President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday said Moscow’s relations with Washington outweighed the “squabbles” over fugitive US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, who has applied for asylum in Russia.
But Putin also defended Moscow’s right to an “independent” foreign policy after the United States renewed calls for the extradition of Snowden, who is seeking to evade espionage charges for leaking details of a vast US surveillance programme.
Video: Putin seeks to calm Snowden tensions with US
Relations between states are much more important than squabbles surrounding the work of security services,” Putin said after overseeing military exercises in the far-flung eastern Siberian region of Chita.
Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor, has been marooned at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport since June 23 after revealing that Washington has been seizing huge amounts of Internet and telephone data around the world.
“Russia has an independent foreign policy and we will follow it,” Putin said in televised remarks.
“We cannot and will not behave like other countries,” he said, in an apparent reference to an incident earlier this month when several European countries closed their airspace to Bolivian President Evo Morales’s plane amid speculation that Snowden was on board.
US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, who has applied for temporary asylum in Russia, does not rule out applying for Russian citizenship, a lawyer assisting him said later on Wednesday.
“He does not rule out the possibility of asking for Russian citizenship,” prominent lawyer Anatoly Kucherena, who helped Snowden put together his asylum bid on Tuesday, told reporters. “He told me: ‘I am not going to go anywhere from Russia.’”
The latest flare-up in ties between Moscow and Washington comes as Putin is set to host US President Barack Obama for a hugely sensitive bilateral summit in Moscow followed by the G20 summit in Saint Petersburg in early September.
The White House has voiced strong opposition to Snowden’s request for a safe haven in Russia and has criticised Moscow for providing the 30-year-old with a “propaganda platform”.
“We believe there is ample legal justification for the return of Mr Snowden to the United States, where he has been charged with serious felonies,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Tuesday.
“We want to continue (the US-Russia) relationship unimpeded by this issue,” Carney said. “And we believe there is a way to move forward here that allows for Mr Snowden to return to the United States ... and for Russia to resolve this situation that they have been dealing with now for three weeks.”
On Tuesday, Snowden, whose US passport has been revoked, filed an application for temporary asylum with the Russian migration service, starting a process that could take up to three months.
He has indicated he eventually wishes to travel on to Latin America.
A request for temporary asylum is handled by Russia’s Federal Migration Service and does not require Putin’s approval.
But Putin reiterated his stance that Snowden would only be welcome to stay in Russia if he did not harm the United States with further leaks.
“We have warned Mr Snowden that any activity on his part that has to do with harming Russia-US relations is unacceptable for us,” he said.
“This is his fate and his choice,” Putin said of Snowden’s request to stay in the country. “We have our own state interests, including those directed at building Russia-US relations.”
Since flying in from Hong Kong, Snowden had remained out of sight until last Friday, when he met with a group of rights activists and lawyers in the transit zone of Sheremetyevo airport.
He later called one of the people from the meeting, pro-Kremlin lawyer Anatoly Kucherena, who helped him put together the asylum application.
On Monday, Putin accused Washington of “trapping” the American in Moscow, saying no country wanted to take in Snowden because of US pressure.
Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua have indicated they would be open to offering refuge to Snowden.