate in Syria, Egypt and other areas of conflict cannot succeed without Russia’s participation. The US cannot afford to retaliate against Russia by cancelling the summit meeting between Barack Obama and Mr Putin in Moscow next month ahead of the G-20 meeting in St Petersburg. A war of attrition, if not a renewed cold war, between the US and Russia will have serious consequences for the whole world. This could be disastrous for the world economy which is still struggling to get out of the shadow of recession. Fortunately, there are signs that both Washington and Moscow realize the danger of allowing the Snowden affair to hold crucial global initiatives to ransom.