Serious countries do not start wars, hot or cold, because of defections. Fifty years ago this summer, Moscow announced that it had granted political asylum and citizenship to the greatest Western defector of the Cold War, H.A.R. “Kim” Philby. Philby’s flight to the Soviet Union was an embarrassment to the West on several levels. Not only had he been chief of the anti-Soviet counterespionage division of MI6 (the British foreign intelligence service) but, when suspicions about Philby first emerged in the mid-1950s, the Conservative government of the day publicly stood by him. To make matters worse, the cabinet minister chosen to defend Philby in the House of Commons, Harold Macmillan, had in the intervening years become prime minister.

“[I]t is not too bad but may become a nuisance,” Prime Minister Macmillan wrote phlegmatically in his diary about the Philby matter in 1963. But Macmillan didn’t break off contact with Moscow over the defection. He and U.S. President John F. Kennedy were so invested in achieving a nuclear test ban agreement with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that Macmillan refused to let the spy game influence his decisions. And the Soviets responded in kind. The Kremlin consciously chose to manage Philby’s defection to minimize any damage to superpower negotiations. Although the British defector had disappeared in January 1963, the Soviets waited to announce his whereabouts and that he had been granted asylum until after reaching agreement on the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the United States and the United Kingdom in July 1963. Khrushchev, who had just weathered a Cuban missile crisis of his own making, wanted arms control and a safer world.

Last week, following Moscow’s decision to grant temporary political asylum to Edward Snowden, U.S. President Barack Obama decided to postpone -- effectively to cancel -- a tête-à-tête with Russian President Vladimir Putin. At his press conference on Friday, Obama also suggested it was time for a “pause” to reevaluate U.S.-Russian relations. The Russians allege that Obama cancelled the summit purely because of concerns related to the former National Security Agency contractor and leaker. The Obama administration denies that Snowden was the sole cause but does not contest that it formed part of the decision.

Even though White House–Kremlin summits have taken place during worse crises than the current one, Obama’s response can hardly be considered an overreaction. Putin had left the White House with no real choice. One of the biggest rules of diplomacy between adversaries is that the spying game be kept below the level of the head of state. Indeed, the only time that spying ruined a summit during the Cold War was in May 1960, when U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, perhaps unintentionally, humiliated Khrushchev by personally taking responsibility for sending a U-2 spy plane into Soviet airspace. From Soviet-era records, we know that had Eisenhower followed the advice of his advisers and denied personal responsibility, the Paris summit would have gone ahead. But by injecting himself into the decision to spy, he raised the issue to Khrushchev’s level. To save face, the Soviet leader demanded an apology, which, of course, no American president could give.

Putin made the conscious choice to involve himself in the Snowden affair. Either he lacks the diplomatic savvy of his Kremlin predecessors or he intentionally wanted to embarrass the U.S. president. Most signs point to the latter. Putin knows more about spying and diplomatic rules than any other current head of state, indeed more than any major head of state since George H.W. Bush, who headed the CIA years before becoming president. Originally hired by the KGB as a domestic counterespionage officer, Putin spent his first decade in the shadows monitoring foreigners in Leningrad -- tourists, diplomats, businessmen. His job was to recruit the Westerners who came to Russia during détente and to detect any Russians who were too friendly with them. So Snowden is not the first idealistic American whom Putin has been trained to exploit. In 1998, after a decade of working for the mayor of St. Petersburg and then former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Putin became the head of Russia’s Federal Security Service, the post–Cold War successor to his former KGB division.

One need not believe that Putin masterminded the Snowden affair to conclude that he chose to take advantage of it. Once Snowden showed up at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, Putin had a choice about what to do with him. He did not need to make a diplomatic plaything out of the whistleblower. But he did. On June 28, less than a week after Snowden arrived, Putin called the American “a new dissident” and compared him to the Russian human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov. (The irony that Putin had been an officer in the organization that persecuted Sakharov was lost on many.) Putin did add that Snowden “must stop his activities aimed at inflicting damage to our American partners” if he wished to stay in Russia, but the stick was already firmly planted in Obama’s eye.

Under these circumstances, Obama handled the diplomatic side of the Snowden affair almost perfectly. (Whether he handled its domestic politics well is a different question.) Initially, Obama worked hard to prevent the affair from becoming a personal matter between him and Putin. The United States sought to coax Snowden, from behind the scenes, to return. When that failed, Washington made clear its disappointment and postponed the summit but did not cancel lower-level meetings between Americans and Russians. Russia still matters.

Putin’s behavior throughout the Snowden matter has been harder to understand. In the decades when the Kremlin presided over a much more powerful state, Soviet leaders usually resisted the temptation to exploit defections to score points. Today, Russia is no longer the leader of a global movement with allies on every continent, and it has even less of an interest in letting the petty and personal interfere with realpolitik. Indeed, unlike in the Cold War, Moscow and Washington now share a menu of interests besides avoiding nuclear war. As we were reminded of in the aftermath of the Boston bombing, the two countries could be helpful to each other in stopping violent extremism. 

Putin most likely considers Snowden useful for domestic reasons. The American appears to be popular in Russian polls, and anti-Americanism plays well in the hinterlands. Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine that anything Snowden has in his luggage or his head could outweigh Russia’s need to stay off of the wrong side of potential nuclear crises with Iran and North Korea. In a way, the Kremlin has hinted that it understands this. Snowden was granted only a temporary asylum that is subject to annual review; he is expendable.

So far, the White House’s only mistake is a missed opportunity. Canceling a summit embarrassed Putin, but not half as much as leading a Western boycott of the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi would. It makes little sense at this stage to take that threat off the table. However, on Friday, Obama said that he did not believe it would be appropriate to boycott the Winter Olympics because of Russia’s ban on so-called LGBT propaganda.

A wiser move would have been to announce that in light of recent events in Russia, the United States would be undertaking a reexamination of the security of its citizens at the games and asking the International Olympic Committee to do the same regarding all athletes. The threat of withdrawal would have been implied. And this announcement might have encouraged other countries with good records on defending LGBT rights, such as Canada, Norway, Spain, and the United Kingdom, to undertake a similar reexamination. Not only would this threat potentially help the gay community in Russia, it would send the right signals to LGBT athletes worldwide. 

There would have been a sweet historical irony had Obama followed the Snowden affair with a focus on LGBT rights. Sexual orientation was a major sticking point the last time U.S. citizens with top-secret information about code-breaking and surveillance sought asylum in Moscow. Back then, however, the official homophobia was American. When NSA officers William Hamilton Martin and Bernon F. Mitchell defected in 1960, Washington claimed that they betrayed their country and ran to Moscow because they were gay lovers. One wonders how Putin would have handled that defection.  

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  • TIMOTHY NAFTALI is a senior research fellow at the National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation.
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