Russia might be willing to grant asylum to Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who exposed the extent of the National Security Agency's electronic surveillance, if he asked for it, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday.
"If such a request is made, it will be considered. We'll act according to facts," the Moscow daily Kommersant quoted Mr. Peskov as saying.
That single, utterly noncommittal phrase triggered a storm of commentary on Russian social media, with some exulting in the historic turn-of-fortunes situation that nowadays makes Russia look like a potential haven for US dissidents.
"By promising asylum to Snowden, Moscow has taken upon itself the protection of those persecuted for political reasons," tweeted Alexei Pushkov, the head of the State Duma's international affairs committee. "There will be hysterics in the US. They only recognize this right for themselves."
Others suggest it's pretty odd see the Kremlin and its media surrogates lionizing Westerners who are at odd with their own governments – tax-evading French actor Gerard Depardieu was recently granted Russian citizenship by Vladimir Putin personally – at the same time Russian authorities are cracking down on even nonpolitical nongovernmental organizations accused of purveying foreign influence, driving top academics from the country with threats of prosecution, and staging a criminal trial that could lead to up to 13 years in prison for a dozen protesters who may – or may not – have deliberately fought with police during an otherwise peaceful Moscow rally over a year ago.
"It's no bad thing to offer asylum to someone who is being persecuted for his political beliefs or acts of conscience. In this sense, I would personally support this," says Sergei Davidis, a human rights lawyer and board member of Solidarnost, an opposition coalition.
"But I find it hard to keep a straight face when our Russian authorities make these declarations. Every day there are cases when political dissidents flee authoritarian central Asian countries like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and seek safety in Russia. Because Russia is allied with these states, our authorities just send these people back. Any sense of responsibility to protect human rights, or even any process to determine whether a person deserves refuge here or not, is alien to our authorities. So what could be driving this sudden concern for Snowden? Just old-fashioned propaganda considerations," Mr. Davidis says.
One of the recurring polemical themes in Russian foreign policy is to slam the West for having "double standards," such as judging pro-Western dictatorships by a totally different yardstick from anti-Western ones, a tactic that works extremely well because it is so often true. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov most recently used that line just today, in a tough statement hammering Western hypocrisy about Syria.
But, in fact, some analysts say, Russia is just returning to the former Soviet approach – minus the ideological convictions that gave it heft – in which the world is black and white, "theirs" and "ours," and little further justification is required.
"I don't think the Kremlin has any sense of irony, or cares about 'double standards' at all," says Stanislav Belkovsky, president of the independent Institute of National Strategy.
"This is just a cocky response to the US. If they can give political shelter to refugees from Russia, why, we can do the same thing to them. It's a symmetrical response, and why not?"
Pyotr Romanov, a commentator for the official RIA-Novosti agency, argues that there is no need to overthink the issue. Mr. Snowden is a whistleblower on the run, he needs help, and Russia should aid him if it can.
"Snowden did something good, he made the public aware of a great danger. Instead of drawing the right conclusions, authorities began to persecute him. He is a decent man who sounded the alarm and it's absurd for him to be punished for that, at least if we want to think of the US as a democratic state.... The man needs protection, and if he should find himself with no choice but Russia, then let it be Russia," Mr. Romanov says.
Still, in a video done for the Guardian last weekend, Snowden made it clear that, if he has to go into permanent exile, "my predisposition is to seek asylum in a country with shared values." Russia, whose own whistleblowers tend to be vilified by the media and severely punished by the justice system, might prove to be a very painful fit.