Can Snowden survive Russia and Putin?

The pro-Snowden lobby should not be rejoicing after Thursday’s news that the PRISM whistleblower’s been allowed to move into Russia for 1 year. 

Snowden’s situation has been completely manipulated by Putin, in order to serve the president’s interests. The Russian premier’s given Snowden a year of purgatory. I’m not sure Snowden has the mental strength or means to survive what could lay ahead for him.

History has shown that Russia doesn’t hero worship Westerners who flee to Moscow. The most telling example of that is the Cambridge spyring. Recruited by Soviet intelligence while studying at Cambridge University in the 1930s, the British men went on to comprehensively spy on behalf of the Soviet Union and they did so due to their belief that life in Russia was better. They later learned it was not.

All members of the spy ring were supremely intelligent, high achievers with sensitive positions in government, and the most powerful of them was serving British intelligence officer Kim Philby. In 1951 he tipped off two other members of the ring – Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess – that they were under suspicion. Both fled to Moscow.

In 1963, Philby himself decided that the net was closing in on him, and urgently contacted his Soviet handler. After weeks of deliberation, the USSR agreed to arrange his flight to Moscow and to give him asylum. But upon arrival in Moscow airport, Philby was told that the KGB had changed its mind about appointing him as a colonel in their intelligence agency, that he would be under virtual house arrest in a tiny apartment, and that he would receive a meager 500 rubles per month.

Before Philby died of heart failure in 1988, he was under constant Russian surveillance and his entire life was bugged. Philby knew this and drank heavily to numb the pain of his hellish existence, suffered severe depression, on more than one occasion slashed his wrists, and told his wife that his earlier belief in the communist dream had turned out to be utterly wrong. 

Burgess and Maclean suffered a similar existence in Moscow, until their deaths.   

Philby got nothing but Russian pain, despite what he did for the motherland.

Snowden’s prospects are worse because he’s not a top Russian spy like Philby. Instead, he’s a nomadic snitch with a grudge. Putin – formerly a colonel in the KGB – will view him as such.

And yet Putin still decided to give Snowden a visa.

But only a 1-year visa, and that is telling.

If Putin had given Snowden long term asylum, it would have been a catastrophe for U.S.-Russian bilateral diplomatic interests, and Putin knew that. But, at the same time he also knew that Snowden could be used to make Putin appear strong to Russians by defeating Obama’s desire to get his hands on Snowden’s throat during the next twelve months.

In giving Snowden a 1 year visa, Putin deliberately slapped Obama rather than give him a sucker punch. It makes a point, but keeps US-Russian relations open.

That’s arch politics.

As a result, Snowden has been temporarily flicked in to Russia, with probably no prospects and limited funds. He’s been given a short future in a land that does not like the weak.

Will he survive the next 12 months and the uncertainty beyond? Time will tell. Time also told that more important and intellectually superior men did not survive that kind of hell.

Matthew Dunn was a former MI6 officer who worked in hostile locations around the world. He is the author of the espionage novels “Slingshot,” “Spycatcher” and “Sentinel” (William Morrow). For more information visit matthewdunnbooks. You can also follow Mr. Dunn on Twitter @MatthewHDunn and find him on on Facebook

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