Edward Snowden decided to play a game that is and always was way beyond him. Snowden appears to have believed himself to be doing the right thing when he initially became a “whistle blower” and revealed extensive NSA information gathering which Snowden determined himself to be beyond what the organization should be doing. Many Americans agreed with that assessment when it was first revealed, but upon explanation by various government officials and members of Congress, along with further revelations of intelligence gathering by Snowden, that level of support has already substantially eroded. The very programs that Snowden decried have evidently saved lives both in the United States and in other nations.
Meanwhile at some point after Snowden decided to go public, he decided to obtain both more and more damaging information. He went from being a whistle blower concerned about a single US policy with which he disagreed to collecting as much damaging dirt as he could including, according to some sources, information about US operatives overseas whose lives, much less ability to work, are now in jeopardy. Already, Snowden has revealed multiple intelligence gathering operations that the US and other nations conduct to gain information and in the process damaged, in some cases severely, relations between the US and its allies and other nations.
Snowden had been hiding out in Hong Kong where he met up with Wikileaks’ lawyers and was attempting to evade extradition. There is some question about obvious connections to China that have arisen, especially that Snowden functionally aided China by revealing US actions against Chinese interests. The US asked Hong Kong to respect its extradition treaty with the US this weekend. Hong Kong, likely with Chinese support and counsel, decided that the US request for extradition was “illegal,” possibly influenced by the fact that Snowden had revealed NSA spying actions against Chinese universities based in Hong Kong. In essence, Hong Kong waved with five fingers to Snowden as he boarded a plane to Moscow while waving one prominent finger at the United States.
One can imagine Snowden laughing all the way to Russia. But here the spy game turns darker. There are many lives at stake and billions of dollars. The US has now both requested that Russia extradite Snowden, something that Russia will in fact strongly need to consider doing, and has threatened action against any nation that receives him. Sheltering this man who is of questionable state of mind, who could potentially could kill dozens or hundreds of people by revealing confidential information, and who is essentially a walking weapon against the United States is bordering on a casus belli, something potentially worth war over. The United States has a host of very unpleasant responses that it could put into effect against nations that aid Snowden including cyber attacks, severe financial consequences, and worse.
Cuba, which would like to see sanctions removed and a dramatic thaw in relations with the US in the near future, must have deep reservations about torpedoing those possibilities in one fell swoop by sheltering Snowden. Ecuador, Venezuela, and other nations not happy with the US are also not being actively countered by it. Accepting Snowden and sheltering him would invite severe US retaliatory action. Trade agreements between the US and Ecuador which Ecuador is campaigning to extend expire on July 31. Might Ecuador shielding Snowden affect this extension?
The Russians themselves now have a decision to make. They could throw out over two decades of thawing in relations with the United States and a growing and essential anti-terrorism security cooperation apparatus or they could shelter and aid Edward Snowden. Do not for one moment forget that there is also the possibility of increased US involvement against the Assad regime in Syria, Russia’s only base of operations left in the Mediterranean, weakened US cooperation against Chechen terrorists, Iranian nuclear program, etc… I am not saying that the US would change policy in Syria or Iran based upon Snowden, but if US-Russian relations are harmed because of this situation, the working relationship necessary for US-Russian cooperation on those issues could be harmed and that could affect US policy in a number of situations. The Russians have a great deal to lose if relations with the US deteriorate just as the US would suffer significant harm if relations with Russia deteriorate.
Finally, Snowden himself needs to decide something. The likely cost of his being sheltered in nations hostile to the United States is going to be higher than laughing along with those thumbing their nose against the US, it is going to be the supply, if not public revelation, of even more damaging information. Snowden will be presented with the choice of remaining a whistle blower whom the US accuses of espionage and returning to the US to face the charges or truly taking on the role of traitor and harming the nation and its people about whom he at least purports to care.
The damage done to US-Russia relations should the Russians not work with the United States in this situation likely far outweighs anything Russia could gain by opposing the US request. They will certainly milk the situation for all it is worth and proclaim their dislike of the Obama Administration’s policies, but sanity may yet prevail. If it does not, if Russia and other nations are willing to secure the freedom of one man against the possible harm done to them by the United States in opposition to them, if they are both so upset with this administration and so unafraid of retaliation by it that they both believe that the Obama Administration is bluffing and call the bluff, it would be the biggest single diplomatic defeat for America in decades if not ever and make the United States and its allies far less secure. This is not a game. It is real life and lives are at stake.