For President Barack Obama, National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden’s globe-trotting evasion of U.S. authorities has dealt a startling setback to efforts to strengthen ties with China and raised the prospect of worsening tensions with Russia.
Indeed, Russia’s foreign minister on Tuesday called U.S. demands for Snowden’s extradition “ungrounded and unacceptable.”
Relations with both China and Russia have been at the forefront of Obama’s foreign policy agenda this month, underscoring the intertwined interests among these uneasy partners. Obama met just last week with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland and held an unusual two-day summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in California earlier this month.
Obama has made no known phone calls to Xi since Snowden surfaced in Hong Kong earlier this month, nor has he talked to Putin since Snowden arrived in Russia.
Former Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., said it wasn’t clear that Obama’s “charm offensive” with Xi and Putin would matter much on this issue. The U.S. has “very little leverage,” she said, given the broad array of issues on which the Obama administration needs Chinese and Russian cooperation.
“This isn’t happening in a vacuum, and obviously China and Russia know that,” said Harman, who now runs the Woodrow Wilson International Center.
Both the U.S. and China had hailed the Obama-Xi summit as a fresh start to a complex relationship, with the leaders building personal bonds during an hour-long walk through the grounds of the Sunnylands estate. But any easing of tensions appeared to vanish Monday following China’s apparent flouting of U.S. demands that Snowden be returned from semi-autonomous Hong Kong to face espionage charges.
White House spokesman Jay Carney, in unusually harsh language, said China had “unquestionably” damaged its relationship with Washington.
“The Chinese have emphasized the importance of building mutual trust,” Carney said. “We think that they have dealt that effort a serious setback. If we cannot count on them to honor their legal extradition obligations, then there is a problem.”
A similar problem may be looming with Russia, where Snowden arrived Sunday. He had been expected to leave Moscow for a third country, but the White House said Monday it believed the former government contractor was still in Russia.
While the U.S. does not have an extradition treaty with Russia, the White House publicly prodded the Kremlin to send Snowden back to the U.S., while officials privately negotiated with their Russian counterparts.
“We are expecting the Russians to examine the options available to them to expel Mr. Snowden for his return to the United States,” Carney said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Tuesday bluntly rejected the U.S. request, saying Snowden hasn’t crossed the Russian border. He angrily lashed out at the U.S. for warnings of negative consequences if Moscow fails to comply.
“We consider the attempts to accuse Russia of violation of U.S. laws and even some sort of conspiracy, which on top of all that are accompanied by threats, as absolutely ungrounded and unacceptable,” Lavrov said.
The U.S. has deep economic ties with China and needs the Asian power’s help in persuading North Korea to end its nuclear provocations. The Obama administration also needs Russia’s cooperation in ending the bloodshed in Syria and reducing nuclear stockpiles held by the former Cold War foes.
Members of Congress so far have focused their anger on China and Russia, not on Obama’s inability to get either country to abide by U.S. demands. However, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said in an interview with CNN on Monday that he was starting to wonder why the president hasn’t been “more forceful in dealing with foreign leaders.”
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton echoed the White House’s frustration with China. “That kind of action is not only detrimental to the U.S.-China relationship but it sets a bad precedent that could unravel the intricate international agreements about how countries respect the laws — and particularly the extradition treaties,” the possible 2016 presidential contender told an audience in Los Angeles.
Snowden fled to Hong Kong after seizing highly classified documents disclosing U.S. surveillance programs that collect vast amounts of U.S. phone and Internet records. He shared the information with The Guardian and Washington Post newspapers. He also told the South China Morning Post that “the NSA does all kinds of things like hack Chinese cellphone companies to steal all of your SMS data.” SMS, or short messaging service, generally means text messaging.
Snowden still has perhaps more than 200 sensitive documents, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said over the weekend.
Hong Kong, a former British colony with a degree of autonomy from mainland China, has an extradition treaty with the U.S. Officials in Hong Kong said a formal U.S. extradition request did not fully comply with its laws, a claim the Justice Department disputes.
The White House made clear it believes the final decision to let Snowden leave for Russia was made by Chinese officials in Beijing.
Russia’s ultimate response to U.S. pressure remains unclear. Putin could still agree to return Snowden to the U.S. But he may also let him stay in Russia or head elsewhere, perhaps to Ecuador or Venezuela — both options certain to earn the ire of the White House.
Fiona Hill, a Russia expert at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said she expected Putin to take advantage of a “golden opportunity” to publicly defy the White House.
“This is one of those opportunities to score points against the United States that I would be surprised if Russia passed up,” Hill said.
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