Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden may be trapped indefinitely in the extraterritorial limbo of the transit zone in Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, as a high level US-Russia diplomatic tug-of-war over his fate continues to show little hope of agreement.
WikiLeaks, the radical transparency organization that's apparently sponsoring Mr. Snowden's travels, tweeted the suggestion Wednesday that US efforts to thwart Snowden's flight could actually be leaving him no alternative but to seek political asylum in Russia: "Cancelling Snowden's passport and bullying intermediary countries may keep Snowden permanently in Russia. Not the brightest bunch at State," it said.
The US reportedly has sent a high-level team to Moscow, under William Burns, deputy secretary of state and former ambassador to Russia, to try to convince the Russians that they have sufficient legal and practical reasons to expel the passport-less fugitive into US custody.
But President Vladimir Putin, who has plenty of domestic political incentives to hang tough, has staked out a position that appears to preclude that.
"We can only extradite any foreign citizens to such countries with which we have signed the appropriate international agreements on criminal extradition," Mr. Putin told a press conference in Finland Tuesday.
"Snowden is a free person. The sooner he chooses his final destination, the better it is for him and Russia," he added.
'The longer he stays, the bigger the headache'
Snowden arrived in Moscow Sunday on an Aeroflot flight from Hong Kong that he apparently boarded without a valid passport or Russian visa, though he did apparently have an onward ticket to Cuba which he never used. Putin and other Russian officials have insisted that the Kremlin knew nothing at all about Snowden's trip to Sheremetyevo until they learned it from the media – a claim that has attracted skepticism from US authorities and others.
But, in practical terms, Snowden's options appear painfully limited.
To begin with, there are very few commercial flights he could board in Sheremetyevo that would take him directly to a country where US influence doesn't hold sway. His only gateway to Latin America, the regular Aeroflot flight to Havana – which Snowden skipped on Monday – passes over US airspace near the coast of New York state, and could legally be forced down by air controllers if US authorities ordered it.
Snowden's destination of preference, Ecuador, said Wednesday that it could take months to decide about his application for asylum. That raises the prospect that he could be stranded for the foreseeable future, in Sheremetyevo's no-man's land.
In any case, Snowden has no passport or other valid travel papers, which he would need to purchase a ticket or enter Russia legitimately. Russia does have a rule requiring foreign transit passengers to either board an outgoing plane or pass through border control within 24 hours; but experts say it is frequently waived and is often taken up on a case-by-case basis.
"This appears to be a real problem for Russian leaders and, just as Putin suggested, the longer Snowden stays in Sheremetyevo the bigger will be the headache he causes," says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute for Strategic Assessments in Moscow.
"I don't know how he ended up here, and I wouldn't put it past Russian secret services to have played a role in this. He's stuck here now, with no documents or means to buy an onward ticket. If some country, perhaps Iceland, Venezuela or Ecuador issues him valid travel papers, then he can theoretically leave. But even that wouldn't be so easy, because there are not many routes he can safely take," he adds.
Many analysts have speculated on the possible hidden rent Russia may charge Snowden for his extradition-free stay in Sheremetyevo. Mr. Konovalov suggests that Russia's FSB security service, given the former KGB's track record, probably wouldn't have passed up the opportunity to interview Snowden upon his arrival.
But Putin insisted Tuesday that Russian security agencies "have never worked with and are not working with" Snowden. And WikiLeaks tweeted Wednesday that "Mr. Snowden is not being 'debriefed' by the FSB. He is well and WikiLeaks' [Sarah] Harrison is escorting him at all times."
WikiLeaks detailed its views on Snowden's situation in a lengthy online press conference Wednesday, which featured an impassioned plea by founder Julian Assange to all world governments to aid Snowden's search for a safe haven.
A risk for Russia
Possible secret service intrigues aside, most Russian analysts say the Snowden saga has ceased to be amusing for the Kremlin. The Russian media has had a field day with Snowden's disclosures of mass NSA spying on the world, including the revelation that British and US agencies tried to listen to former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's phone calls during a 2009 G20 summit in London.
But official jeers that the US engages in "double standards" by describing Russian defectors as "political refugees," while hounding those like Snowden who have leaked intelligence to the ends of the earth, have been replaced by much more cautious rhetoric such as Putin's oddly colorful metaphor whose meaning appears to be that he wishes Snowden had never turned up in Russia.
"Just like Snowden, [Mr. Assange] considers himself a rights advocate and fights for sharing information. Ask yourself: should or should not people like these be extradited to be later put to jail?" Putin said.
"In any case, I would like not to deal with such issues because it is like shearing a pig: there's lots of squealing and little fleece," he added.
Experts say the basic reason for the change of tone may be fear of diplomatic consequences.
Russia has stepped up its security cooperation with the US in the wake of the Boston marathon bombings, and experts say it's seriously counting on American cooperation to help secure the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, which face a range of potential terrorist threats. In September, Russia will host the 2013 leaders' summit of the G20 in St. Petersburg – a major prestige event for the Kremlin, and one in which Putin is expected to hold important sideline talks with US President Obama.
"If Snowden stays in Russia, it's going to have a bad impact on US-Russia relations. I know, you might have said a month ago that they could hardly get worse. But they can," says Andrei Piontkovsky, a frequent Kremlin critic and researcher at the official Institute of Systems Analysis in Moscow.
"Even for Putin, it's getting to be too much. That's why he's expressing hope that this affair will die down, and not harm relations with the US," he adds.
Mr. Konovalov suggests there could be a reason closer to home for Russian authorities to hold Snowden at arms length. It's one thing for the Kremlin's English-language satellite news network Russia Today, known as RT, to lionize information leakers such as Assange and Snowden, and quite another for domestic Russian audiences to see Putin openly embracing an idealist bent on ripping the lid off government secrets.
"This is a new situation in the world, where a lot of the younger generation support behavior that favors complete transparency even in violation of state laws," he says. "Russian authorities are definitely not interested in encouraging such actions, because we too have a younger generation who are Internet-savvy and attracted to this new global culture. All other political considerations aside, the US message that 'this guy is a criminal' should definitely resonate with Putin."