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Vladimir Putin offers James Comey asylum: Russia taking potshots at US becoming increasingly common

James Comey's testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee did not reach any conclusion. It was yet another building block in a situation which increasingly looks bleaker. It remains to be seen whether this will end with President Donald Trump's impeachment but until we reach that tipping point, newer incidents keep pushing the United States towards the brink. Meanwhile, thanks to Trump and his mercurial ways, the country and its president has become a subject of ridicule.

Every year, Russian president Vladimir Putin spends a day taking phone calls from the common folk as he appears on the Direct Line on the state TV. This year, he decided to talk about asylums and Comey.

File image of Russian President Vladimir Putin. AP

File image of Russian President Vladimir Putin. AP

On the face of it, Putin mocked Comey as he compared him to Edward Snowden and called him “not a security service director, but a civil activist advocating a certain belief.” He ended up offering Comey asylum in Russia (just like he had to Snowden) should he face political persecution in the US.

However, look a little deeper and the "offer" is essentially a slap on US' face. Because when Russia starts to save your citizens from political persecution, you're clearly doing something wrong.

Now, Putin has a history of making outrageous statements. Only recently he said that he didn't have bad days because he wasn't a woman. Except these statements usually have a specific purpose. And more often than not they are part of a well-thought-out plan.

This is not the first time that Putin mocked the US, especially since Trump entered the White House. And this is despite parallel claims that Russia is trying to mend its relations with the US, which have been fraught since the Cold War. Putin supposedly wants to cooperate with the US on major issues like global climate, poverty, and nuclear non-proliferation. He also wants to "take their interaction in the international arena to a whole new level” – an assertion that cuts both ways in light of Putin’s other antics regarding the US. The New York Times writes about how a lot of Putin’s statements about the US are designed to “unnerve and confuse” rather than advance actual policy.

In essence, Putin’s stance towards the US has rare been truly conciliatory. And as we look back at the other statements that he or his proxies have made, a clear pattern starts to emerge.

In May 2017, Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov paid a visit to the White House — a meeting arranged only due to Putin’s insistence after nearly four years of Lavrov being denied entry under the Obama administration. Far from being about policy, the meeting seemed designed solely so that Lavrov could mock the turmoil in the White House (Comey’s firing). After observing Lavrov’s actions and temperament at the meeting and in subsequent interactions with European leaders, Politico wrote, “Lavrov was right where he has always wanted to be Wednesday: Mocking the United States while being welcomed in the Oval Office by the president himself.”

The New York Times also stated reports which came to light stating that Trump had shared classified information with Lavrov. Putin’s response was to deny this and offer to release a “record” of the meeting that he had in order to clear up the situation.

According to Bloomberg, the suggestion was sheer mockery as it is impossible to imagine the Congress making such a request of Putin. US legislators tried to answer Putin in kind as Senator Marco Rubio suggesting that if Putin sent the information by email, he "wouldn't click on the attachment," in an oblique reference to the election hacking scandal.

However, by making the offer, Putin portrayed Russia as the superior power who had nothing to hide. At the same time, Putin attacked the domestic situation in the US as he said, “It’s hard to imagine what else these people who generate such nonsense and rubbish can dream up next.”

Putin has toyed with the US on numerous occasion. Specifically in December 2016, when the then President Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats in retaliation for Russia involvement in the US election hacking episode, Putin actually acted like the bigger man as he decided against expelling US diplomatic staff. It allowed him to make statements like "we will not create problems for American diplomats. We will not expel anyone," and appear like a mature statesman. It also deepened his relationship with Trump who called the move "great".

Further back in time when Trump was just a candidate and not the president, Putin had described Trump as a “flamboyant” or “colourful” man, using a Russian word which can be translated with ambiguous connotations, from gaudy to striking to dazzling. Trump being Trump misinterpreted Putin’s comments as “a great honour” and clear praise, rather than consider the various meanings of the word. The fact that Putin could take such liberties with a US presidential candidate tells you how fearless he has become in matters relating to the US.

Then there was the 2013 New York Times open letter. In the letter, Putin wrote attacked “American exceptionalism” and the US policy of using brute force against nations that have not had the chance to embrace democracy instead of searching for peaceful solutions through international discussions. He stops short of explicitly accusing the US of pushing nations into acquiring weapons of mass destruction as they could no longer count on international law, but the implication was rather clear.

Around the same time, Russia also granted asylum to Snowden when he fled the US after leaking documents about the National Security Agency’s extensive surveillance programmes.

Now, Russia is not exactly famous for being a champion of free speech in particular and human rights in general. Granting Snowden asylum was no way in keeping with the country's stance on human rights. Instead what it intended to do, according to the Guardian, was to expose the “impotence” of the US on the international stage and to allow Putin to pose as a champion of human rights in stark comparison to the snooping, spying US.

Putin's background as a spymaster with the Russian KGB lends him great expertise in covert warfare. The image he cultivates both at home and abroad is planned well in advance and he rarely makes off-the-cuff remarks. As such when he calls Trump "colourful" or offers Comey asylum, he chips away at the image of US superiority that the world has become used to. He then starts portraying Russia — and by extension himself — as a viable superpower alternative. It affords him great power at home where he is seen as a strong leader. But more than that it also shows other countries that Russia is not to be taken lightly in the new world order.

Updated Date: Jun 16, 2017 16:00 PM

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