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Snowden, Putin, sheared pigs and the joys of Whataboutism

putin shear

What is Russia playing at by harboring America’s most wanted whistleblower Edward Snowden in a Moscow airport?

A brief recap: Over the weekend, Snowden arrived in Moscow from Hong Kong en route to a third country, probably Ecuador (which is already housing Julian Assange in its London embassy).  On Sunday, journalists received a number of tip offs that he was due to take an Aeroflot flight to Cuba, but when the nearly entire foreign press corps boarded the plane hoping to interview him, his seat remained empty and the hapless hacks ended up flying to the Caribbean by themselves. No one has seen Snowden since his purported arrival in Sheremetyevo.

Today, Putin broke the silence in characteristic style at a press conference during a diplomatic visit to Finland. He confirmed that the American remains in the airport transit area and that Russia would not turn hand him over. Then, in another classic turn of phase, he described the fuss over Snowden as “like shearing a piglet: there’s a lot of squealing, but there’s little wool.”

As could be expected, Russia’s willingness to assist Snowden in escaping the American government has divided opinion. “The Russians have reacted to this imbroglio in basically the worst possible way,” argued Mark Adomanis in Forbes,  by “just acting like jerks because they think they can get away with it.”

On the contrary, writes Anatoly Karlin, aka Da Russophile: “Russia’s incipient reputation as a sanctuary for Western “dissidents” is a status that is extremely valuable in international PR terms.” Besides, “would the US extradite a Russian Snowden? To even ask the question is to mockingly answer it.”

But one of the most satisfying things to come out of all this is a recent tweet from the Economist’s former Russia man and current international editor Edward Lucas: “How does #Russia treat its “whistleblowers”? With Polonium 210…#Litvinenko.”

The irony is that Lucas’s tweet is a textbook example of “whataboutism,” the very thing his august newspaper condemns as an old Soviet rhetorical ploy whereby “any criticism of the Soviet Union (Afghanistan, martial law in Poland, imprisonment of dissidents, censorship) was met with a ‘What about…’ (apartheid South Africa, jailed trade-unionists, the Contras in Nicaragua, and so forth).

Whatever else comes out of this Snowden saga, if Putin can get an Economist editor to adopt Soviet propaganda tactics, he must be doing something right.



Vadim Nikitin

Vadim Nikitin was born in Murmansk, Russia and grew up there and in Britain. He graduated from Harvard University with a thesis on American democracy promotion in Russia. Vadim's articles about Russia have appeared in The Nation, Dissent Magazine, and The Moscow Times. He is currently researching a comparative study of post-Soviet and post-Apartheid nostalgia.
Areas of Focus:
USSR; US-Russia Relations; Culture and Society; Media; Civil Society; Politics; Espionage; Oligarchs