Now that Russia has granted temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, who compromised massive amounts of U.S. intelligence and surveillance secrets, the prevailing wisdom is that -- even if President Obama does attend the upcoming G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg -- he will no longer be meeting Russian President Putin for a separate sit-down. Such a boycott would run counter to U.S. interests.
Washington is obligated to express public displeasure, but let's be realistic: It's unprecedented for the Russia to extradite someone charged with espionage or leaks against the United States, and vice-versa. Of course, the fact that post-Soviet eavesdropping remains extensive and abusive would surprise no one. But is it even conceivable that we would return someone to Moscow for exposing secrets of KGB or FSB surveillance?
Tit-for-tat penalties are routine at the consular level. We have extra protections to stem the high rate of Russian tourists who overstay their U.S. visas, so Russia does the same -- even though few American tourists have reason to sneak into Russia. Russia decides to expel a few staff from our Moscow Embassy, regardless of evidence, and we expel the same number from their embassy in Washington. And so forth.
At the presidential and policy levels, however, we have interests which transcend the routine protocols of reciprocity. As Russia reverts into xenophobic autocracy, and looks to compensate for its vanished sphere of influence in the Middle East and Asia, America needs to engage before the post-Soviet vacuum and Arab Spring overflow with destructive forces. We still have a chance to not only signal our freedom agenda, but to begin fulfilling it.
Much of Putin's repressed euphoria (or schadenfreude) over the Snowden spectacle owes to the absurdity, as though Russia can credibly claim to be more transparent and respecting of individual rights than the United States of America.
Instead of "punishing" Putin by withholding of U.S. engagement and influence, next month's G-20 Summit and sidebar meeting with Putin can be an opportunity to redouble U.S. support for democracy and gay rights ahead of next year's Russian Olympics. Washington has so many reasons to admonish Russia, that have nothing to do with secrets or WikiLeaks: the Khodorkovsky and Magnitsky cases, and the wholesale decline in property rights and the rule of law; Moscow's shameless defense of Syria's homicidal regime; and many other economic, regional and global concerns.
We owe it to ourselves to meet with Putin, but we do not owe him our business. President Obama can add two days to his trip and bring a delegation of entrepreneurs and investors to the Republic of Georgia, which has been struggling under Moscow's yoke and shadow and is spitting distance from the site of the Sochi Games. Another stop could be in Ukraine, which is tilting uneasily back toward Russia but retains independent policies and interests. This is no time for America to step back diplomatically and economically, especially if the alternative is sending troops we can neither afford nor risk.
Finally, as should be clear from the statements of founder Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks phenomenon is not about putting secrets out in the public domain. The ultimate goal is a breakdown of the modern international system. Allowing Snowden to jeopardize bilateral relations between the world's two rival power centers will be a PR bonanza for Assange and for all anarchists and anti-globalists.