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U.S.-Russia feud over Snowden cuts both ways

Edward Snowden in Hong Kong.
(Guardian)

NEW YORK — For a wanted man, Boris Kuznetsov leads a very open life. His address, in a high-rise apartment with a view of the Manhattan skyline, is public record. He regularly updates his Facebook page with personal information and musings about the news of the day, including his own criminal case.

But Kuznetsov, a lawyer from Russia and a harsh critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, doesn’t worry about being arrested. That’s because, like former U.S. government security contractor Edward Snowden, he has found protection from prosecution in the animosity between his homeland and the United States. By granting Kuznetsov asylum since 2008, American officials have blocked Russia from pursuing charges that he spilled state secrets.

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“I feel absolutely secure here,” said Kuznetsov, who is just as confident that as long as Putin is in charge, Russia will not send Snowden back to the United States.

Other than mutual security in their adopted lands, Kuznetsov, 69, says he and Snowden, 30, have little in common. He describes the National Security Agency leaker, who was granted temporary asylum in Russia in July, as a traitor who voluntarily spilled U.S. secrets. He suspects that Snowden passed information to Russian in exchange for refuge.

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“Personally, I have a negative opinion of Snowden: I don’t like traitors,” Kuznetsov said in Russian, through a translator. Kuznetsov says that his own case in Russia is politically motivated and that he never betrayed his homeland.

But the path that has led both men to find refuge far from home is similar, and it is one that infuriates both Moscow and Washington, who accuse each other of undercutting sovereignty in the name of political one-upmanship.

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President Obama canceled a September meeting with Putin after Russia’s decision to take in Snowden. Russia responded by blaming the United States for the standoff, saying Washington had avoided signing an extradition agreement that could enable Snowden’s return to the U.S., but that would also open the door to Russians — like Kuznetsov — to be sent home to face justice.

Russia is also angry over the imprisonment in the United States of Russian citizens arrested on U.S. warrants in third countries. Most recently, it has protested Washington’s successful quest to get Lithuania to extradite a Russian citizen, Dmitry Ustinov, on charges of arms smuggling. Ustinov, 47, was arrested in April in Lithuania at the request of U.S. officials, and last month a court there approved the extradition.

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Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s special representative for human rights, described Ustinov’s arrest, and arrests of other Russian citizens at the request of the United States, as trafficking. “It is illegal in terms of the international law,” he told Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency.

Moscow also has protested the arrest in Thailand and extradition to New York of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was convicted in federal court last year on weapons charges and charges of conspiring to kill Americans. He is serving a 25-year prison term. Russia says Bout is an innocent businessman, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov vowed last year to “achieve his return to the motherland.”

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In 2011, Russian officials protested the arrest in Liberia of Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko on U.S. drug smuggling charges. Yaroshenko was flown to the United States, tried, and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Then there are cases such as Kuznetsov’s, which began in 2007, when Russian prosecutors accused him of divulging state secrets after he copied a classified document that revealed government wiretapping of a client. Kuznetsov said it was his professional duty to use the copy to defend his client and that he shared it only with Russian court officials, not the media or foreign powers.

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Still, Kuznetsov said he was sure he would be arrested “and could not rule out [his] physical destruction.” So in December 2007, he left his comfortable house in a posh Moscow neighborhood and fled to the United States. Two months later, he was granted political asylum and settled in a small apartment in New Jersey, a short drive over the George Washington Bridge from New York City.

Last April, a Moscow court issued an international arrest warrant for Kuznetsov. In July, the court ordered him arrested in absentia, just as the U.S.-Russian tug of war over Snowden reached its peak.

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Kuznetsov is relatively new to a system that has its roots in the Cold War and continues to thrive under very different circumstances.

“It has nothing to do with the Cold War,” David Major, president of the Centre for Counterintelligence and Security Studies in Falls Church, Va., said about the rival nations taking in each other’s escapees. “If you look around, you’ll find them,” said Major, a former FBI counterintelligence officer.

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In fact, one of those listening to a recent speech by Major at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., was his friend Oleg D. Kalugin, a former KGB spymaster who has lived in the United States since the mid-1990s after publicly clashing with the Kremlin. A Russian court tried Kalugin in absentia in 2002 after he testified in a U.S. court against an American charged with spying for Russia. Kalugin was convicted in absentia of treason and sentenced to 15 years in prison — payback, he says, for criticizing his ex-employer and for clashing with Putin.

Kalugin, who works with Major at the Centre for Counterintelligence and is a board member at the Spy Museum, is now a U.S. citizen. He laughs when asked whether he worries about being abducted by agents and sent back to his homeland, or of being poisoned or found dead in a questionable suicide — legendary tactics of the Russian security services, and not limited to the movies.

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“I do not,” said Kalugin, an affable man with bright blue eyes and a thick Russian accent, who lives in suburban Maryland and enjoys the music of Frank Sinatra and Doris Day. Russia, he says, does not have a history of going after its people on U.S. soil, and he says he believes that Putin does not want to revive the Cold War by engaging in James Bond-style antics.

“Russia today is cautious,” Kalugin said. He said Putin had no choice but to accept Snowden once the American had arrived at Moscow’s airport, given the internal political fallout he would face if he was seen as capitulating to Washington.

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Alex Konanykhin, a Russian businessman and former banker, said Russia also was acting out of self-interest. “With Snowden, my belief is that Russia is doing the right thing for a wrong reason,” said Konanykhin, who fled to the United States in 1992, alleging that he and his fortune were under siege by corrupt Russian officials.

Konanykhin said any “civilized country” should take in a foreigner who claims persecution back home and evaluate the claim. But he said the Kremlin probably hoped to use Snowden as an eventual bargaining chip or to get revenge on the United States for cases such as his own.

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Konanykhin, who lives in New York, spent years in a U.S.-Russian tug of war and was nearly sent back to Russia by immigration officials before being granted asylum in 2007.

“My ordeal shows that though the U.S. system can be corrupted at some levels, there are checks and balances which sometimes work,” he said. “In Russia, I’d have no chance.”

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Kuznetsov agrees.

“As long as Putin remains in power, I can’t go back,” he said. “But I have saved my honor. I am not ashamed to look in the eyes of my children and grandchildren. If I had it to do again, I would do the same.”

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tina.susman@latimes.com


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