First of all, would Snowden or any of his defenders have considered this sufficient in the West—to simply ask a public official whether or not he’s spying and assume that the answer is meaningful when there is absolutely no way to verify it? Is there any effective legislative oversight or political opposition in Russia? Is there any functioning investigative journalism, or do those who ask too many questions have a tendency to get beaten to death, shot, or thrown out of windows?
The Putin regime controls the media, which is mostly owned by the state or by businessmen connected to the state, and it targets critics and political rivals — such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Alexei Navalny — with arbitrary prosecutions in Kremlin-controlled courts.
In this context, does it even matter whether Czar Vladimir also spies on his subjects’ phone calls? The NSA’s spying is such a big issue in the West because we are so free. We worry about mass surveillance, even if it is supposed to be targeted at finding terrorists, because we worry that this will be a first violation of civil liberties that will lead to others. In Putin’s Russia, it would be the last violation, lost among all the others.