Russia’s Snowden Decision Obscures Economic Problems

Russia’s Snowden Decision Obscures Economic Problems

Russia’s decision to grant temporary asylum to the NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden did not go over well in Washington. The US response to cancel the bilateral summit in September in Moscow was no surprise.

Although the Snowden affair was not specified as the only reason, Moscow’s move on that issue was the last straw for the Obama administration. In a short, but unusually revealing statement, the White House very clearly named and shamed the Russian side for its lack of progress on “missile defense and arms control, trade and commercial relations, global security issues, and human rights and civil society.”

The controversial decision to defy US demands for the extradition of Snowden not only represents a new freeze in relations between the two countries, but also reflects Russia’s continuous effort to portray itself as an equal partner and global power – something that has too often been underestimated in the West. Not all in Moscow are happy with Russia’s US policy, however.

“There are a lot of issues that require bilateral dialogue, which is necessary both for the United States and for us. It’s too much of a price to pay for giving asylum to Snowden”, the president of the Moscow-based Institute of Strategic Studies and Analysis Alexander Konovalov told USA Today.

NATO’s unilateral intervention in Libya and subsequent clashes over Syria further show a swing back toward Cold War attitudes. Putin’s unequivocal support for Bashar al Assad’s regime is much more than geopolitics and a power projection. Many in the West link this to Russia’s practice of violating the democratic and civil rights of its own citizens.

In April this year the US Treasury Department released the infamous Magnitsky List of Russian citizens subject to visa bans and asset freezes in the United States for their involvement in gross human rights violations. This was a direct consequence of the Magnitsky Act, which is a continuation of the outdated 1974 Jackson-Vanick Amendment that linked the country’s permanent normal trade relations to the violations of human rights. Its passing is a clear sign of US determination to continue to keep Russia at bay over its human rights record, but also to protect US trade interests in Russia.

Despite all Russia’s flaws, mainly related to human rights violations, fragile rule of law and occasional clashes over global influence, the West (and the US in particular) still needs its eastern rival. Moscow has been forthcoming when it comes to US policy towards Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea, and a peaceful solution to the Syrian conflict clearly cannot be achieved without Russia’s involvement. The Obama administration is quite aware of this, and it has left the back door open. The White House confirmed Obama’s participation in the G20 summit in St. Petersburg later this year, and two days after announcing that the president would not be going to Moscow, the US secretaries of state and defence met their Russian counterparts in Washington.

However, if Western critics cannot hurt Putin on his human rights conduct, damage caused to the Russian economy might be more painful. Although the official boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi over the Russian anti-gay law is not realistic, even an informal boycott would wipe out much of the return on $50 billion invested in the Games by the Russian state.

The overall state of the Russian economy continues to deteriorate. Vast oil and gas revenues that kept the Russian economy going in the past decade have decreased with the financial crisis and changes in global energy trends. The rating agency Standard & Poor’s has warned recently that Russia will face an economic downturn should it fail to improve its poor investment climate and implement reforms. If Russian leadership wants to avoid more economic and political hardship, it will have to tackle these issues immediately and adapt both its domestic and foreign policy to economic realities.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Ante Batovic

Ante was previously a lecturer in International History at the University of Zadar where he specialised in Cold War and East European history. He was also a visiting fellow at the LSE IDEAS centre and the fellow of the Robert Schuman Foundation in the European Parliament. He holds a master’s degree in Global Politics from the London School of Economics and a PhD from the University of Zadar.