Edward Snowden may be expert in the arcana of electronic interception, but his knowledge of geopolitics seems a bit spotty. Else, he would not have chosen a time just after the California meeting of Presidents Obama and Xi to land in Hong Kong, a city that reverted to China 15 years ago. Both China and the United States are joined at the hip economically, and it was obvious that Beijing would not wish to provoke a tit-for-tat with Washington about harbouring a citizen of the US who has just uncovered some of the most secret of communications and methods of the country that thrives by practising the opposite of what it preaches (for others).
While US spooks would certainly be working hard on getting as much information from China, such efforts would get significantly enhanced should Snowden have been given asylum in Hong Kong. Unlike those who have run India for seven decades, the Chinese Communist Party core is never far away from calculations of cost and benefit, with the result that impulsive decisions such as Nehru’s 1948 referral of the Kashmir situation to the UN, or Indira Gandhi’s 1972 surrender to the wiles of Zulfie Bhutto at Shimla, or Vajpayee giving up the last shreds of Indian leverage on the Tibet issue three decades later, would not happen. In China’s ruling circles, ratiocination gets carried out by the brain and not the glands, which helps to explain why a country that was only half the size of India in economic terms in 1950 and only equal in size three decades later has become nearly five times bigger by 2013.
While China and the US have become expert at throwing verbal darts at each other, both have been careful to avoid turbulence in the economic relationship. Hence, there was a near-zero chance that Snowden would have been given a sanctuary in Hong Kong, no matter how attractive that city’s nightlife and expat population looked to him. His choice of Moscow as the default option was not an illogical step. President Vladimir Putin had for years given ample evidence of his independence from the dictates of the US.
While in Libya, a Dmitry Medvedev Kremlin did surrender to NATO the way it earlier had in the matter of Kosovo, when the time came for NATO to push the case of its proxies in Syria, Vladimir Putin held firm, insisting on Bashar Assad being a part of any conversation about the future of that tortured country. In conferences across the globe, Putin took positions significantly at odds with the line favoured by Washington, which is presumably why Edward Snowden clearly believed that he would get a much warmer welcome in Moscow than he enjoyed in Hong Kong. As it turned out, he was mistaken.
In Moscow airport, as in similar locations across the world, there are crevices inhabited by the security services that are invisible to the uninitiated. It is presumably in one of these that Edward Snowden has spent the whole of a month hiding not only from his own government but from the media. Vladimir Putin made it clear that the price for Snowden remaining in Russia was that he must not “further annoy” the US. This admonition goes to explain the drying up of fresh revelations about the National Security Agency and its inquisitive ways. Had Snowden managed to find his way to Ecuador, Nicaragua or Venezuela, such a gag order would most probably have been absent.
Clearly, Putin sees Snowden as a chessboard rook that should — if needed — be sacrificed to grab a queen. In this, the Russian leader is exhibiting a hard-headedness that is wholly absent in India, where for millennia (watch Prithviraj Chauhan sending back Muhammad Ghori laden with gifts after defeating the Afghan in battle) sentiment has trumped self-interest in the determination of policy. Putin could have played to the international gallery and given Snowden the same welcome mat that Jawaharlal Nehru offered the Dalai Lama in 1959. That cost India a lot in terms of the relationship with China, but clearly Vladimir Putin does not want to repeat such a fate with the US by giving Snowden anything other than temporary sufferance.
Had someone with the Russian’s mindset been in charge in India, there would have been no refusal during the 1950s of either a permanent UN Security Council seat (at the cost of China) or a rejection of the offer of Gwadar by the Sultan of Oman, which if accepted would have given the Indian Navy (rather than the Chinese, the current masters of Gwadar) primacy over that crucial waterway.
Edward Snowden’s only hope lies in the ideological followers of Nehru in South America.