As I write this, Edward Snowden waits in a "capsule" at a new hotel at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport until he takes off for Havana at 2:05pm tomorrow afternoon. In the meantime, he has been seen by an Ecuadorian doctor and Ecuador's ambassador to Russia, and has asked Ecuador for asylum. Snowden will have spent less than 24 hours in Russia, and will not have seen any of it: he can't leave the airport as he doesn't have a Russian visa. And yet, in that short amount of time, Russia, through Snowden, has been able to score some major optics points.
To be clear: there is absolutely no way that Snowden could have pulled off this feat without cooperation of the Russians at the highest levels. First, there's the fact that Moscow immediately jumped on the Snowden story about two weeks ago, saying archly that it would consider granting Snowden asylum. The NSA leaks were not a story in Russia—the Kremlin's security forces are big and competent snoopers—but, says Miriam Elder of The Guardian, Snowden became one, with Kremlin-friendly politicians slamming the U.S. for prosecuting Snowden and saying that Russia will gladly open its arms to those the hypocritical Americans attack for speaking the truth. (I won't even comment on the irony of this, except to refer you to the Economist's classic piece on this Cold War tactic known as "whataboutism.")
Moreover, Snowden flew from Hong Kong to Moscow—and will fly Moscow to Havana—on Aeroflot. Aeroflot (which, to all you haters out there, is quite a decent airline internationally) is majority owned by the Russian government. The airport was, according to reporters on the scene, crawling with FSB agents in anticipation of Snowden's arrival. And of course it was: Snowden has some interesting information on him—there's been reports of laptops—and there's no way the Kremlin would allow a high-profile, high-value person like this to pass through without having its paws all over the logistics of it.
And then there's the question of why Snowden had to go through Moscow at all. Surely there are ways to get from Hong Kong to Ecuador without a weird hook through Moscow.
Well, why not? Why miss an opportunity to make your favorite rival and straw man look bad by rescuing the latest martyr of American evil? The Chinese quickly got rid of Snowden and found a way not to have to make the choice between souring their relations with the U.S. and having to extradite the potentially valuable Snowden. The Russians, on the other hand, are doing what they've always done: loudly, provocatively insinuating themselves into a situation that has absolutely nothing to do with them. Russia, once again, comes out as the geopolitical racketeer, showing up unannounced, and squeezing political capital out of someone else's storefront.
But what is the point? And what can Russia really do with that political capital? It's in currency not widely traded, except in Hugo Chavez Land and on Russia Today, a Kremlin-owned propaganda channel, whose editorial policy Putin discusses freely, using the term "we." It is in part a return to the Cold War politics of what's bad for America is good for Russia; and that is, in part, a reflexive self-consciousness, an inferiority complex of still, twenty years after the end of the USSR, not having regained its status as a superpower, and America's counterweight. In part, it is to fuel a domestic hysteria, a justification for turning inward, clinging to a Russian tradition that never existed, and closing itself off from the West, a place that doesn't understand Russia and sneers at it, and, increasingly, a place where Russia can't play on an equal footing, let alone compete.
That is all true, but there is also a simpleness here. Letting Snowden crash in Sheremetyevo for 21 hours cost Russia nothing. There's not much the U.S. can do to retaliate. (In fact, under Obama, when the Russians have misbehaved, the response has been a simple shrinking of the focus of the Russia portfolio, locking in just on what can get done and simply ignoring Russia the rest of the time.) And when an opportunity with low cost and an easy yield presents itself, Moscow'd be a fool not to take it. "Why does a tomcat lick his own nether regions?" asks the old Russian saying. "Because he can."