With Snowden in Middle, US and Russia Joust, and Cool Off

In his first public comments on the case, Mr. Putin said that Mr. Snowden — the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked documents about American surveillance programs — had committed no crime on Russian soil and was “a free man” who could choose his own destination. “We can only extradite some foreign nationals to the countries with which we have the relevant international agreements on extradition,” he added. “With the United States, we have no such agreement.”

But while American officials remained angry at China for letting Mr. Snowden fly to Moscow, they and their Russian counterparts toned down the red-hot language that threatened a deeper rupture in relations. Mr. Putin said he saw little to gain in the conflict. “It’s like shearing a piglet,” he said. “There’s a lot of squealing and very little wool.” Some American officials interpreted the comment as a positive signal and speculated that Mr. Snowden would be sent to another country that could turn him over.

Yet the Russian president’s remarks during an official visit to Finland also underscored what may be the lasting damage the case has caused for American relations with both Moscow and Beijing. In noting that Mr. Snowden viewed himself as a “human rights activist” who “struggles for freedom of information,” Mr. Putin made clear that it would be harder for President Obama to claim the moral high ground when he presses foreign leaders to stop repressing dissenters and halt cyberattacks.

In the days since Mr. Snowden fled Hong Kong for Moscow, the Russians and the Chinese have seized both on his revelations about surveillance and the fact that the United States is seeking his arrest to make the case for a you-do-it-too argument. Igor Morozov, a Russian lawmaker, wrote that the case exposed an American “policy of double standards.” Xinhua, the state-owned Chinese news agency, editorialized that “the United States, which has long been trying to play innocent as a victim of cyberattacks, has turned out to be the biggest villain in our age.”

American officials said such arguments were false equivalences, saying that there was no comparison between Congressionally sanctioned and court-monitored surveillance programs, or the prosecution of Mr. Snowden, and the actions taken by the governments in Moscow and Beijing. But it is an argument that Washington may find difficult to sell in some parts of the world, even among some American allies, and it is fueling criticism inside the United States.

“The Russians for the better part of a decade have always tried to argue that the U.S. has double standards,” said Andrew Weiss, a former Russia adviser to President Bill Clinton and now vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “In the Russian domestic context and international context they never get tired of looking for those kinds of axes.”

The arguments could complicate American initiatives with both countries. Chinese officials are now ramping up the critique ahead of the United States-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which starts in Washington in early July with the arrival of an array of Chinese leaders. On the top of the agenda, at Mr. Obama’s insistence, is talk about how to work out rules of the road for behavior involving computers and online.

Until lately, the United States seemed to have Beijing on the defensive, with evidence that Chinese military units were behind recent computer attacks. Then Mr. Snowden told a Hong Kong newspaper that the United States had been engaged in a vigorous hacking campaign in China.

Mr. Obama has insisted that there is a difference between common espionage and China’s behavior. “Every country in the world, large and small, engages in intelligence gathering,” he told Charlie Rose in an interview on PBS. But intelligence gathering is different from “a hacker directly connected with the Chinese government or the Chinese military breaking into Apple’s software systems to see if they can obtain the designs for the latest Apple product,” he said.

“That’s theft,” the president added, “and we can’t tolerate that.”


David M. Herszenhorn and Ellen Barry reported from Moscow, and Peter Baker from Washington. Reporting was contributed by Andrew Roth from Moscow; David E. Sanger, Steven Lee Myers and Charlie Savage from Washington; and Michael R. Gordon from Jidda, Saudi Arabia.


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