If the steady stream of reports about U.S. National Security Agency surveillance in the capitals of Europe has been playing to the benefit of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the narrative took on a wrinkle Wednesday when Italian media suggested Russia gave out USB thumb drives to spy on international delegations at last month’s G-20 summit in St. Petersburg.
Bad news? Not so much. Putin enjoys solid domestic approval ratings that have withstood all the negative press for cracking down on opposition leaders and activists like Alexei Navalny and the punk rock group Pussy Riot. Headlines blaring that he has been spying on his international rivals — which is, though it is often forgotten in the ongoing debate over privacy and surveillance, SOP for world powers — look exceedingly unlikely to change that. Remember that Moscow has been working diligently to build up its own regional trade cooperative as a bulwark to counter the influence of the E.U., and gathering intel on member nations is in keeping with that strategic imperative, one which we can safely expect to ultimately redound to Putin’s domestic-sentiment benefit.
And because Putin has not inherited, as Barack Obama has, a mantle that seems somehow inextricable (despite its tarnishment) from the American presidency — that of being the world’s leading champion of democracy — he is unlikely to suffer any serious reputational damage abroad for these revelations. Worse still for Obama is that even if the incident reminds observers that Putin’s no slouch when it come to global surveillance shenanigans, it could also help crystalize anger at the United States for its own surveillance of European political leadership. Which is to say it makes the American president seem an awful lot like his authoritarian Russian counterpart.