How Snowden’s revelations can change Americans’ perceptions of Russia.

Photo: Reuters

When I decided to move to Moscow from Washington, D.C., I got a worrying picture of the way in which Americans perceive Russia.

Given how America and Russia are not exactly allies at the moment, I had to get through a fair share of jokes about learning to detect bugging devices and how to throw someone off my trail if followed. Others suggested I was a spy working for the CIA – why else would I know how to speak Russian?

Clearly my decision would have not solicited these reactions if I was headed to France, Argentina, or anywhere else in the world - except for maybe Cuba or North Korea.

When Americans think of Russia, Cold War-style espionage is still the first thing that often comes to mind.

The fact that U.S.-Russian relations are at an extremely low point at the moment does not help. It is becoming de rigueur to talk about “overcoming Cold War stereotypes” in the exchange between the two countries.

As I watch the Edward Snowden case unfold here in Moscow, however, I can’t help but look at this approach with some skepticism.

Many commentators have been quick to label Snowden’s stay in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport as a Cold War redux. The fact that just a few months ago we watched the dramatic unmasking of U.S. Embassy staff member Ryan Fogle as an alleged American spy seems to substantiate the claim.

Putin’s actions in this case are aggravating tensions. By allowing Snowden to stay indefinitely in the airport, he is signaling that Snowden is more hero than traitor – and the United States more human rights violator than bastion of freedom.

Snowden is a convenient way to irritate the U.S. and deflect criticism surrounding the human rights situation in Russia by accusing America of hypocrisy.

Yet, it would be a mistake to see this behavior as an opening salvo for a new Cold War. In reality nothing has changed - Snowden’s sojourn at the Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow does not mean that Russia’s attitude towards the U.S. has worsened in any way and is unlikely to do any major long-term damage.

Rather than seeing the Snowden case as yet more evidence of Russia’s enmity towards the United States, perhaps the dispute will offer the opportunity to start a conversation beyond unhelpful stereotypes.

It might even lead to surprising observations: does the NSA scandal show that the U.S. and Russia are actually similar in some ways, at least when it comes to spying?

Americans remain deeply suspicious of Russia, and the Cold War spy stereotype only sustains this view.

But looking towards Russia in such a way means discounting the rapid and dramatic changes the country has continued to experience since the collapse of the Soviet Union more than two decades ago, particularly in terms of the state’s relationship to society.

Danielle Johnson

By looking at Russia mainly through a Cold War lens, Americans risk ignoring the actual motives behind Putin’s governance tactics – and the reasons why they have often been welcomed by the population.

The U.S. and Russia are very far apart on many issues, and Americans are right to condemn the recent onslaught against human rights and civil liberties.

But a more thoughtful discussion of the Snowden case’s significance in bilateral relations and in American politics more generally could prevent further hysteria about the coming of a new Cold War – and even establish a more solid basis for constructive and forward-thinking engagement.

Some may argue that the approach might be hindered by Putin’s reluctance to see things in the same way and his reliance on Cold War stereotypes.

But even if the Russian leader has been keen in recent years to blame all dissent in Russia on the United States fomenting an Orange style revolution, and even if he will continue to rely on the Snowden case to exert his pressure on the international arena, the current situation remains a unique opportunity for Americans to take the high road towards an improved relationship with Russia.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

Read a related opinion by 

Alexei Mukhin, general director of the Center for Political Information - "Spy games surrounding Snowden."

Latest news: Putin: Snowden can stay in Russia if he stops leaking