Behind Russia's Ingenious Plan to Troll the United States

Brian Fung

Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, took the podium early Tuesday to disavow all knowledge of Edward Snowden's whereabouts. 

"Russia has nothing to do with Snowden's movements," he told reporters at a press conference. "He chose his route himself and didn't cross the Russian border."

The White House obviously thinks otherwise. But Russia, in a convenient position to exercise plausible deniability, isn't just trying to get the United States to back off. The Russians seem to be thoroughly enjoying the Obama administration's discomfort, if not deliberately provoking some of it themselves.

Take Monday's apparent deception, in which countless journalists leapt on board a plane bound for Cuba in hopes of scoring an interview with the flight's most infamous passenger. Snowden never showed up. Whether his absence from Flight 150 was orchestrated by the Kremlin is unclear—but if it was, that would make for one epic practical joke.

"When the president is a former spy, from time to time in this country they organize spy games, the Spy Olympic Games, and they have fun," the writer Victor Erofeyev told The New York Times. "We are people from outside, who don't understand how fun it is to put all the journalists on a plane and send them to Havana. They are having the greatest dinner tonight."

It isn't in Russia's interest to cause a full-blown international incident over the issue, of course—hence Lavrov's point that Snowden never passed through customs and therefore isn't Russia's problem. China has taken much the same approach, dealing quietly with the matter internally while taking the opportunity to needle Washington in what asymmetric ways it can—all while denying any connection to Snowden himself. Call it the Hot Potato Theory of International Relations.