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International Relations

Snowden case further sours US-Russian relations

The US has said it is 'extremely disappointed' following Russia's decision to grant asylum to Edward Snowden, the latest in a long list of unresolved conflicts. Is this the start of a new ice age for US-Russia relations?

Russia's decision to grant the former US intelligence operative and whistle-blower Edward Snowden a year's asylum has led to a storm of criticism in the United States.

The lead headline in the Friday (02.08.2013) edition of The New York Times spoke of a "defiant Russia," while Republican Senator John McCain called it a "slap in the face of every American." Other senators called for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and demanded that the next G20 summit, scheduled to be held in St. Petersburg in early September, be moved to another country. The White House, meanwhile, expressed its "extreme disappointment" for the record.

The uproar is illuminating, said Cory Welt, an associate director at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University (GWU) in the US capital. "A lot of rage and exaggerated emotion has been expressed, in Congress in particular," said Welt. "I'm still hopeful that this will be a temporary fallout and we'll be able to get back to addressing real issues soon."

It could take some time until both countries are able to get back down to business. Too many emotions are in the game when Russia comes up in discussion in Washington. The Snowden case has driven the frustration level with President Barack Obama and Congress to new heights. After all, the political crowd in the US capital has already struggled with disappointed expectations in joint efforts by both countries to resolve the Syrian civil war and the Iran conflict.

A file video grab courtesy of British The Guardian newspaper, London 10 June 2013 showing former CIA employee Edward Snowden during an exclusive interview with the newspaper's Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras in Hong kong. Media reports on 01 August 2013 state that US whistleblower Edward Snowden has left Moscow airport after he has been granted temporary asylum in Russia in a statement by his lawyer. EPA/GLENN GREENWALD / LAURA POITRAS / HANDOUT MANDATORY CREDIT: GUARDIAN / GLENN GREENWALD / LAURA POITRAS, HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES

Snowden's visa was seen as a provocation in the US

Disappointment - and not only in Snowden case

The Snowden case is indicative of a difficult relationship that the freshly-elected Obama in 2009 had wanted to reset with a "new beginning." At the time, Obama was pursuing the best of intentions, similar to his far-reaching offers of cooperation to China and the Arab world. But his outstretched hand was not grasped by any of the three.

Obama has invested much time and political capital in trying to improve Russian-American relations, but the results have been meager. And not just in the case of Syria and Iran: with nuclear disarmament, human rights and other important issues, the US and Russia are farther apart than they have been for quite some time.

Is it wise to reduce the remaining communication channels and threaten the cancellation of the St. Petersburg summit? Matthew Rojansky, director of the Washington-based Kennan Institute, thinks Obama should still travel to Russia, "even if he doesn't expect that [President Vladimir] Putin will send Snowden back to the United States, will fundamentally change his perspective on Syria, will agree to a new nuclear arms agreement, or any of the things which are a top priority for Obama and the United States right now."

Under pressure

Obama is not really alone in his decision, as Putin's snub has put the US president under additional pressure. A massive resistance has been brewing against the surveillance programs made public by Snowden. Respected newspapers, like The New York Times, have criticized the "extremely aggressive pursuit" of informants that has strained the relationship between the government and the public.

Nevertheless: many observers feel the president should keep the door to the Kremlin open and maintain the diplomatic channels. Otherwise, Rojansky told DW, the uneasy relationship will continue. "One provocation is followed by another, and [then there's] a kind of failure of competent management, a failure to apply even very basic tools of effective crisis management because there is not an effective dialogue there. The key is to see engagement with Moscow not as a reward for Moscow doing what Washington wants it to do, but as a strategy which serves America's national interests in the first place."

A participant wears a T-shirt with an image of Russian President Vladimir Putin during an opposition protest march in Moscow, June 12, 2013. Thousands of protesters marched in Moscow on Wednesday, calling for Putin's resignation and the release of activists facing long jail terms over violence at a rally on the eve of his inauguration to a third term last year. Badge reads Free prisoners of May 6. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov (RUSSIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)

Since his 2012 re-election, Putin has been under increasing political pressure on the home front

Is Putin provoking a new ice age?

The chilling of the US-Russia relationship was already apparent last year, as Putin began his third term as president. His re-election was preceded by violent protests by the Russian opposition, signaling that he would have to fight to maintain his power. Putin still holds a grudge against the US for its support of the protest movement.

Putin has used foreign policy to bolster national solidarity and thereby solidify his own power. His political scope is much narrower than it appears from the outside. The fact that, despite his position of weakness on the political stage, he manages to still look so remarkable and make Obama seem like a rather unfortunate figure, can be chalked up to Putin's instincts and his wealth of experience, as well as Obama's own weakness.

Secondary importance

Washington, of course, is preparing for the time after Putin. Until then, however, it must come to terms with the current circumstances, which include the fact that Russia is losing its significance as a partner for the US.

"This is a relationship which inevitably will be of secondary importance to primary national interests. If we care about preventing terrorism, the Russians are at least a secondary player on that issue, no matter what," said Rojansky, adding that this applies to all policy fields that are in the highest national interest for the US.

"We should not expect to rely on Russia as a stable partner," agreed GWU's Welt, adding that the US should always expect surprises. "But that doesn't mean that we should respond with rage and indignation."

DW.DE