Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport has, for the past month, played host to a pawn in the international diplomacy game, one Edward Snowden. Mr Snowden is a "whistle-blower" who, depending on your point of view, has courageously defended the rights of downtrodden untermensch the world over, or on the other hand has committed a treasonous offence so heinous as to be punishable by a lengthy spell behind bars - a spell so long that all kinds of keys may just as well be thrown down various drains.
In short, whilst employed as an infrastructure analyst at National Security Agency contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, he leaked details of internet and phone surveillance by American and British Intelligence agencies. Knowing that the fan was about to become clogged, he fled the USA, initially for Hong Kong; when things became uncomfortable there, he left Hong Kong and flew to Moscow, from where he sought asylum in a number of countries. The countries willing to offer asylum were few and far between, but just as his options seemed to be running out, Vladimir Putin offered a temporary one-year asylum in Russia. There, in an unknown location, Snowden lives and presumably plots his next move.
It is well-known that Snowden is perceived by the American political elite as public enemy number one. He did the unthinkable as far as they are concerned. They want nothing more than to have him back in the USA to stand trial. It is also well-known that presidents Putin and Obama are not necessarily the best of friends, so when Snowden landed in transit on Russian soil, it must have seemed like manna from Putin's heaven. To keep him in limbo for a month just stoked the fires; the two men talked about the situation about three weeks into the stay, but nothing came of the talks. Having wrung all that he could out of the enforced airport stay, Putin then rubbed salt in American wounds.
So why did Putin make the offer? Why did he do so after a month for Snowden in limbo? I wonder if it has anything to do with creating an irritant that may help in future negotiations. I wonder if the move is designed to draw attention away from some other issue on which Russia feels exposed. Perhaps, all that he is trying to do is create a bargaining chip for use in later negotiations.
In general, irritants can be used to create bargaining capital. It does not cost Russia too much to give Snowden asylum, but it is certainly worth a lot to the Americans to have him returned. If it is worth a lot, then, so the reasoning goes, the Americans may be prepared to pay a lot - if not financially then perhaps in other concessions.
But beware! If they become too irritated and overplay it, then they may, in turn, raise the stakes and be asked to whistle for concessions that have already been made. The response may far outweigh the benefits and there is no doubt that too much irritation can damage relationships.
Since writing this blog, I read that president Obama has cancelled a planned summit meeting with president Putin after the G20 conference in St Petersburg, citing amongst other reasons, the Snowden situation and accusing Russia of a "cold war mentality". The Russian response is best summed up by Nationalist Duma deputy Vladimir Zhirinovsky, perhaps the most rabid of the many critics of the United States in parliament, who said the decision shows "disrespect" towards Russia.
"If you postpone or completely cancel meetings between heads of state under the pretext of the refusal to hand over one person, then relations between countries will quickly reach zero," Zhirinovsky said.
The irony, perhaps, in all of this is that Snowden was trying to promote the release and sharing of information; instead, he seems, if only temporarily, to have brought communications between the political elite of Russia and the USA to a shuddering halt!