Snowden’s Endgame

A little bit of game theory suggests how Edward Snowden's odyssey might end.


Another day goes by, and leaker Edward Snowden is still – so we hear – in the transit area of a Moscow airport. Russia hasn’t offered him asylum yet, and he can’t easily get to the countries that have. A little bit of game theory suggests how his odyssey might end.

Game theory was a popular tool among Cold Warriors trying to figure out how to avoid everything from small conflicts to nuclear annihilation. By playing out a series of “if they do this, we’ll do that” scenarios, officials on both sides could plot their best strategies for national security several moves in advance. What made game theory especially useful was its capacity to account for adversaries who didn’t always have the same information and/or refused to cooperate with each other.

In the Snowden affair, several players have already made their moves. Snowden, for starters, has put himself in a situation where he’s unlikely to decide his own fate. Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua have offered him asylum but can do little to help him arrive on their territory. In fact, they may be happiest if he can’t take up their offers; they’d have made useful political gestures with little long-term cost.

The players left are Russia, the United States, its allies, and the airlines. For Russia, Snowden has gone from being a nice poke at the United States to a nuisance. Barack Obama has already signaled that the United States does not consider Snowden a spy, which commits himself to refusing any sort of swap. As a result, for once Vladimir Putin is in damage control mode. He needs to get Snowden out of Russia before Obama arrives for September’s G20 summit, except in the unlikely scenario that Snowden can offer him something that makes the embarrassment worthwhile.

Russia needs Snowden to leave, but the other players are stopping him. No airline wants the potential disruption to its service implied by having Snowden on board. His is one ticket they simply don’t want to sell. So if Snowden goes anywhere, it will probably be on a charter or private flight.

But even if someone will pay for Snowden’s plane – and there are plenty of candidates – American allies on Russia’s borders won’t let Snowden fly through their airspace. American power still means something in the world, and many countries would be happy to scramble a few fighters to bring Snowden’s plane back to earth. Even in Paris, there aren’t many people protesting to open up French skies.

The positions of the airlines and American allies are costing them almost nothing and are unlikely to change anytime soon, so Russia is in a quandary. I suspect that the Russians will allow Snowden to be captured in a way that saves face and leaves them looking blameless. Perhaps he will get on a plane with a supposedly safe flight path that suddenly changes. Or maybe an obscure regulation will come to light that ends his stay at the airport and leads to extradition. Whatever happens, this game is unlikely to end with Snowden as the winner – unless he thinks he’s won already.

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