One week after Edward Snowden's application for temporary asylum he has not yet obtained transit documents or left the airport in Moscow as many had expected. His lawyers claim that, given the special nature of this case, the U.S. is the predominant factor in Russia's deliberations on how to handle the issue. The U.S.-Russia feud is lively but ultimately innocuous, a tacit agreement between Presidents Obama and Putin that neither embarrasses either side nor harms either country's core interests.
The possibility of Russia granting asylum to Snowden should not come as a surprise to anyone, whether independent observers or the U.S. government. With Putin's tough manner, he will certainly not bow to pressure from Washington and extradite Snowden. He made it clear early on that the former National Security Agency contractor has only holed up in Moscow because U.S. threats have prompted other countries to close their doors to him. But Putin also understands that he cannot allow the issue to ruin relations with the U.S., so he first established the condition that Snowden must stop leaking state secrets.
Even if Russia grants Snowden asylum in the end, one must remember that this is only a temporary measure, meaning that Snowden would have to apply again after one year. If relations greatly improve between the U.S. and Russia in the interim, or if Snowden fails to honor his promise to stop leaking information, it is not impossible to imagine Putin rejecting an extension of asylum and quietly sending a generous gift to the U.S.
Meanwhile, Obama is similarly unwilling to get caught up in a deadlock with Russia, but he has kept up pressure on Russia and Latin America in response to steady public criticism of Washington being too soft in foreign affairs. Putin has succeeded in silencing Snowden, thus giving Obama a means to back down. Even if Snowden gains refugee status, he may not remain in Russia long. If he wishes to speak out again in the future, he may still attempt to move on to Latin America.
For decades the U.S. and Russia have placed grand wagers in this game of which Snowden is only one small piece. The issues of nuclear disarmament, cooperation in combating terrorism around the globe, Iranian nuclear weapons, Syria and the Korean Peninsula are all larger battles to be fought, with cooperation and competition between the two countries juxtaposed. Is Putin's strong showing with regard to Snowden a prelude to a withdrawal on other issues? Is it because whenever given an inch the U.S. seeks to take a mile? Or is it a part of larger U.S.-Russian exchanges to come at the G-20 summit? What's certain is that this one small piece has spiced up the game between the U.S. and Russia by no small measure.