Edward Snowden still stuck in airport. Would life in Russia be better?

Edward Snowden is expected to get papers Thursday to let him leave the Moscow airport. He might consider staying in Russia. That didn't work out so well for Soviet-era American defectors.

Maxim Shemetov/Reuters
This image shows Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow. Fugitive US spy agency contractor Edward Snowden's hopes of leaving the airport for the first time in a month were dashed on Wednesday when he failed to secure permission from Russia to leave.

Fugitive National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden won’t be getting a taste of Russian life quite as quickly as he’d expected.

After initial reports Wednesday that Mr. Snowden had received Russian government documents allowing him to leave Moscow’s airport – where he has been holed up for the past month – came the news that unexplained bureaucratic entanglements would keep the US citizen in the airport’s transit zone for at least another day.

The former spy agency contractor – wanted by the US for violating the Espionage Act by divulging the details of secret telephone and e-mail surveillance programs – is seeking temporary asylum status in Russia. Russian lawyers aiding Snowden had expected the government to issue Wednesday papers allowing Snowden to establish residence in Moscow while Russian authorities consider his asylum request. Officials say the asylum decision could take up to three months.

But whether at the airport or in Moscow, Snowden will remain an irritant in US-Russia relations – even though he seems unlikely to make public any more of the US government secrets he is thought to be carrying with him. Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month set a cessation of Snowden’s leaking activities as a condition for him remaining in Russia.

If Snowden’s stay in Moscow stretches into the fall, he would be in the Russian capital at the same time President Obama is scheduled to visit Moscow for a meeting with Mr. Putin. Mr. Obama is set to attend a G20 summit in St. Petersburg Sept. 5-6, and had accepted the Russian leader’s invitation to add Moscow to his itinerary for a bilateral meeting.

But with Russia harboring Snowden, furious members of Congress are calling on Obama to demand a venue change for the G20 summit, to snub Putin’s invitation to a bilateral summit meeting – and even to keep the US out of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The White House has indicated that a G20 venue change and an Olympics no-show are not under consideration. But Obama could still decide to opt out of the sit-down with Putin, some US officials suggest – especially since Putin snubbed Obama’s meeting of G8 leaders at Camp David last year.

Russia could also move more quickly on Snowden’s request for temporary asylum – in which case the fugitive from US justice would have the legal status to make his way to one of the Latin American countries that has offered him permanent asylum. Quick action on Snowden’s request seems all the more likely since Putin himself has indicated he prefers to see the young American bid Russia adieu.

But Snowden could still be in Russia for months to come, or even longer. A Russian lawyer who is helping Snowden with his asylum paperwork, Anatoly Kucherena, said earlier this week that Snowden has not ruled out seeking Russian citizenship.

That bit of news has some experts in US-Russia relations suggesting that Snowden might want to research the fates of other Americans fleeing the US justice system who have opted for life in Russia.

Over the past century, a few disillusioned labor leaders, soldiers, and spies fled the US for what was the Soviet Union – expecting a workers’ paradise, but instead finding dismal living conditions and obscurity, historians say.

Perhaps the case closest to Snowden’s was that of two young National Security Agency employees, William Martin and Bernon Mitchell, who in 1960 defected to the Soviet Union – chosen because it had no extradition agreement with the US – with the aim of revealing to the world details of America’s global spying activities.

At first the two were treated like heroes, according to Villanova University political scientist David Barrett. There was a press conference at Moscow’s Soviet Journalists Union, where the two whistleblowers announced that the US “gathers communications intelligence from almost all nations of the world,” according to Professor Barrett, writing recently in The Washington Post.

Back in Washington, President Eisenhower called the two men “self-confessed” traitors, while Harry Truman said they “ought to be shot” – an expression Snowden himself used in a 2009 social media forum to describe what he thought should happen to leakers.

But Messrs. Martin and Mitchell soon faded from the Russian limelight, according to Barrett, and “went on to lead long, unhappy lives in the Soviet Union.”  

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