Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin loves being the center of attention. And his decision not to extradite fugitive Edward Snowden to the United States has now found him at the center of an East-West standoff.
Putin is an expert in espionage. In 1975, Putin began his 16-year career with the KGB. Among his duties were spying on foreigners and counselor officials in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. His experiences were beneficial to his meteoric rise through Russia's hierarchy to become Russia's most powerful figure. For more than a decade he has ruthlessly ruled his country, and leveraged his power to maintain Russia's standing as one of the world's leading powers.
President Putin enjoys his place on the world stage. But his country is plagued by corruption and human rights abuses. Information is power, and the Russian government is a master at monitoring dissenting voices. Yet Putin's approval rating among Russians is high, in part because Russia has reasserted itself in global affairs, according to some observers.
On Tuesday, Putin gave the first direct confirmation that Edward Snowden was in an international transit area at the Moscow airport. "Mr. Snowden is a free man," Putin said, according to Russian news services, "The faster he chooses his ultimate destination, the better for us and for him." Snowden is thought to be carrying a mother lode of U.S. intelligence information. But Putin said Russia's security services, "are not engaged with him and will not be engaged." Really?
The Russian president said he would not extradite Snowden to the U.S. "As for the issue of the possibility of extradition," Mr. Putin said, "we can only send back some foreign nationals to the countries with which we have the relevant international agreements on extradition. With the United States we have no such agreement."
Putin seemed to be supportive of Snowden, and of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. "Assange and Snowden consider themselves human rights activists and say they are fighting for the spread of information." He continued, "Ask yourself this: should you hand these people over so they will be put in prison?" He concluded, "In any case, I'd rather not deal with such questions, because anyway it's like shearing a pig - lots of screams but little wool."
Putin's position is outrageous when weighed against the fact that so many Russian dissidents are in prison. For instance, some members of the punk-rock band Pussy Riot were imprisoned for staging a guerrilla performance in a Moscow cathedral. It led to a music video entitled, "Punk Prayer - Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!"
Putin has snubbed the West on a number of international issues. He has continued to support beleaguered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in that country's civil war, in the face of calls for his removal by the West. That civil war has resulted in 90,000 deaths. Russia maintains a naval base in Syria, and has long had a close alliance with the Assad regime. Putin recently said that there is no proof Syria used chemical weapons on its own people, despite the preponderance of evidence they did. And he opposes U.S. efforts to arm the Syrian rebels. Last week, he said, "If the United States ... recognizes one of the key Syrian opposition organizations, al-Nusra, as terrorist ... how can one deliver arms to those opposition members?"
The story is the same in Iran, long a close Russian ally. Putin congratulated the newly elected President of Iran, Hassan Rowhani, and promised to expand bilateral relations with that government. Iran is currently arming Assad's regime in Syria, as well as Lebanon's Hezbollah fighters, who have joined the government in that civil war. Meanwhile, Putin has said he has no doubt that Iran is adhering to international agreements on nuclear non-proliferation. He has also accused America of exaggerating Iran's intentions, "the United States uses Iran to unite Western allies against some real or non-existent threat."
New England Patriot's owner Robert Kraft learned first hand how President Putin operates. After offering the Russian president a chance to hold his Super Bowl ring, Putin pocketed it. When word of the incident made headlines, Putin had a suggestion. "I will ask a jewelry firm to make a really good and big thing, so everyone will see it is a luxury piece, made of quality metal and with a stone, so this piece will be passed from generation to generation in the team whose interests are represented by Mr. Kraft," he said. "This would be the smartest solution partners can ever achieve while tackling such a complicated international problem."
For Putin, all of the world's a stage. But one prominent Russian businessmen said of Putin, "We have two Putins. There are lots of words, but the system doesn't work." Let's hope that Russians look beyond Putin's gamesmanship and grandstanding to see that Putin is just a bad actor.