ASPEN, Colo. — The former U.S. ambassador to Russia says Edward Snowden's continuing political asylum in Moscow has been an intelligence and public relations boon to President Vladimir Putin.
Michael McFaul, who left Moscow in February, told a large crowd at the Aspen Ideas Festival here that Snowden "knows things that are useful to Russian intelligence" about the inner workings of U.S. eavesdropping and surveillance. While the former diplomat said that he had no particular information that Snowden, an ex-contractor for the National Security Agency, was sharing classified information with his Russian hosts, McFaul said the Russians were probably doing everything they could to glean secrets from Snowden. If a Russian intelligence operative with Snowden's level of knowledge had showed up in the United States, he too would have been granted immediate asylum, McFaul said.
"This was just manna from heaven for the Russians," McFaul said.
Snowden has consistently denied suggestions from U.S. officials that he has given Russia classified information -- either from a computer or based on what's in his head -- in exchange for asylum there. Nevertheless, McFaul said, even if Snowden isn't sharing secrets, he handed Putin a political and PR victory by remaining in Russia. Putin embraced Snowden as a fellow spy in a television broadcast in April. And, McFaul said, Snowden has said little about Russia's own aggressive surveillance operations, which he said include recording the phone calls of American diplomats and then posting them on the Internet.
"From the Russian perspective, this has been great," McFaul told the conference.
McFaul recalled a series of high-level meetings in 2013 following Snowden's disclosures, when Obama administration officials huddled about how to contain the fallout from his revelations. McFaul took part in conversations via video teleconference, often late into the night Moscow time. "On a personal level, that guy really ruined my summer last year," McFaul joked about Snowden. But, he allowed, "The debate he raised is an important one" about the limits of U.S. intelligence gathering and personal privacy.
McFaul didn't predict how much longer Snowden might stay in Russia, but he said that the American fugitive "has options to come home" to the United States. In an interview with NBC News anchor Brian Williams in May, Snowden said that he would like to return and appeared open to the possibility of a deal with federal prosecutors that would allow him to avoid a long prison sentence. McFaul, who's now a consultant for NBC News, said he helped Williams prepare for the Snowden interview.
Turning to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, where a cease-fire ended on Wednesday with an eruption of violent clashes between the central government and Russian separatists, McFaul said that Putin could end the hostilities at any moment he chooses. If the Russian strongman were to appear on national television and tell separatist fighters battling Ukraine's fragile central government to lay down their arms, the conflict "would be over in a heartbeat," McFaul said.
McFaul dismissed suggestions that Putin wanted to effectively rebuild the former Soviet Union by taking over more territory. Instead, the diplomat said that Putin's decision to conquer and annex Ukraine's Crimean peninsula was driven by his fury over the collapse of the Ukrainian government and the ouster of then-President Viktor Yanukovych, a close Putin ally. In early 2013, McFaul said, Obama administration officials had been working hard to broker a peaceful settlement between Yanukovych and his political opponents. But when those talks ultimately failed and Yanukovych fled the capital, Putin concluded that the Americans had "duped him" and had helped install a new government that was hostile to Moscow.
"That's when [Putin] said, 'To hell with them. I'm done worrying about what [the Americans and the Europeans] think of me,'" McFaul said. "And that's when he decided to go into Crimea."