If the Obama administration can’t force Russia to turn over NSA leaker Edward Snowden, leaders on Capitol Hill from both parties say they are preparing punitive measures of their own to try and force Russian President Vladimir Putin to stop Snowden from fleeing to a country outside of America’s reach.
“We are exploring what are the leverage points. I’m trying to put together a package to let the Russians know how serious we are,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told The Daily Beast in an interview. “We have to respond, this is a defining moment in the relationship.”
Graham declined to elaborate on what his “package” of items to pressure Russia might include. For some Republicans, such as Graham and his cohort Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Putin’s handling of the Snowden issue is only the latest sign that Russia is backsliding when it comes to democracy and the rule of law.
“This government has been corrupted. They don’t have a real legislature. All institutions of democracies have been diminished in Russia, and when people do that inside their country they are not generally inclined to follow the rule of law outside their country,” Graham said. “I’m just amazed that we don’t get what Putin’s up to. He’s trying to recreate the old Soviet Union attitude and image.”
Senior Democrats also lashed out at Putin over his handling of the Snowden case.
“It seems to me that the Russians do have the wherewithal to hand him over and they should. If they don’t, it’s clearly a challenge to our relationship,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) told The Daily Beast.
Asked what Congress will do to respond to Russia’s unhelpfulness, Menendez said, “You never know when the table turns.”
Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), the committee’s ranking Republican, told The Daily Beast that Russia’s refusal to be helpful on Snowden lays bare the White House’s ineffectiveness in dealing with Putin and his government.
“I think the president’s learning that charm and good looks don’t take you very far with Russia, and obviously this is what I would have expected,” said Corker.
There may be progress behind the scenes, and Congress should let the executive branch take the lead before doing anything, Corker said. But the incident has left a bad taste in the mouths of lawmakers and will hurt any congressional efforts to work with Russia in the future.
“No doubt it affects our overall relationship,” he said. “I don’t know what leverage we can use to deal with it in a different way, but it’s a pretty major embarrassment when you have two large countries that on one hand talk about nuclear weapons and on the other hand have this situation, which is a huge profile around the world, and we can’t bring it to a resolution.”
Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) told The Daily Beast that the Snowden case will further chill an already cool relationship, but that as far as Congress is concerned, there’s nothing much lawmakers can do “which will have a positive effect.”
The Obama administration seemed to realize Tuesday that publicly admonishing Russia was not producing the outcome they desired. Secretary of State John Kerry backed down from his confrontational rhetoric Monday and struck a much more conciliatory tone Tuesday when talking about the issue.
“I wonder if Mr. Snowden chose China and Russia as assistance in his flight from justice because they are such powerful bastions of Internet freedom,” Kerry said on Monday, adding that “without question” Russia would suffer consequences if they didn’t hand Snowden over.
“You never know when the table turns.”
Putin confirmed Tuesday that Snowden was still in the transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, but said that Russia wouldn’t extradite or detain him because there is no formal U.S.-Russia extradition treaty that would mandate such action.
"As regards handing him in, we can hand over foreign nationals only to a country with which we have an agreement about handing over criminals," Putin said during a visit to Finland. "We do not have such an agreement with the United States."
Putin called U.S. criticisms of Russia’s handling of the Snowden issue “ravings and rubbish” and said he would prefer not to deal with the issue at all. “It's like shearing a piglet: there's a lot of squealing, but there's little wool," Putin said.
Kerry Tuesday was much more polite than he’d been a day earlier. “We are not looking for a confrontation,” he said. "We are not ordering anybody. We are simply requesting under a very normal procedure for the transfer of somebody.”
David Kramer, president of Freedom House and a harsh critic of the Putin regime, said that Kerry erred by publicly criticizing Russia on its Internet freedom policies in the middle of trying to get Snowden back.
“When you want Russia’s help in having Snowden extradited or detained, I’m not sure that’s the right time to start belittling Russia on its Internet freedom situation. This would be the one time I would argue for a quieter approach to try to work out a solution to this,” he said.
Paul Saunders, executive director at the Center for the National Interest, a Washington think tank, said that if Snowden leaves Russia quickly, the damage to the U.S.-Russia relationship will be minimal, but if he lingers there, the problems for the relationship mount.
“If he ends up staying in Russia or is invited to stay in Russia, then it could become more complicated and that would have a further impact in the U.S. on how Russia is viewed and that could prompt a greater reaction,” he said.
Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak told The Daily Beast Wednesday that he doesn’t expect the Snowden issue to become a huge problem for the U.S.-Russia relationship but that it was hard to tell where the story might go next because of the anti-Russian mood in Washington.
“He got in, we didn’t invite him in,” said Kislyak. “To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, we have to deal with the America we have.”