Will Putin expend Snowden for Trump?

With Trump’s presidency, Edward Snowden may be compelled to leave Russia the way he entered it.

Demonstrators Protest NSA Surveillance
The pending rapprochement between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin will have direct and perhaps immediate consequences for Snowden, writes Mitrovica [Getty]

So, this is where matters stand between a serial liar and a serial truth teller: the former is the US President-elect Donald Trump, while the latter, Edward Snowden, remains holed up in self-imposed and now precarious exile in Russia.

Beyond his many other manifest sins, Trump is busy stocking his regime with mostly old, white, male, right-wing fanatics who share many of his manifest sins, including his overt racism and zealotry.

Meanwhile, the young man who risked his freedom and his life to tell the truth by providing the world with proof that the vast, unchecked machinery of the surveillance state – which scoffs at territorial boundaries, as well as domestic and international law – is trained almost exclusively on the very citizens it’s allegedly supposed to protect.

These must be turbulent times for Snowden. Like you and me, he has witnessed the tragic, inhumane fate visited upon another youthful truth teller who also dared to reveal some of the surveillance state’s deepest secrets to his fellow citizens because his conscience demanded it.

Since August 2013, Chelsea Manning has been imprisoned for revealing the hidden truth about how war is waged ruthlessly against far too many innocents and about the remorseless soldiers and politicians who wage it with impunity.

Clearly, her will to live life confined to a prison cell for the next 32 years – often in solitary confinement – is ebbing. Spared execution, Manning has twice tried to kill herself. Absurdly, she now faces further discipline for attempting to do something by her hand the US military wanted to do by its hand – extinguish her life.

Changing tide

Surely, Snowden knows that the Doomsday clock is inching towards 12 o’clock not only for an insecure world, but for himself as well.

He knows that Trump’s pick for CIA chief, veteran congressman and rabid NSA cheerleader, Mike Pompeo, wants the “traitor” shipped back to the US quickly, tried perfunctorily, and executed swiftly.

“[Snowden] should be brought back from Russia and given due process, and I think the proper outcome would be that he would be given a death sentence,” Pompeo told a television host in February.

Apparently, the congressman’s Wild West-like notion of “due process” is meting out a “death sentence” to Snowden after what will certainly amount to a token show trial.

Of course, in February, the earth’s geopolitical axis was such that Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama weren’t sharing a shot of vodka or horseback rides in the rustic Russian countryside.

Snowden is expendable. If he's part of the price Putin might be obliged to pay to win more than just Trump's admiration.


In this frosty context, reminiscent of the Cold War, Snowden, the former NSA spook, was a welcomed, if not useful, asset to the Russian leader, who was a KGB spy himself in the bygone, but not forgotten, Soviet era.

While alarming, Pompeo’s predictable, politically charged rhetoric could be dismissed at the time as, well, predictable, politically charged rhetoric.

Eight months later, the geopolitical axis shifted unexpectedly and breathtakingly. Trump’s once inconceivable victory will reverberate – to borrow Donald Rumsfeld’s cockeyed vocabulary – in unknown and known ways.

Still, Snowden must know that the budding bromance between Trump and Putin – nurtured before, during and after an election that possibly saw Russia’s security services tilting the scales in the “Manhattan Mussolini’s” favour – will likely mean that Pompeo’s vengeful hopes could be realised sooner rather than later.

Snowden must also know that the Trump-Putin bromance is the natural consequence of the ties that bind: money and mutual authoritarian pathologies.

Expendable asset

The pending rapprochement between these two temperamentally unalike, but otherwise like-minded figures – if it comes – will have other direct and perhaps immediate consequences for Snowden.

First, Snowden’s value to Putin as a real or symbolic slap to America’s haughty face will have run its profitable course.

Putin doesn’t strike me as a sentimental politician prone to keeping qualified promises to offer safe haven to an ex-American spy who has not only lost his propaganda currency, but who may be a thorny impediment to a new and recalibrated relationship Moscow is seeking to establish with Trump.

Snowden is expendable. If he’s part of the price Putin might be obliged to pay to win more than just Trump’s admiration, then I’m sure the Illya Kuryakin lookalike (please see The Man from U.N.C.L.E) will promptly pay it and deliver Snowden to Pompeo via a direct flight from the Kremlin if need be.

Earlier this month, Snowden acknowledged the possibility that Putin could send him packing, but insisted that unenviable prospect didn’t “worry” him because he has been reassured that Russia doesn’t extradite “human rights defenders”. My goodness.

“I don’t worry about it,” Snowden said . “It’s possible. It would be crazy to dismiss the idea of this guy who presents himself as a big deal maker [Trump] as trying to make a deal.”

But American progressives are certainly worried that Trump will play “let’s make a deal” with Putin.

Like Snowden, they can read the ominous tea leaves, and have appealed to Obama for a presidential pardon as a means to repatriate their lonely hero via the express lane and to shield him permanently from the Trump regime’s bloodlust.

Obama has rejected their pleas, insisting that he cannot pardon Snowden, even if he was remotely inclined to do so.

OPINION: Edward Snowden – Whistle-blower or traitor?

With few options left, Snowden may be compelled to leave Russia the way he entered it – with a mixture of subterfuge, tradecraft and the aid of journalists who became superstar scribes after he trusted them with his trove of downloaded secrets from what writer James Bamford famously dubbed as “The Puzzle Palace”.

If he is able to get out of Russia with a little help from his friends – preferably, one suspects, before Trump’s inauguration – Snowden will then have to search for another country, led by another amenable politician prepared to grant him sanctuary while snubbing a peevish president-elect.

Reportedly, Snowden has already made asylum requests to 21 countries . Most of them said no. If someone, somewhere finally says yes, there will still be hellish logistical and diplomatic challenges to overcome.

Ultimately, if Snowden is abandoned by Putin and he fails to move to another, more agreeable zip code in time, he, like Manning, may soon call a jail home for life or he could be killed by the country that, like Manning, he took an oath to serve.

Andrew Mitrovica is an award-winning investigative reporter and journalism instructor.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.