Russian officials maintained Thursday that the action was “insignificant,” in the overall relationship with Washington. But the White House reacted angrily, a contrast with President Obama’s first term, when the administration was eager to strengthen ties with Russia to enlist the Kremlin’s help on an array of issues.
Now, the need has passed in some areas, such as Afghanistan, where the U.S.-led war is winding down. In others, the administration has concluded that the Russians probably never will help.
“We’re headed for a very rocky period in U.S.-Russian relations, make no mistake,” said Andrew Weiss, a White House expert on Russia during the Clinton administration who is now vice president for research at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
Speaking hours after Snowden’s lawyer announced that his client had been granted one year’s temporary asylum in Russia, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said U.S. officials were “extremely disappointed” that Moscow had ignored American appeals to return him for trial.
Carney signaled that the administration may cancel a meeting planned for next month in Moscow between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“This is obviously not a positive development,” Carney said. “We have a wide range of interests with the Russians, and we are evaluating the utility of a summit.”
U.S. officials suggested that they are waiting to see whether Russia shows any flexibility on key issues when a Russian delegation comes to Washington next week. If it does not, U.S. officials may scale back or cancel the Putin-Obama meeting.
U.S. officials have been arguing for weeks that Russia needed to return Snowden, despite the absence of an extradition treaty between the countries.
Putin has played the situation carefully. He rarely misses an opportunity to emphasize Russia’s enduring status as a major player on the world stage. But he said Snowden could stay in Russia only if he halted actions that hurt the United States.
Instead of heading for the U.S., where he faces three felony charges for leaking classified information, Snowden, 30, left the transit zone at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport for an undisclosed location Thursday afternoon. He was accompanied by Sarah Harrison, a legal advisor to WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy organization announced. He had been stuck at the airport since arriving from Hong Kong on June 23.
In a statement released by WikiLeaks, Snowden thanked the Russians. “Over the past eight weeks we have seen the Obama administration show no respect for international or domestic law, but in the end the law is winning,” he said.
Russian human rights advocates said it was ironic that Snowden was taking shelter in a country with a dismal human rights record. “Having fought for freedom and rights, Snowden has ended up in a country that cracks down on them,” said Lyudmila Alexeyeva of the Moscow Helsinki Group, according to the Interfax news agency.
The one-year asylum grant will allow Snowden to travel anywhere in Russia and possibly to work there. The document may be extended indefinitely on an annual basis but would be canceled if Snowden leaves the country, his lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, said in an interview.
“It is up to him to choose a residence inside Russia, but his location will remain secret for the duration of his stay,” Kucherena said. “For the most wanted man on Earth, personal safety is his No. 1 priority now.”
An aide to Putin downplayed the importance of the decision.
“Our president has expressed the hope many times that this will not affect the character of our relations,” Yuri Ushakov told reporters. “This situation is rather insignificant and won’t influence political relations.”
But U.S. officials treated the decision as a major disappointment, one that may presage a disengagement with the Russians on a wide range of issues. Since coming to office, Obama has sought cooperation from Moscow on issues including Iran, the Afghanistan war, strategic nuclear arms reductions and the Syrian civil war.
Now, in Obama’s second term, the president has less need to win Russian cooperation. The U.S. is withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan, and the administration has concluded it is unlikely to win Russian agreement to increase international sanctions on Iran over its disputed nuclear program.
Russia has maintained its backing of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose forces in recent weeks have succeeded in pushing back rebels on several fronts.