After five and a half weeks in transit limbo, NSA leaker Edward Snowden was granted temporary one-year asylum in Russia on Thursday.
The White House expressed "disappointment" and again raised the threat of possibly canceling the meeting between President Barack Obama and President Vladimir Putin next month when the U.S. president is scheduled to travel to Russia for the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg.
But just how disappointed should Washington be with this development?
With Snowden being allowed to leave the transit area, the move can provide an opportunity for U.S. authorities to make contact with him somewhere in Moscow. It is my understanding that while Snowden has been in the transit area, it has not been possible for U.S. authorities to make contact with him, and this has been a real problem for Washington.
Perhaps if Snowden had a clearer idea of what precisely his fate would be upon return to the United States, he might reconsider. That was certainly the purpose of Attorney General Eric Holder's letter to the Russians last week.
Putin has made clear several times that his preferred option is for Snowden to leave Russia as soon as possible, and I am inclined to believe him. My hope for the past few weeks has been that there had been considerable back-channel communication between U.S. and Russian authorities, including most importantly at the Obama/Putin level, about finding a reasonably acceptable exit strategy from the dilemma.
Russia has already gotten some PR bang from the Snowden affair, and we have to assume that Russian intelligence authorities have copied all materials that Snowden brought with him as well as whatever else he knows about sources and methods, intelligence personnel, internal operations, etc.
It is hard to imagine that Russian special services have not had extensive conversations with him and likely this cooperation was an important factor in consideration of his asylum request. But staying in Russia longer only gratuitously inflames an already very shaky and vulnerable U.S.-Russia relationship that I do not believe Putin seeks to further damage, at least not because of Snowden.
Putin has made clear that he will not extradite Snowden to the United States, and we should take him at his word on that. However, if Snowden himself decided that he preferred to return to the United States, then the Russians would be obliged, and perhaps happy, to let him go.
Perhaps Snowden should heed the excellent story by Kathy Lally in The Washington Post on July 19 about the predominantly sad fates of U.S. citizens who have received asylum in the former Soviet Union and Russia.
There is no way the ex-KGB agent Putin, who fundamentally despises and disrespects traitors and revealers of state secrets, will allow Snowden much running room in Russia. Putin does not really like public discussions of state surveillance of citizens, even if they are U.S. citizens, and when he states the condition of staying in Russia that Snowden stop harming the United States, he probably means he wants an end to public revelations of further documents Snowden claims to have.
And if Snowden were to pursue his so-called human rights activities in Russia, he would meet a very unhappy fate indeed. Like many of his asylum-seeking brethren in the past, he may find his life so restricted that he turns to drink or some worse self-destructive fate.
So Snowden should not only be clear about what his likely fate would be in returning to the United States, but he should also be clearly briefed by our Russian friends about how he will actually be treated upon receiving asylum in Russia if that were to happen.
Finally, having received and accepted for now asylum in Russia, this is the second-best outcome for U.S. security interests after Snowden himself possibly deciding to return to America, something he still could potentially do.
Since we have to assume that the Chinese and the Russians already have taken all the information that he had to offer, the United States should have no interest in seeing Snowden going off to other countries and even more widely distributing his secrets.
Probably Putin himself would not like to see this happen either since it would diminish the value of the intelligence that Russia has received from Snowden. Despite the developments Thursday, Putin might also see that the best outcome is for Snowden to decide for himself that he should return to the United States.
I have to think that our Russian friends can be very persuasive in making this argument, and I hope that Obama and his team are pursuing this more subtle and face-saving solution.
Andrew C. Kuchins is director and senior fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.