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Snowden beat the NSA. But can he survive against Putin?

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There's no indication that Edward Snowden's great ambition, when he decided to reveal secret NSA programs to the world, was to end up on Russian state television lobbing softball questions at a winking Vladimir Putin. But that's where he ended up.

That episode, which Snowden's closest allies are now calling an "error in judgment," was only a particularly severe moment in a crisis he's been facing — or refusing to face — since he arrived in Moscow last June. How can a man who positions himself as such a champion of civil rights that he was morally compelled to release US surveillance secrets and undermine US intelligence practices now justify living under the stewardship of a Russian government that is objectively far more abusive of those same civil rights?

This is what you might call chapter two of the Edward Snowden story, and so far it is a tragedy in the classical sense, of a hero brought low by his own mistakes. Figuring out how to survive in Russia, while adhering to the values that he very publicly declared when he released so many US government secrets, is in many ways a far greater challenge than the one he faced as an NSA contractor living in Hawaii. The stakes are still high. It's also a challenge that, so far, he appears far less equipped to handle.

Snowden's stumbles, which over the past week have had even allies cringing, of course do not erase whatever good he may have done with his initial leaks. But his personal legacy, which is still a matter of intense debate within the US, will shape how many people view those leaks, the values that inspired them, and the policy changes they were meant to inspire. As a matter of seeing his cause through, if for nothing else, Snowden has got to solve his Russia problem.

That would be a tremendous challenge for anyone, but Snowden's idealism — which is perhaps tinged with a degree a naïveté — have left him particularly unequipped. The same character traits that served him so well in the first chapter of his saga, releasing NSA secrets to the world, have left him poorly equipped for the second.

There have been signs of this since he first landed in Hong Kong, where he declared that he would leave his fate in the local authorities' hands, either unaware of or unconcerned by the fact that those authorities officially reported to the Communist Party in Beijing and also cared deeply about their appearance in the West. A lawyer he picked up there told the Financial Times that Snowden had been shocked to learn that he might be without a computer if he went to jail. "He is a kid. I don't think he anticipated that this would be such a big matter," the lawyer said.

The new few months were bad ones for Snowden, and for the public perception of him and his leaks. He flew to Moscow, where he lived in the airport for some weeks, flirting with the idea of moving to Cuba or Ecuador or Venezuela, all of which seemed to embody the very civil rights abuses he'd set out to challenge. Nudged or perhaps even manipulated by the famously megalomaniacal Wikileaks chief Julian Assange,  he issued a statement that has become the enduring symbol of his missteps since leaving Hong Kong, and was for his critics an affirmation of everything they'd feared:

These nations, including Russia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador have my gratitude and respect for being the first to stand against human rights violations carried out by the powerful rather than the powerless. By refusing to compromise their principles in the face of intimidation, they have earned the respect of the world.

The statement left several interpretations, all of them bad. It seemed to suggest that Snowden, for all his valid concerns about US spying practices, was blind to the civil rights abuses of non-Western countries. Or that he held them to vastly different standards (the kernel of an argument, which also builds on Snowden's decision to reveal a number of legal and appropriate US espionage programs abroad, that Snowden is motivated in part or whole by an anti-Americanism that has little to do with civil liberties). Or that he was simply compromising his ideals a bit to ensure his own personal survival.

That was the beginning of the public blowback against Snowden, in some ways wider and more persistent than the inevitable debate over the leaks themselves, and it was the beginning of Snowden's silence. Either out of fear of more bad press or a desire to quietly disappear or perhaps to avoid making trouble for his Russian hosts, he went quiet on matter of Russia and largely remained that way, save the rare public statement, for months.

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Snowden's silence was seen in the US as at best an act of self-preservation, even at the cost of the values that had landed him in Moscow, and at worst as confirmation that he was willing to go to tremendous and even admirable lengths to oppose American abuses but was untroubled by those same abuses if they were committed by Russians.

After months of silence on his host country's abuses, he appeared to finally see his problem last week. That's why, according to people close to him who spoke to the Daily Beast, Snowden chose to submit a question to Putin's annual televised news conference. A Snowden "confidant" explained to Daily Beast editor Noah Shachtman that he'd been "looking for a situation to prove his critics wrong" for months, hoping to "convey to the public that he feels the same way about mass surveillance in Russia as he did about mass surveillance in the US." But the question he asked — "Does Russia intercept, store or analyze in any way the communications of millions of individuals?" — set up Putin to assert that they did not, play down Russia's abuses while reminding people of the US's, and hint strongly that he and Snowden were of like mind on the topic.

A few days later, Snowden ran a defensive op-ed in the Guardian, a British newspaper not widely read in Russia. It's never a good sign when you have to explain to people that you didn't mean to whitewash an authoritarian government that represents everything you stand against. Still, it's reasonable to want to defend yourself against criticism and misunderstanding, and Snowden's ally in the ACLU, Ben Wizner, has said that Snowden was "genuinely surprised" by the blowback to his question for Putin.

Still, even the op-ed was another sign that Snowden appeared more concerned with defending his image in the West than with actually bringing pressure against Russian abuses; the Guardian is an outlet you use to speak to Brits and Americans. If he'd wanted to be heard within Russia, there are plenty of independent, English- and Russian-language outlets there. It would have been a great opportunity, by the way, to draw attention to the Russian outlets that are still speaking truth to power.

Snowden's obsession with proving his critics wrong is understandable, but it's a catch 22: the more he tries to protect his image with Guardian op-eds or staged questions for Putin, the more he builds his critics' case for them. This is particularly true at a moment when Russia is rapidly backsliding on human rights and free speech at home, shuttering media outlets and arresting activists while the world is distracted by the Russian invasion and annexation of Ukrainian territory. Snowden did not ask Putin to invade Crimea, of course. But his ongoing choice to accept the Russian leader's hospitality does lend his name and credibility to Putin's claims of just, moral leadership. That was what made Snowden's softball question to Putin on state TV such a serious error: the appearance of possible complicity was already just beneath the surface.

Snowden's challenge now is to find the extremely narrow space between damning silence, which risks being seen as refusing to criticize Russia, and criticism that veers into "doth protest too much" territory, as it did with his question for Putin and Guardian op-ed. Somewhere in the middle, perhaps there's a way to bring his substantial international star power to bear against Russian civil rights abuses, but without going so far as to risk his own safety; to put Putin in a position where he would have to weather the criticisms without striking back. No one can pretend that finding that path is easy. I certainly don't have the answer. But this is the challenge that Snowden took upon himself when he slipped out so many American secrets, whether he knew it or not.