In another timeline, Julian Assange may have enjoyed long walks with Edward Snowden by the Patriarch Ponds in Moscow.
Imagine that you are a dissident at risk of extradition to a jilted superpower, whose secrets you just spilled for the entire world to gawk at, and you happen to be caught up in the capital of one of its vassal states.
What do? Which Embassy do you pick?
[Map of how often countries vote with the US at the UN.]
One of your first, more elementary considerations should be that your target country would actually be willing to give you political asylum. This rules out pretty much the entire West, and America’s various vassal states in the Third World. This is the relatively easy part, and few go wrong here. Though there are exceptions. I am reminded of a particularly dim MI6 agent who tried to sell UK intelligence secrets to… the Netherlands. But say what you will of him – Assange is mostly certainly not stupid.
Second, it should be a powerful, politically stable country. For instance, Russia has never extradited Western spies back to their homelands, even during the Americanophile 1990s under Yeltsin. In contrast, while much of Latin America might be run by American-skeptical leftists these days, they have a habit of veering sharply to the right, which tends to be highly subservient to the United States there. Ecuador narrowly avoided that in 2017, when the neoliberal Guillermo Lasso – who had promised to evict Assange – was defeated by Lenin Moreno, who promised to continue Correa’s policies. But Ecuador is a small country, vulnerable to outside pressure, and in any case, as has already long been clear, Moreno is not so committed to the anti-imperialist struggle as his predecessor.
Third, it should preferably have a physically big embassy. You are potentially going to be spending a lot of time there, and being confined to a small room for years on end will be comfortable neither for you, nor for your hosts. It will be like going to prison anyway, if with more dignity. Moreover, should you get a serious medical issue, you will be in a real pickle. In fairness, this point is mostly covered by the second requirement, since the more powerful countries also tend to have the bigger Embassies. For instance, Hungary’s Cardinal Mindszenty made the right decision, opting for the US Embassy in the wake of the crushing of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956. He ended up spending 15 years there, but at least his accomodations were reasonably lavish, consisting of two rooms and his own bathroom.
Presumably, the US Embassy was not an option for Assange. So that left China or Russia.
And of these, Russia must have been the better deal. It already had much worse relations with the West in general, and the UK in particular, than China, and was even then considered likelier to stick it to the West. This was seemingly confirmed a year later, when China pressured Edward Snowden to move on from Hong Kong to Russia, to avoid a lengthy extradition battle with the US. Seeking refuge on Russian territory would also not have been as completely ideologically contradictory for a freedom of speech activist. While Russia doesn’t have much to write home about on that front, at least its Internet was more or less entirely free back then.
Hence, my article on August 16, 2012, at the height of the drama over whether Ecuador would give him refuge: “Assange Should Have Picked the Russian Embassy.” In an exchange with the blogger spandrell in the comments, I argued that this was Assange’s own choice, on the basis that his ideological values – which included strong antipathy to “authoritarian conspiracies” – were hardly compatible with the very nature of the Russian secret police state.
Well, more fool me. Julian Assange did try to claim asylum in Russia.
Only problem was: He was refused.
This would be unambiguously confirmed to me several years later by a source who must remain anonymous, but who was in a consummately first hand position to know those details. Russian diplomatic officials were apparently not happy with the decision, but the order was clear and it came from the highest levels of the Russian government. A few months ago, a senior Russia-based journalist who has excellent access to the Kremlin elites told me he heard the same.
In September 2018, AP released an investigation showing that Julian Assange sought, and received, a Russian visa in 2010 thanks to the efforts of Israel Shamir. This happened ten days after Sweden issued a warrant for his arrest over sex crimes charges, and a day after Wikileaks began releasing the US State Department cables. Julian Assange left it too late to go to Russia physically – but he was, at least, exploring this possibility.
So why did Russia, two years later, refuse Assange – their puppet, according to the mainstream Western narrative – asylum?
Israel Shamir on the pages of this webzine has suggested that it was just a function of Russians’ general suspicion towards “ideologues” of Assange’s calibre:
It is said that Assange was in cahoots with the Russians, that they guided him and provided with the stuff they hacked and even that “Wikileaks is a Front for Russian Intelligence”. As a matter of fact, Russians were extremely hesitant to have anything to do with Assange. They could not believe he was for real. Are you so naïve, they told me, that you do not understand he is a CIA trap? Such people do not exist.
It is a problem of the Russian mind: as a rule, they do not understand and do not trust Western dissidents of Assange’s ilk. They want their western sympathisers to be bought and paid for. Free agents are suspicious in their eyes. God knows there are many people in the West whose opinions roughly coincide with those of the Russians; but the Russians would prefer to buy a journalist off the peg. That’s why RT has had more than its fair share of defectors, that is of broadcasters who denounced RT and went to the Western mass media.
As the AP investigation showed, Israel Shamir may well have been in a better position to know than most of us had hitherto expected (at least assuming he was also privy to the denied asylum request).
Still, perhaps the real explanation is more banal.
Putin, like many in the Russian elite, had started off as an Anglophile, and his strongest relationship with a Western leader during the early years of his rule was with Tony Blair. The Litvinenko Affair and the South Ossetian War had certainly soured relations with the West in general, and Britain in particular, but not in a way that appeared hopeless and permanent, as has increasingly seemed to be the case since 2014. There were hopes that things would go back to normality, and I can only assume that Putin didn’t want to set himself up a headache for the next few years, if not decades.
I suppose he sort of failed at that.
For his part, Assange will have to place his hopes on the British judicial system and its political independence.