Edward Snowden's Moscow sojourn stirs rumours of debriefing by Russians
Rumours of debriefing by Russians swirl as Kremlin bides its time and Washington fumes
Yes, he’s at a Moscow airport, and no, you can’t have him.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gave the first official acknowledgment of the whereabouts of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden on Tuesday and promptly rejected US pleas to turn him over.
Snowden, who is charged with violating American espionage laws, fled Hong Kong over the weekend, touching off a global guessing game over where he went and frustrating US efforts to bring him to justice.
Putin said Snowden is in the transit zone of Sheremetyevo airport and has not passed through Russian immigration, meaning he technically is not in Russia and thus is free to travel wherever he wants.
After arriving on Sunday on a flight from Hong Kong, Snowden registered for a Havana-bound flight on Monday en route to Venezuela and then possible asylum in Ecuador, but he didn’t board the plane.
Speculation has been rife that Russian security services have been talking to Snowden and might want to keep him in Russia for a more thorough debriefing, but Putin denied that.
“Our special services never worked with Mr Snowden and aren’t working with him today,” Putin said at a news conference during a visit to Finland.
Because Moscow has no extradition agreement with Washington, it cannot meet the US request, he said.
“Mr Snowden is a free man, and the sooner he chooses his final destination the better it is for us and for him,” Putin said. “I hope it will not affect the businesslike character of our relations with the US and I hope that our partners will understand that.”
US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday that the US wants Russia to show respect for the rule of law and comply with common practices when it comes to fugitives from justice.
Video: US Secretary of State John Kerry called for Russia on Tuesday to hand over accused leaker Edward Snowden, saying Washington was not looking for "confrontation".
Putin’s staunch refusal to consider deportation shows his readiness to further challenge Washington at a time when US-Russian relations are already strained over Syria and other issues, including a Russian ban on adoptions by Americans.
“Just showing America that we don’t care about our relations, we are down to basically a cold war pattern: The enemy of your government is our friend,” said Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Centre.
“The Russian administration has not come that far, but we don’t know what it’s up to,” she said.
Despite Putin’s denial, security experts believe Russia’s special services wouldn’t miss the chance to question a man who is believed to hold reams of classified US documents and could shed light on how the US intelligence agencies collect information.
Igor Korotchenko, director of the Center for Global Arms Trade and editor of National Defense Magazine, said Snowden would be of particular interest because little is known about digital espionage.
“The security services would be happy to enter into contact with Mr Snowden,” Korotchenko said.
Russia also has relished using Snowden’s revelations to turn the tables on the US over its criticism of Russia’s rights record.
Putin compared Snowden to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been given asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, saying that both men were labelled criminals but consider themselves rights activists and champions of freedom of information.
“Ask yourself a question: Should people like that be extradited so that they put them in prison?” he said. “In any case, I would prefer not to deal with such issues. It’s like shearing a piglet: a lot of squealing and little wool.”
In an apparent reference to claims that Russia could have played a role in Snowden’s exit from Hong Kong, Putin said his arrival in Moscow was a “complete surprise” and dismissed such accusations as “ravings and sheer nonsense”.
“He doesn’t need a visa or any other documents, and as a transit passenger he has the right to buy a ticket and fly wherever he wants,” Putin said.
Russian news media had reported that Snowden remained in a transit zone at the airport, which is separate from regular departure areas. He has not been seen by any of the journalists who have been roaming Sheremetyevo in search of him, furthering speculation that he had been secreted away.
The Interfax news agency, citing an unidentified airport official, said Snowden could be staying in a room in the transit zone normally reserved for flight crews and other personnel.
Legally, an arriving air passenger only crosses the border after clearing Russian immigration checks.
Kerry called for “calm and reasonableness.”
“We would hope that Russia would not side with someone who is a fugitive from justice,” Kerry said at a news conference in Saudi Arabia.