MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin is showing his gamesmanship on a global stage by giving his voters what they want with the asylum granted to ex-U.S. contractor Edward Snowden while leaving the White House flustered.
The decision is backed by almost twice as many Russians as those against it, and those who view Snowden’s role as positive outnumber negative assessments by 3-to-1.
While the case risks derailing U.S.-Russian relations, it gives Putin a chance to rally support at home and deflect attention from his own human-rights record, said Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin adviser who heads the Effective Policy Foundation in Moscow. “Domestically, he got what he can,” Pavlovsky said. “His main propaganda message domestically will be that things are similar everywhere: The CIA and the FBI violate human rights, just like everybody else.”
Putin, who used Russia’s oil-powered wealth accumulation to build support for his 13-year rule, is facing an economy that threatens to slide into recession. Over the past two years, he also stared down the biggest opposition rallies since he came to power and has been the target of criticism for cracking down on protest leaders.
Opposition organizer Alexey Navalny last month received a five-year prison sentence, which he is appealing while he campaigns for Moscow’s mayoral election next month. Economist Sergei Guriev and former chess champion Garry Kasparov, critics fearing prosecution, fled Russia this year.
Three members of the all-female punk group Pussy Riot were convicted last August after a protest targeting Putin. One was later freed on appeal.
The backdrop for authorities going after opposition voices is a darkening economic picture. Growth slowed to half of last year’s pace in the first six months, according to the Economy Ministry. Manufacturing unexpectedly shrank last month, HSBC Holdings said Thursday.
There is a 30 percent chance of a recession next year, up from 20 percent a month ago, according to the median estimate of 13 economists in a Bloomberg survey published July 25.
While Russia lacks the economic power that China or the West wield, it strives to be treated as an equal, and the Snowden affair gave Putin an opportunity to show that, according to Lilit Gevorgyan, senior analyst for Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent statistics at IHS Global Insight. “Russia continues to seek a role in what it sees as a small club of world players,” she said. Returning Snowden to the U.S. “would undermine Russia’s bid to promote globally an image of a major geopolitical player offering an alternative to the Western-dominated world.”
That plays well with Putin’s domestic audience, according to a survey released by the polling company Levada Center on Wednesday. Forty-three percent backed giving Snowden asylum in a July 18-22 poll of 1,601 Russians, compared with 29 percent against it, according to the poll.
Fifty-one percent approved of the former security contractor’s decision to reveal secret surveillance programs in the U.S., while 17 percent disapproved. The results had a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.
The move was “absolutely forced,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the research group Foreign and Defense Policy Council in Moscow. The U.S. refusing to allow Snowden to seek asylum in a third country left Russia with little choice, he said.
“Russia can’t give him to the U.S., for political and moral reasons,” Lukyanov said Thursday. “Russia doesn’t need Snowden — nobody knows what to do with him. But no other solution was available.”
Snowden’s presence in Russia has raised tensions with its former Cold War foe before U.S. President Barack Obama is scheduled to make his first visit to Russia since Putin was re- elected to a third term in 2012.