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MOSCOW, Russia – The decision to grant temporary asylum to Edward Snowden was a key reason behind Wednesday's cancelation by the White House of planned talks between President Barack Obama and Russia's Vladimir Putin.
So what does Russia’s president get out of his help for the self-declared leaker of classified NSA documents? Especially when – at least for now – there’s no indication that Russian intelligence has debriefed the young defector.
Veteran Kremlin-watcher Fyodor Lukyanov last month commented that letting Snowden into Russia would be like “turning a small headache into a major migraine.’’
So why did Putin take on this massive headache?
First, because he can. Putin could simply not resist an act that would not only embarrass Washington, but remind it that Russia, not America, is now in the driver’s seat of their east-west relationship.
Second, because most reliable opinion polls here suggest a majority of Russians think Snowden should be given permanent asylum in Russia. That means Snowden’s presence could be a vote-winner for Putin, who already has eyes on a fourth term in office, after elections in 2018.
Third, because doing so would be popular among America’s adversaries. As Lukyanov puts it: ‘’If Putin cares about nothing else, he cares about how the Third World thinks about Russia. And the Third World sees Snowden as a hero who spilled the beans on imperialist America. Putin is sensitive to that. There’s too much at stake not to be.”
Finally, Putin saw a chance to strike at the heart of the US-Russia rivalry – the fight over each other’s human rights record.
In this context, Snowden is Putin’s early Christmas present. He can hold Snowden up as a beacon for those who speak the truth about government abuse of individual freedoms- even as he cracks down on gays, NGOs, and all forms of opposition.
Putin had to know that releasing Snowden would get America’s goat – a judgment confirmed by Wednesday’s announcement by the White House.
Russian observers say that, like all headaches, this one will pass for Putin. And even a migraine is a small price for Putin to pay for taking the spotlight away from the United States.
Wednesday’s stumble in Moscow-Washington relations underlines the difficulty in trying to second-guess Putin, and has echoes in recent history.
George W. Bush claimed in 2001 that he had looked into the Russian leader’s eyes and “was able to get a sense of his soul.”
Could he have seen that, six years later, Putin would stun the annual Munich Security Conference with a fiery speech that railed against the U.S. and came just short of declaring a new Cold War? He slammed U.S. military action in the Middle East as “unilateral” and “illegitimate,” saying Washington had created global instability. “They bring us to the abyss of one conflict after another,” Putin said.
A year later, Putin invaded the former Soviet republic of Georgia - one of Bush’s key allies. Russian soldiers are still there.
After Snowden fled to Moscow from Hong Kong in June, Putin quickly signaled that he had no time for the former intelligence contractor, and expressed hope he would soon continue onward to Havana.
Misreading Putin’s position, Washington chose to treat Snowden like a chess piece, blocking all his possible next moves by issuing arrest warrants and closing off airspace.
It was an understandable gambit. But Putin did exactly what the White House hoped he would not do.
Indeed, Russia’s Federal Migration Service not only approved Snowden’s request for temporary one-year asylum, but also processed the paperwork in record time – barely two weeks, compared to the usual wait of between three and six months.
Snowden is now living in undisclosed quarters somewhere in Moscow, the guest of American ex-pat supporters, catching up on sleep as he embarks on a new life of exile in Russia.
Jim Maceda, a London-based correspondent for NBC News, has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for three decades.