Snowdon’s arrival in transit was a surprise to the Russians

I wasn’t going to attempt an answer to Vlad’s questions because I didn’t know what to think about the Snowden affair. Was he alone? Was he a whistleblower appalled at the realities of the world? Or a spy? A traitor? An opportunist? Was his arrival at Sheremetyevo a clever move in a chess game or a panicked flight? (Edward Jay Epstein, one of the few MSM reporters who is not a copy typist, raises some good questions here.)

All I knew was that he was no longer in Hong Kong and that Putin told us last week that he was in no-man’s-land in Sheremetyevo and hoped he would go away soon. (Few commentators understand that all international airports must have such a limbo lest any stowaway, with his feet on the new country, immediately claim asylum or otherwise initiate other tiresome and expensive legalities). But was he still there or had he moved on? Well we know now he’s still there; Ecuador doesn’t particularly want him; he has asked several countries for asylum. Not such a clever chess game it seems.

And he has asked Moscow for asylum and it sounds as if he will been granted it. But there’s a condition: Putin has said “If he wants to stay here, there is one condition: He must stop his work aimed at harming our US partners, no matter how strange this may sound coming from me.” So stay, but be silent. Putin also said there had been no collaboration with Russia’s intelligence services.

Altogether a very clever solution to Moscow’s and Washington’s mutual problem. After years of observation, I have learned that Putin never gives the lie direct, although he does not answer all questions fully. If he says there was no collaboration with Russian intelligence agencies, I believe him. (And not least because it is highly unlikely that Snowden has anything to tell them that they do not already know. Snowden’s big secret, electrifying the outside world, is the fact and extent of the collecting, not the details collected. Spetssvyaz knows all that and does the very same thing.) I also believe that Snowdon’s arrival in transit was a surprise to the Russians and his staying there so long a bigger surprise.

But Putin has cleverly squared the circle: Snowden is safe, but the further damage he can do to the USA is ended. Everybody should be happy – or at least as happy as is possible in the circumstances.

So one interesting question to watch will be how Washington takes this. It is the best available result for it: no embarrassing trial (or more embarrassing non-trial) and no more publicity and leaks. (And the possibility of a quiet interview with Snowden when the fuss has calmed down)

But the most interesting thing to watch will be the anti-Russia mob: will they be able to figure all this out and acknowledge the favour Putin has done Washington? Or will they wind themselves up into another anti-Putin rant? Another learning opportunity for them. And just after Boston too.