Temporary asylum for Edward Snowden in Russia is an embarrassment for the administration in Washington, and being snubbed by Vladimir Putin is a slap in the face for President Barack Obama, who is beginning to care for his legacy. However, this affair is about more than tainted images.

Persistent Cold War Mentalities

The latest showdown between Washington and Moscow further complicates the bilateral balance of assets and problems. The substance of cooperation between the U.S. and Russia is drying up, and worst-case expectations are thriving. Obama has to corral his obsessive critics on the Hill, who are still thinking in terms of “punishing the Russians,” while Putin is enjoying the applause of nostalgic patriots in Russia. The Europeans are running in circles along the old East-West paradigm.

From the perspective of U.S.-Russian relations, it might have been wiser to let Snowden slip to Venezuela. Despite all diplomatic attempts at damage control and promises to continue negotiations on reducing nuclear arms stockpiles, anti-ballistic missiles, Syria, Iran, and so on, the impact on mutual perceptions among the broader American and Russian publics is neither negligible, nor short-lived; all the stereotypes of anti-Americanism and Russo-phobia have been confirmed as highly instrumental in domestic politics on both sides. From this perspective the “reset” was only a nice try. Conservatives in the United States and Russia are united in their resolve to maintain a mind-set of permanent alert.

Given the executive branch’s precarious system of power-sharing with Congress, Barack Obama has more to worry on this front than Vladimir Putin, who can rely on his rubber-stamp Duma. Trends in Russian public opinion polls on domestic issues, however, are far from comfortable for the Kremlin. Therefore, bad news about the United States is good news for Putin and his public relations managers; the renewed capacity to frustrate the only remaining superpower provides temporary relief for unhealed wounds in the former superpower’s self-image. That is to say that the Snowden scandal did not change the fundamentals in Russian-American relations, which have been locked for the last ten years.

Special Relationships

Relations look different when seen from Europe and particularly from Germany, Russia’s preferred partner for working its lagging economic and technological modernization. To be sure, the specter of a full-scale Russian reorientation toward China―often evoked in Moscow’s propaganda and in geopolitical speculations elsewhere―is neither plausible, nor realistic. Moscow needs Berlin to play the role of best positioned and most knowledgeable mediator, when it comes to relations with the European Union.

After Putin’s reelection, the distinct trend in Russian domestic affairs toward outright authoritarianism and Soviet-style rhetoric against “interference into internal affairs” has been straining relations with Berlin. The advantages of economic cooperation are too obvious, however, for both sides to ignore opportunities for moderation. Moscow has been calling for restraint in the political sphere, but the German political class has proven immune to Moscow’s PR campaigns and attempts at high-jacking German business interests. Political observers are still on alert, but the public debate between “Putin-Bashers” and “Putin-Huggers” has just exhausted itself after months of bitter infighting.

It would have been nice to find some reprieve, but Edward Snowden’s arrival with information on the massive, covert collection of data, including Germans’, also revealed cooperation between the U.S. National Security Agency and German intelligence organizations—an embarrassing revelation for administrations in Berlin and Washington. This affair has released highly contaminated fall-out on German-American relations, because it came as a wake-up call in the middle of a German dream of partnership―even friendship―without the typical, nasty fine print. More than in any other European country, the German media is still chewing on the realization that American interests differ from those defined in Berlin―that Washington is pursuing its own agenda, irrespective of sensitivities or even vital interests “over there.”

On top of all that, Snowden is being granted political asylum in Moscow. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has since assured the Russians that―if extradited―Snowden will not be tortured, but in Germany, this promise is received as an ugly echo of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. The image of Washington as the ever-benign friend and vanguard of human rights has morphed into the Big Brother, not only watching, but also twisting the arms of friends and allies and openly talking about the unspeakable. Obamania is definitely over.

Impact on September

The campaigns for the German federal election, which had been dragging on in an atmosphere of “more of the same,” got a surprise boost. For the vast majority of the political class in Germany, Snowden and Manning are more than the Robin Hoods of the internet. The turmoil about the under-cover relationship between the NSA and the Bundesnachrichtendienst (Federal Intelligence Service, BND) may be squelched by some “No-Spy Treaty”―likely carrying secret annexes―but conveniently calming interpretations like “transatlantic drift inching on” or “anti-Americanism plain and simple” fail to appreciate the looming potential of this development.

Dmitry Suslov, a Russian commentator, got it right in his statement: “Snowden has become a catalyst and a red herring, helping to disguise U.S.-Russian differences on more controversial issues,” but the catalyst has also opened a Pandora’s box in German-American relations. German national sovereignty has become the new core issue, and it will not go away, no matter which coalition leads the country after September 2013. An open debate about the option of abandoning the easy attitude of multiple loyalties and instead redefining German interests in unambiguously continental European terms will be changing the landscape beyond bilateral relations with the United States. The Snowden scandal may even reanimate the frail spirit of a true European foreign and security policy.

Resistance to the East-West Divide

Putin, on the other hand, will continue playing the role of “spoiler” in an increasingly chaotic world. Measuring up to the United States has been the mesmerizing goal of Russian foreign policy for decades. This historical trend will not die off until the self-inflicted damage of authoritarian rule can no longer be ignored. For now, holding Snowden as a bargaining chip offers Putin additional time for grandstanding, which does not preclude protracted negotiations with the United States on Afghanistan, Iran, etc. But the Russian claim to co-chairmanship, with China, in a consolidating and growing “Alliance of Authoritarian States,” will be pushed to a new level. The game is no longer about “East versus West” or “America versus Russia,” it is about the contagious arrogance of people in power compromising democratic legitimation and the rule of law around the world.

The new fit of megalomania in Moscow has only one antidote―informed opposition by Russian citizens questioning the cost-benefit ratio of renewed imperialism versus economic growth, international competitiveness, and social cohesion at home. Putin’s insistence of Russia being based on “its own values,” which remain undefined, and of a “Russian dream”―a revealing choice of words―are nothing but opium for the masses. Growing numbers of citizens in Russia are beginning to realize the hidden agenda and the oligarchs in the Kremlin are nervous.

Western diplomacy is well advised not to fall back on old-style propaganda―not to speak of yelling and screaming. Quoting comparative numbers from international statistics is infinitely more powerful, because in the middle of Putin’s second―some would say third―presidential term, the facts are already proving the obvious: without opening the domestic debate for controversial issues, such as corruption or oligarchs and their clans, there will be no technological, economic, or social progress in Russia. The compulsive expectation of the ruling class that windfalls from energy and weapons exports will compensate for stagnant economic growth has been proven wrong. Time is running out. “They the people” are starting to ask brazen questions, and the internet is much trickier to control than broadcasts from Radio Liberty.

This, however, can be no reason for self-complacency in the West. The precarious state of the world economy, caused by lack of political control over hallowed market forces, keeps eroding the citizens’ trust in the functional capability of democratic institutions. Given complex interdependences―not to mention the power of Western vested interests―the contest of ideas for sustainable international relations is no less difficult. A new sense of urgency and openness for non-conventional solutions is needed, but consensus remains elusive.

In the meantime, it might be worthwhile to at least consider Russian accusations of double standards against Western nations that have been preaching their values for the last few decades. At times, the difference between values declared and interests pursued has been enormous. This balance must not be surrendered to the pundits.