Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama and Edward Snowden are locked in a high-stakes game of Texas Hold 'Em, with a bundle on the table and cards yet to be turned up.
It's a nerve-wracking game often won by the shrewdest bluff, and NSA leaker has just placed his opening bid.
The problem is, his hole cards aren't that strong. The game now shifts to Putin's favor. Obama can only watch.
The wily former KGB operative has a number of ways to strip Snowden, a former low-level NSA and CIA technician, of his chips.
One is a double-cross. He can accept Snowden's asylum bid and then swap him for Victor Bout, a Russian arms dealer languishing in a U.S. prison, who Moscow wants back.
That would win Putin some grudging points in Washington, maybe even the public thanks of Obama. Snowden's human rights defenders would howl, but Putin couldn't care less.
Putin's other option, expediting Snowden's transfer to Cuba or elsewhere, seems as unlikely as allowing him to live out his life in Russia. Moscow has too much invested in its relationship with Washington to allow the whistleblower to smash the place-settings.
Plus, Snowden appears to be a spent force. He's fired his big guns. His promise to stop leaking while in Russian hands is meaningless: He is what he is. Besides, whatever bombshells remain are probably already in the computers of The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald, who said early on that he had thousands of classified documents, or WikiLeaks, or both.
Snowden, who badly gambled on a Hong Kong refuge, seems to be betting that a face-down card--the outrage of much of the world should he be mistreated--will turn up in his favor. Given the power politics now in play, it's not a strong hand.
Edward Snowden press conference taken by @HRW's @TanyaLokshina in Moscow airport July 12, 2013. | Photo: Tanya Lokshina, HRW | Link | Edward Snowden, Cia, Press, Russia, Press Conference, Leak, Secret, Whistleblower,
Ironically, Snowden's worst fate could be Putin's allowing him to stay in Russia.
Harold Adrian Russell "Kim" Philby, born January 1, 1912, Ambala, India, and died May 11, 1988, Moscow, Russia was a high-ranking member of British intelligence who worked as a double agent before defecting to the Soviet Union. He served as both an NKVD and KGB operative. | Photo: |
It would come at a price, needless to say. Behind closed doors, the young American might balk at giving up everything he knows to Moscow's version of the NSA, but what choice would he have? That's the ticket for admission.
Drained of all his secrets, Snowden would find Moscow a gilded cage, like Kim Philby, the famous British traitor welcomed as a hero of the Soviet Union 50 years ago.
Emptied of every tidbit about his former employer and his CIA friends, Philby was doomed to live out his life as a burnt-out shell in a dreary Moscow apartment. No amount of alcohol and philandering could stifle his bile.
However unlikely, that could be Edward Snowden's future. One can imagine him years from now, walking the snowy streets, marginally employed, with a Russian girlfriend assigned by the KGB.
One can hope that's not the young idealist's fate, but it's out of his hands.
It's Putin's move now.