This is rank, arguably irresponsible, speculation. I have had no—that is to say zero—conversations with anyone who knows anything about Snowden’s status in Russia. I can thus offer no particularly good reason to believe that Vladimir Putin is getting ready to rid himself of Edward Snowden.
But would you take four bad reasons? When you put them all together, I think there’s enough there to make you wonder what’s going on behind the scenes.
Bad Reason #1: Putin has left Snowden hanging, allowing his one-year period of asylum to end unrenewed. Reports the BBC:
Fugitive US whistleblower Edward Snowden’s year-long leave to stay in Russia has expired without confirmation that it will be extended.
His lawyer said he could stay in the country while his application for an extension was being processed.
. . .
Anatoly Kucherena, the lawyer who acts as his spokesman, stressed in an interview for Russian TV on Thursday that his client had been given “temporary leave to remain” in Russia, not “political asylum”.
Mr Snowden fled shortly after leaking details of the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) international surveillance and telephone-tapping operation.
A US lawyer who has advised Mr Snowden said that he was likely to stay in Russia for the time being.
“I know ultimately he would love to be able to come home or seek refuge in a country of his choice,” Jesselyn Radack said in an interview for Australia’s ABC Radio on Wednesday.
Now why exactly would Putin leave Snowden’s status as a matter of doubt unless Snowden had become a sort of bargaining chip in U.S.-Russian relations? Putin is infinitely cynical, and unless you believe that Snowden was an active Russian agent (in which case he probably will never be allowed to leave Russia), he has largely served the function of embarrassing the United States for which Russia initially shielded him. Today, unlike a year ago, there is a crisis in U.S.-Russian relations, one in which Russia is taking big hits but from which it is hard for Putin to back down as to the main issues. Giving up Snowden will cost him nothing and may be a way of removing an irritant in the relationship without giving up anything related to Ukraine. He also doesn’t have to betray a commitment. After all, he only ever promised a year of shelter, and he has done that. All he needs to do to get rid of Snowden is nothing.
Bad Reason #2: There has been something of a change of tone in at least some Russian media concerning Snowden. It wasn’t long ago that he was appearing live on Russian television to ask Putin softball questions about surveillance. Up through last month, ITAR-TASS was running articles about Oliver Stone’s plans for a movie about Snowden and about how he lived an “open life” in Moscow: “Snowden says he leads an ‘open life’ in Moscow. He added that he was sure the Russians keep an eye on him, but he never noticed anything. Snowden stressed that though he cannot disclose the location of his residence in Moscow for security concerns, he leads a surprisingly open life.”
The latest ITAR-TASS story is remarkably free of Snowden love. The word “whistleblower” does not appear. Gone is the stuff about living an “open life”; now he has just “reportedly found a website maintenance job and resides at an undisclosed location in Russia.” The account of his situation is unadorned and straightforward:
The Russian Federal Migration Service (FMS) granted Snowden one-year permission for the temporary asylum in Russia on August 1, 2013. The permission expires today on July 31.
“The Federal Migration Service must abide by particular procedures,” Kucherena said. “We hope that the issue will be resolved today or tomorrow.”
The news that Snowden filed the request to prolong his stay in Russia for another year was initially voiced by Kucherena on July 9.
The FMS declined to comment on the issue of Snowden’s permission for the asylum saying that the information was confidential and also did not specify whether the fugitive ex-intelligence agent had asked for the temporary or political asylum.
“We are not commenting on this information,” a spokesperson for the FMS told ITAR-TASS.
In line with the Russian legislation the terms of temporary and political asylums have different meanings and statuses. The temporary asylum is granted by the FMS for the period of one year, can be annually extended for another year and gives the right to live and work in Russia, whereas the political asylum can be granted by a presidential decree only.
The United States accuses Snowden, 31, of leaking information on the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) secret surveillance programs to media. Despite US extradition requests, he was granted a one-year temporary asylum in Russia after spending more than a month in the transit zone of Sheremetyevo airport outside Moscow.
. . .
The US authorities say Snowden violated two clauses of a 1917 law on espionage by divulging some secret data related to national defense and by deliberately transferring US intelligence data to individuals not authorized to obtain such data. Snowden is also charged with stealing US government property.
Should he turn up on American soil one day, he faces ten years in prison on each charge.
I have not reviewed the recent Russian press on Snowden carefully enough to offer a strong opinion on this. (I’ve asked Wells, whose Russian is far better than mine, to take a look.) But this story in no sense seems to be setting up Snowden’s long-term residence in Moscow.
Bad Reason #3: There has been some weird signaling coming from Germany regarding asylum for Snowden in recent days. On Tuesday, the German Justice Minister publicly advised Snowden to go home and face the music—seemingly rejecting the idea of asylum in Germany. As the Los Angeles Times put it,
NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden is too young to spend his life dodging extradition in remote foreign locales, Germany’s justice minister said Tuesday in advising the fugitive to return to the United States and face the charges against
Snowden’s grant of political asylum in Russia expires Thursday, and although Moscow authorities may approve the extension he requested this month, the 31-year-old “surely doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life being hunted,” Justice Minister Heiko Maas said in an interview with the DPA news agency [link in German].
Now why would the German government be giving life advice to Snowden—to the rage of its political opposition—except somehow to slam the door decisively on the idea that Germany, notwithstanding German anger at the United States, offers any kind of alternative to Russia? Germany here did not merely reiterate that it will not harbor Snowden. It affirmatively suggested he go home. That’s an unusual thing for a third-party country to do.
Bad Reason #4: There has also been some weird signaling coming from the United States in recent days. From the estimable Josh Gerstein at Politico:
A top National Security Agency offficial says there’s less need now for the U.S. Government to cut a deal with leaker Edward Snowden than there was after his wave of surveillance disclosures began more than a year ago.
“As time goes on, the utility for us of having that conversation becomes less,” NSA Deputy Director Rick Ledgett said during an appearance Saturday at the Aspen Security Forum. “It’s been over a year since he had access to our networks and our information so the need for us to understand that greater level of detail is lesser and lesser.”
Ledgett was the first U.S. official to public discuss the possibility of amnesty or leniency for Snowden, telling “60 Minutes” in an interview aired last December that it was “worth having conversations about” such a deal if it could stem the tide of leaks. The discussion Saturday was framed slightly differently, focusing on obtaining a better idea of what Snowden copied from NSA systems and reportedly gave to journalists.
Ledgett’s remarks signal that lawyers for Snowden might have a weaker bargaining position over time. However, the NSA official also suggested that the damage Snowden did to NSA operations will also diminish with time because terrorist groups and foreign militaries change their communication methods from time to time anyway.
“So, as time goes on, his information becomes less useful,” said Ledgett, who was recently promoted after handling the NSA’s response to the Snowden revelations.
To be sure, all of these events—or some of them—may be unconnected, and to the extent they are related to one another, they might well not add up to anything so dramatic as Snowden’s having to leave Russia. But I would give a 20 percent likelihood that something like the following is taking place: Putin has hinted at the possibility of passively (by not permitting him to stay) forcing Snowden’s return as a way of easing tensions with the United States. Germany, aware of this, has made clear that it does not provide an alternative safe harbor. And the United States is signalling that its hand is getting stronger in any negotiation with the fugitive.
This theory is worth the price you paid for a Lawfare subscription. I know nothing more than I have read in the press. But it does knit together a series of actions that do not otherwise make a whole lot of sense to me.