"I will now tell you something I have never said before."
That's how Vladimir Putin began his answer when he was asked a question about Edward Snowden last September.
|Who is Vladimir Putin? Pretend for a moment that you don't know anything about Putin. Pretend that you don't have the opinion that you do, about him, whatever it is. You may hear a lot of chatter from people talking about Putin but if you wanted to know who Putin is and what he thinks, why not ask him?
You don't have to believe every word Putin says. He's a politician. But if you could ask him questions about the events of the last year, and he gave long, detailed answers, you'd have something more than you have now. You could compare what he said with what he did and with other things he said later.
With information and knowledge straight from the source I develop my own ideas and opinions about what's happening in the world. More importantly, I've come to understand that the mass media isn't delivering the information I need to make up my mind about current events. I have a degree in Journalism from NYU and it's not easy to say that the mass media underreports or ignores issues of immense importance. Too often I find that the mass media delivers a canned opinion about a topic instead of information about the topic that I could use to form my own opinion.
I no longer believe I need the mass media for information. If I want to know what Putin's position is on any given topic I can find it on the Kremlin's English language website. (Yes, such a thing exists!) By using 21st century tools, I'm more informed than I'd ever be if I relied on mass media. I'm calmer and happier too. I'm convinced that the mass media induces a constant state of low-grade anxiety that leaves people angry, fearful, exhausted, and inert. It's the formula that reduces everything to a simplistic either/or conflict which must be what attracts eyeballs. To some people. it might seem like I'm taking DIY to an absurd level, like Martha Stewart growing herbs in dirt she made herself. She made a fortune, though, promoting that.
Back to the topic at hand. Putin will speak after some Russian human rights activists talk about what's been happening lately in their country. It connects directly to what Putin says later.
|What do ordinary Russians think when they see a popular uprising in the streets of Kyiv? What does it mean to them when protesters overthrow their government? Some will have to remember the mass protests that erupted in Moscow in December 2011 and the repression that followed.
A Human Rights Watch video featuring well-known Russian activists (more about that below) explains. This is crucial to understanding Russia and Ukraine today.
|I want to focus on one of the legendary human rights activists from the video.
Tanya Lokshina appears often in the Russian media as an authoritative source of information about human rights. Lokshina is a controversial and outspoken voice of anti-Putin criticism in Russia. In the photo below, taken on July 12, 2013 at Sheremetyevo Airport, during a press conference given by Edward Snowden, Lokshina, in the white blouse, is seated next to him.
|While the photo may be familiar to Americans, they only see an anonymous woman next to Snowden. However, Russians would recognize Lokshina’s iconic presence, synonymous with human rights, and defiance against Vladimir Putin in this photo. While Americans see nothing of interest, Russians, especially those interested in human rights, might study it in detail for clues.
Putin's label, “inostrannyy agent” (foreign agent), can't be pinned on Lokshina because her reputation is already established with the public in Russia. Some rightwingers there would say she's a foreign agent and a picture of her with a mysterious stranger at Sheremetyevo would be their proof. That would make Snowden an irritant to Putin, just like Lokshina.
But soon after the photo was taken Snowden was released from the airport transit area and he was given asylum in Russia. Lokshina knows Russia's laws, which strings to pull, how to use the media and attract attention to stir up public opinion by putting Russia's leaders on the spot. No one would deny her courage in a country where human rights activists have disappeared and turned up dead.
What does Putin say about all of this?
On September 4, 2013, John Daniszewski of the Associated Press conducted an interview with Vladimir Putin. It’s posted in English on the Kremlin website. It was just before the G20 Summit when the US media was in full frenzy over the use of chemical weapons in Syria. A lot of the interview focused on that topic. Daniszewski also asked about Edward Snowden and Ukraine. Putin's statements on both were remarkable.
|JOHN DANISZEWSKI: Since we are talking about legal matters, the Edward Snowden case has aroused a lot of unhappiness and frustration. What do you as a former security man think about the actions of a man like Snowden who leaks secret information he was entrusted with?
VLADIMIR PUTIN: If it was really secret information and if such a person caused us some damage, then I would certainly seek his prosecution to the fullest extent permitted by Russian law.
JOHN DANISZEWSKI: In that regard, do you think the US administration is right to seek his return from Russia, to ask you to send him back?
VLADIMIR PUTIN: Probably, yes. You see, the problem is completely different. We do not know if the administration is right or not. The thing is not that we protect Snowden. We do not protect him at all. The problem is that we do not have an agreement with the United States on mutual extradition of criminals. We repeatedly suggested that the United States should conclude such an agreement, but we were refused.
I will now tell you something I have never said before. I have dropped some hints but have never said anything like that directly. Mr Snowden first went to Hong Kong and got in touch with our diplomatic representatives. I was informed that there was such a man, agent of special services. I asked them what he wanted and was told that this man was fighting for human rights and free flow of information, against violations of related human rights and law in the United States, as well as against violations of international law. I said: "So what? If he wants to stay in this country, he is welcome, provided however that he stops any kind of activities that could damage Russian-US relations. This country is not an NGO, it has its own national interests and it does not want to sever Russian-US relations." This information was communicated to him. He said: "No, I am fighting for human rights and I urge you to join me in this fight." I answered: "No, Russia will not join him, let him fight alone." And he left, just like this.
Then he took a flight to Latin America. I learned that Mr Snowden was on the way to our country two hours before his plane landed. What happened next? Information was leaked. No offence, but I think that US special services’ agents along with diplomats should have acted with greater professionalism. After they learnt that he was on the way to our country on a transit flight, they put all possible destination countries under pressure, all countries in Latin American and Europe. But they could have allowed him to get to a country where his security could not be guaranteed or intercepted him along the way – they did the same, by the way, with the plane carrying the president of one Latin American country, which, to my opinion, was absolutely unacceptable, done in a rude fashion inappropriate for the United States or your European partners. That was humiliating. The United States could have done the same with respect to Snowden. What stopped them? Instead, they scared everyone; the man quickly decided to stay in Russia’s transit zone and got stuck in our country. What were we to do after that? Hand him over to the United States? In this case we need to sign an agreement. You do not want to? All right, hand our criminals to us instead. You do not want that either? Good. Why would you then request extradition on a unilateral basis? Why so snobbish? Both sides need to take into account each other's interests, work together and look for professional solutions.
So, we are defending specific norms governing state-to-state relations rather than Mr Snowden. I really hope that in the future, Russia and the United States will reach the relevant arrangements and formalise them as legally binding instruments.
And those who criticize Snowden by saying he never spoke up for human rights in Russia continue to make a big mistake. Snowden pictured with Lokshina is a human rights statement. From Putin's story, it doesn't sound like Snowden was shy about raising the subject of human rights at all.
I don't know why people like Stephen F Cohen, an academic who teaches Russia studies at New York University give Putin any sympathy regarding Ukraine. Cohen’s work is published by The Nation, which is edited by his spouse, Katrina vanden Heuvel, and he was recently given a platform on Democracy Now! and in the mass media. He's supposed to be a progressive.
Does he mistakenly believe Putin deserves slack because Snowden was given asylum?
He should know better. Cohen insists that Putin has been the reasonable moderate in the Ukraine situation as it went out of control. That's a fantasy.
Putin gave a press conference on December 19 and he spoke in detail about Ukraine.
|QUESTION FROM ROMAN TSYMBALYUK, UKRAINIAN INFORMATION AGENCY:
I just wanted to clarify something regarding the discount on gas. How can you explain this? You choked Ukraine with high gas prices for three years and then suddenly reduced it. Does this mean that the price was not “fraternal” before but inflated and unfair for Ukraine? You said that even now we have only a temporary arrangement and must move forward. What does that mean? Also, could you please clarify if these $15 billion are the price for Ukraine’s rejection of the EU association agreement? How much would you be willing to pay to permanently discourage Kiev from looking in Europe’s direction?
So, why have we decided to make changes to the contract now? Why have we decided to offer Ukraine these loans? Let me say again now that today’s decisions, which you all know, were taken in response to the difficulties the Ukrainian economy currently faces. These difficulties, as I said, are due to a number of different reasons.
We are not against [EU] association, but are simply saying that we will have to protect our own economy because we have a free trade zone with Ukraine, and we will not be able to leave those doors wide open in the present situation if Ukraine opens its doors wide to the European Union. We will have no choice but to close our doors.
If Ukraine adopts EU commercial standards, they won’t be able to sell to us anything at all. Do you see? So, Ukraine will immediately become – and this is just by definition, you don’t need to think about it too hard, just read the documents – an agricultural appendage to the EU.
QUESTION FROM ANTON ZHELNOV, DOZHD TV CHANNEL:
No matter what anyone tries to paste over the ugly situation to hide it or disguise it, it will always come down to this one essential fact. Ukraine can't survive without a supply of natural gas. Shell and Exxon Mobil may begin fracking in the parts of Ukraine where shale gas was discovered but energy independence for Ukraine is a long way off. The potential for escalating confrontations would only increase in the near future.
The wisest policy choice for the US is to steer clear of this cluster. But the US doesn't have a good record on making the wisest choices.