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Putin's Snowden game

Roman Goncharenko / ngNovember 12, 2013

Germany is considering questioning Edward Snowden in Moscow, a development likely to sour relations with the US. What is the Kremlin's role in this affair? DW asked experts in Berlin, Moscow and Washington.

A television screens the image of former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden during a news bulletin at a cafe at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport June 26, 2013. Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed on Tuesday that Snowden, sought by the United States, was in the transit area of a Moscow airport but ruled out handing him to Washington. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin (RUSSIA - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW TRANSPORT)
Image: Reuters

German-US relations are facing testing times, as Berlin is considering the possibility of questioning Edward Snowden in Russia. It comes after documents leaked by the NSA whistleblower showed that German Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile phone was tapped by US intelligence.

Several German politicians are now demanding Snowden be offered asylum in Germany, but the German government has emphatically said no to that option.

It's still unclear when and if German representatives will meet Snowden in Moscow. Former US diplomat Steven Pifer, now of eminent think tank the Brookings Institution, hopes that it will not "make the situation worse."

"There is a possibility that the Russians are going to try to use Snowden to drive wedges between Washington and Berlin. Certainly, the damage has been done and the Russians wouldn't be disappointed if Snowden would do further damage," he told DW.

No proof of Moscow connection

Could Moscow be behind Snowden's revelations, as is rumored in the worldwide media? The Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda recently said the reports about the wiretapping of Merkel's phone were an "asymmetric Russian response" to the US missile defense shield in Europe that Russia is opposed to.

Pifer doubts that is the case, but he does think that Russia is "probably quite happy" about the cooling of German-US relations.

CANNES, FRANCE - NOVEMBER 04: U.S. President Barack Obama (R), speaks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel ahead of a working session on the second day of the G20 Summit on November 4, 2011 in Cannes, France. World's top economic leaders are attending the G20 summit in Cannes on November 3rd and 4th, and are expected to debate current issues surrounding the global financial system in the hope of fending off a global recession and finding an answer to the Eurozone crisis. (Photo by Chris Ratcliffe - Pool / Getty Images)
Relations between Washington and Berlin have seen better daysImage: Getty Images

His Russian colleague Dmitri Trenin, who heads Moscow's branch of the Carnegie Center, disagrees. There might be people in Russia, he says, who are cracking open the champagne to toast the rift between Germany and the US, but there is no real benefit to Moscow, he believes.

Unless, he adds, Germany and Europe were less influenced by the US as a result. It would suit Moscow's concept of a "multipolar global order," Trenin told DW, adding that he does not believe it will come to pass. He also says there is no proof at all that Russia is behind Snowden's revelations.

Putin avoids Snowden issue

The role of the Russian president in this is the subject of much speculation. Snowden and Putin have never officially met and Putin rarely mentions his name during public functions.

The last time he spoke publicly about Snowden was on September 6, after the G20 summit in St. Petersburg. "We didn't invite him," he said at the time, claiming that Snowden landed in Moscow by accident because his passport had been annulled by US authorities.

Putin has also not commented on Snowden's revelations relating to Germany, despite the fact that he never normally misses an opportunity to criticize the US.

Bildtitel: Präsident Putin Bildbeschreibung: Russlands Putin zieht zum 3. Mal in den Kreml ein (2012) Schlagwörter: Putin, Kreml, Russland, Regierung Herkunft: DW Archiv (Euro)
Putin: We didn't invite SnowdenImage: DW

Snowden, too, has officially been sticking to an agreement with Russia not to reveal anything that could harm US-Russian relations. It is via the Western media that juicy details are normally made public.

Whistleblower or defector?

"Putin is not playing a special game," Trenin says. He thinks Snowden's revelations are useful for Russian propaganda, but Moscow would prefer for the revelations to be made from elsewhere.

Trenin thinks Snowden is a typical whistleblower, in other words someone who reveals shortcomings and injustice. He does not believe that Snowden is working with Russian intelligence. Putin, himself a former KGB agent, also denies Snowden is cooperating with intelligence services.

Pifer vehemently disagrees. Snowden, he believes, is a defector, not a whistleblower. "It would be amazing to me if Snowden has been in Russia now for four months and has had no contact with Russian intelligence services."

"If that is the case, then Russian intelligence services are not doing their job."

Russia rubbing Berlin up the wrong way?

Hans-Henning Schröder from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) doubts that Moscow is behind the Merkel cell phone scandal. "I think that is going to far," he told DW. "Russia should be aware that economic and political relations between Germany and the US are robust enough and cannot be genuinely threatened by this."

The recent meeting between Snowden and German Green party parliamentarian Hans-Christian Ströbele, however, is unlikely to have happened "without the go-ahead from high up in Russian politics," Schröder believes.

"It's surely aimed at German domestic politics," he thinks, adding that it was about "causing insecurity and disquiet within the German government," given the recent cooling of German-Russian relations.

In the last five years, the German government has repeatedly criticized domestic policies in Russia, including the treatment of civilians by Russian authorities.