As Edward Snowden, the former technical contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee awaits his fate in the transit lounge of Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport; the extent of damage this 30-year old has done to strain relations between the United States and Russia and China remains an open question.
Working through the Guardian newspaper in London, beginning in May, Snowden exposed a number of classified documents gathered by the NSA, including the interception of U.S. and European telephone records and Internet surveillance programs, which touched off a heated debate about American privacy and civil liberties being violated. Of more concern to the U.S government, however, isn’t about Americans privacy being invaded; rather, their concern is the breadth of classified information that may have been passed on to the Chinese and Russian governments.
The U.S. government has charged Snowden with stealing government property, transmitting national security information without approval and willfully communicating classified data to unauthorized individuals, serious charges which violate the U.S. Espionage Act, and could result in a lengthy prison term for the Wilmington, N.C. native.
Before dashing off to Moscow, Snowden stayed in Hong Kong until he was given clearance to leave by the Chinese government.
The former CIA employee is believed to have sought asylum in Ecuador. Despite his passport having been revoked by the U.S., he still would be able to board a plane.
Passengers lacking border regulations are subject only to a fine of 1,000 rubles ($30), according to the Russia’s Administrative Code. Besides, Vladimir Putin has already stated that Snowden is free to travel at will, since he had ``committed no crime on Russian soil.’’
Since there are no direct flights to Quito, the capital of Ecuador, Snowden would have to fly to Havana first. The next flight to Havana from Moscow isn’t until Thursday.
Ecuador's foreign minister, Ricardo Patino, however, told the Associated Press, an asylum request could take up to two months to process, approximately the same amount of time it took Wikileaks founder Julian Assange to take refuge at Ecuador’s embassy in London.
In the meantime, John McCain, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees in meeting with reporters recently lashed out at both Russia and China, strongly asserting that Mr. Obama needs a "re-evaluation" of Washington's relationship with both Moscow and Beijing.
Beijing and Moscow countered with their own lashings. An editorial published in Xinhua, the state-owned Chinese news agency, argued 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.''
And Igor Morozov, a Russian lawmaker, wrote that the case exposed an American "policy of double standards."
All this couldn’t have come at a worse time for the U.S., especially with the war in Syria still unresolved.
Equally troubling, in July, the United States-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue begins in Washington in which a number of Chinese leaders are expected to attend to discuss, among other topics, the behavior of computers and online, while in September, President Obama is scheduled to travel to St Petersburg and Moscow to meet with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
So has the U.S. relationship with Moscow and Beijing taken a dramatic turn for the worse and could this hurricane potentially bring Russia and China closer together; or is this Snowden incident merely a mild thunderstorm, which will eventually blow over?
To answer these questions, I consulted with a number of Russian and Chinese scholars in order to get their assessment of the potential international repercussions.
Here, then, are some responses which came back:
- ``Neither Moscow nor Washington are ready for that Cold Shower having so many other problems. But this case will deepen the mistrust between the two sides that exists already.''
-Lilia Shevtsova, Chairs the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
- ``For me, I wouldn’t think that this will strain US/China ties as the one country/two systems China/HK arrangement gives Beijing the ability to deny making the call on Snowden. I don’t have any idea if China’s agencies gathered whatever data Snowden may have. There’s little doubt that this incident has provided Americans, Chinese, and others with much more insight into NSA capabilities and practices. I do not know if Snowden has the ability to provide much more information or much more important information than he has already revealed.''
-Clayton Dube, Associate Director of the University of Southern California (USC) U.S.-China Institute.
- ``Relations between Russia and US have been "strained" and worse for quite some time - what with Magnitsky Act and Russia reciprocating with a ban on American adoption of Russian orphans; kicking out the USAID from Russia, strong disagreement over Syria - and persistent anti-American rhetoric at home. The body language and facial expressions of both presidents at the G8 meeting in N Ireland gives one an idea of just how "strained" the relations have become. I think possible cooperation between Russia and China on cyber issues should be disturbing to the US and - again, it can hardly do anything about it. ''
-Maria Lipman, Chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Society and Regions Program and editor of the Pro et Contra journal published by the Carnegie Moscow Center.
- ``I would assume that Chinese and Russians copied all the materials Snowden has, so it is potentially a major intelligence leak for us depending on what he has. I think the two sides will try to insulate the issues in the bilateral relationship from the Snowden case, although the Putin/Obama agreement last week to cooperate more on cybersecurity may take a hit.''
-Andrew C. Kuchins, senior fellow and director of the Center For Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) for its Russia and Eurasia Program.
- ``My sense is that there will be a brief flurry of bad feelings between Russia and the USA, and between China and the USA, but that the underlying importance of these relationships will force cooperation and a better tone in dialogue after a short while. Snowden may have helped the Chinese and Russians understand the extent of US surveillance operations, but the principal effect has been to inform the American public, which ironically doesn't seem to care that much.''
-Ronald Grigor Suny, Charles Tilly Collegiate Professor of Social and Political History at The University of Michigan.
- ``I think that this is a minor incident compared to all of the others that are worsening our relations with Russia (though it adds to the list of ways Russia enjoys feeling its sovereign difference). The more serious concerns is the crackdown on civil society and independent critical expression and conflicts over Syria.''
-Mark D. Steinberg, Professor in the Department of History at the University of Illinois and editor of the Slavic Review at UL.
June 26, 2013