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U.S.-Russia feud over Snowden cuts both ways

The U.S. is angry that Russia gave asylum to leaker Edward Snowden, but Moscow also is upset – about Russians given haven in the U.S.

August 31, 2013|By Tina Susman
  • Edward Snowden in Hong Kong.
Edward Snowden in Hong Kong. (Guardian )

NEW YORK — For a wanted man, Boris Kuznetsov leads a very open life. His address, in a high-rise apartment with a view of the Manhattan skyline, is public record. He regularly updates his Facebook page with personal information and musings about the news of the day, including his own criminal case.

But Kuznetsov, a lawyer from Russia and a harsh critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, doesn't worry about being arrested. That's because, like former U.S. government security contractor Edward Snowden, he has found protection from prosecution in the animosity between his homeland and the United States. By granting Kuznetsov asylum since 2008, American officials have blocked Russia from pursuing charges that he spilled state secrets.

"I feel absolutely secure here," said Kuznetsov, who is just as confident that as long as Putin is in charge, Russia will not send Snowden back to the United States.

Other than mutual security in their adopted lands, Kuznetsov, 69, says he and Snowden, 30, have little in common. He describes the National Security Agency leaker, who was granted temporary asylum in Russia in July, as a traitor who voluntarily spilled U.S. secrets. He suspects that Snowden passed information to Russian in exchange for refuge.

"Personally, I have a negative opinion of Snowden: I don't like traitors," Kuznetsov said in Russian, through a translator. Kuznetsov says that his own case in Russia is politically motivated and that he never betrayed his homeland.

But the path that has led both men to find refuge far from home is similar, and it is one that infuriates both Moscow and Washington, who accuse each other of undercutting sovereignty in the name of political one-upmanship.

President Obama canceled a September meeting with Putin after Russia's decision to take in Snowden. Russia responded by blaming the United States for the standoff, saying Washington had avoided signing an extradition agreement that could enable Snowden's return to the U.S., but that would also open the door to Russians — like Kuznetsov — to be sent home to face justice.

Russia is also angry over the imprisonment in the United States of Russian citizens arrested on U.S. warrants in third countries. Most recently, it has protested Washington's successful quest to get Lithuania to extradite a Russian citizen, Dmitry Ustinov, on charges of arms smuggling. Ustinov, 47, was arrested in April in Lithuania at the request of U.S. officials, and last month a court there approved the extradition.

Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian Foreign Ministry's special representative for human rights, described Ustinov's arrest, and arrests of other Russian citizens at the request of the United States, as trafficking. "It is illegal in terms of the international law," he told Russia's Itar-Tass news agency.

Moscow also has protested the arrest in Thailand and extradition to New York of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was convicted in federal court last year on weapons charges and charges of conspiring to kill Americans. He is serving a 25-year prison term. Russia says Bout is an innocent businessman, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov vowed last year to "achieve his return to the motherland."

In 2011, Russian officials protested the arrest in Liberia of Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko on U.S. drug smuggling charges. Yaroshenko was flown to the United States, tried, and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Then there are cases such as Kuznetsov's, which began in 2007, when Russian prosecutors accused him of divulging state secrets after he copied a classified document that revealed government wiretapping of a client. Kuznetsov said it was his professional duty to use the copy to defend his client and that he shared it only with Russian court officials, not the media or foreign powers.

Still, Kuznetsov said he was sure he would be arrested "and could not rule out [his] physical destruction." So in December 2007, he left his comfortable house in a posh Moscow neighborhood and fled to the United States. Two months later, he was granted political asylum and settled in a small apartment in New Jersey, a short drive over the George Washington Bridge from New York City.

Last April, a Moscow court issued an international arrest warrant for Kuznetsov. In July, the court ordered him arrested in absentia, just as the U.S.-Russian tug of war over Snowden reached its peak.

Kuznetsov is relatively new to a system that has its roots in the Cold War and continues to thrive under very different circumstances.

"It has nothing to do with the Cold War," David Major, president of the Centre for Counterintelligence and Security Studies in Falls Church, Va., said about the rival nations taking in each other's escapees. "If you look around, you'll find them," said Major, a former FBI counterintelligence officer.

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