Russia’s Vladimir Putin is on quite a run in 2014. His country just finished hosting the successful Sochi Winter Olympics. No sooner than Mischa the bear left the stadium, Putin dispatched 16,000 troops in unmarked uniforms to take the strategic Crimean peninsula, which belongs to neighboring Ukraine. Putin’s troops took their prize without firing a shot, and while the surprised U.S. and EU have scrambled for a response, Putin has consolidated his hold on Crimea in two ways. One, he has sent in more troops — as many as 30,000, along with helicopters and armored vehicles — to warn off the weak Ukrainian army against any attack. Two, Crimea’s parliament voted unanimously to break off from Ukraine and formally join Russia. Putin has a third move in the works, which is as purely a Soviet move as he as ever made during either of his reigns in the Kremlin. Crimea will have a referendum on the question of joining Russia. The ballot that will be used on March 16 for that vote offers voters two choices — yes now, or yes later. There is no “no” available, even if Crimea’s majority ethic Russians should want it. So the outcome of that vote is a done deal unless Putin is somehow forced to force a ballot change, and that doesn’t seem likely.
On Monday, Putin will strike right at the heart of American prestige and security. Exiled NSA leaker Edward Snowden will address SXSW 2014 in Austin from wherever Putin is protecting/holding him in Russia. Snowden’s address by web video link is already controversial enough that Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) wants SXSW to uninvite him. That doesn’t seem any more likely than anyone forcing a ballot change in Crimea.
While probably only Snowden knows what he will say on Monday, the content of his address may not matter a lot. The mere fact of his address is another knife twisted into President Barack Obama’s side. Snowden fled the United States after leaking a massive amount of information regarding the Obama administration’s surveillance of Americans’ online and cell phone activities in the name of stopping terrorists. The Obama administration tried in vain to catch him, and then when he arrived in Russia, petitioned Putin to hand him over to American authorities. That has not happened, obviously. Putin granted Snowden a year’s asylum in Russia. Meanwhile, the massive American surveillance effort missed signs that Putin was about to invade Crimea. That’s a pretty big miss.
Now, as Putin ignores the West over Crimea, Snowden will address SXSW and, via video streams, the rest of the world. Given Russia’s massive surveillance state, it is clear that Snowden’s address is not only known to Putin, but has been sanctioned by him. Snowden thus becomes, through Monday’s address, yet another unmistakable snub to Obama. Putin is saying to Obama, “Here’s your most wanted man. I have him. And I am letting him speak to your people in the heart of your country.” There’s no getting around the symbolism. Obama has the choice to look impotent, or try shutting Snowden’s feed down, and look tyrannical. Either way, Putin wins.
The question ahead of Monday is, does Snowden understand that he is being used against the United States by a strongman whose own surveillance state is even worse than ours? Does he understand that he is being made a puppet for Putin? If he doesn’t understand that, then his is a naif and a fool. If he does, then he has truly become an agent of our geopoligical foe and an enemy of the American people. Either way, while some of his leaks have been good for the cause of disclosure and rolling back our overpowering government, ultimately Edward Snowden is no hero at all.