Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden is welcome to stay in Russia, but only on the condition he ceases the barrage of classified leaks that are causing serious damage to US relations with governments as far flung as China and the European Union, President Vladimir Putin said Monday.
"If he wants to go somewhere [another country] and is accepted, he can. If he wants to stay here, there is one condition: He must stop his work aimed at harming our US partners – no matter how strange this may sound coming from me," Mr. Putin told a news conference following a gas conference in Moscow.
Putin's remarks come amid feverish speculation that Mr. Snowden – who's been trapped in the transit zone of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport for over a week – already applied for political asylum in Russia.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Snowden met with Russian foreign ministry officials Monday morning and handed them a list of 15 countries he would be willing to take refuge in.
"It was a desperate measure on his part after Ecuador disavowed his political protection credentials," the Los Angeles Times quoted an unnamed foreign ministry official as saying.
"In the document Snowden reiterated once again that he is not a traitor and explained his actions only by a desire to open the world’s eyes on the flagrant violations by US special services not only of American citizens but also citizens of European Union including their NATO allies," he added.
The countries to which Snowden would like to apply are not named. But The New York Times quoted an anonymous Russian immigration official as saying that Snowden applied for political asylum in Russia on Sunday night. Other news agencies have confirmed the report.
On Monday, however, the official Russian news agency RIA-Novosti denied that report.
"The reports about Snowden requesting political asylum in Russia are untrue," the agency quoted a migration service spokesperson as saying. But Novosti followed up the denial story with one about mixed signals.
Putin's comments come amid all that uncertainty, and offer very little additional clarity.
He did reiterate his earlier insistence that Russia will not extradite Snowden to the US under any circumstances.
"Russia never gives up anyone to anybody and is not planning to," Putin said, repeating his earlier claim that Russian secret services are not working with the fugutive ex-NSA contractor. "Since he sees himself as a human rights activist and a freedom fighter for people’s rights, apparently he is not intending to stop this work. So he must choose for himself a country to move to. When that will happen? Unfortunately, I don't know," Putin added.
Several leading Russians have appealed to the Kremlin to take Snowden in, both for human rights reasons and because he's probably done more than any single person in recent years to tear down the US facade of impeccable freedom and democracy that so many Russians find irksome.
But although the Kremlin's English-language satellite TV news network, RT, has a close relationship with WikiLeaks founder and Snowden-sponsor Julian Assange – who produced a series of interview shows for the station last year – it does not seem likely that Russia, which is a locked-down national security state with a massive domestic spying program of its own, would care to openly embrace Snowden's apparent cause of total global transparency.
Hence, Putin's condition that Snowden would have to stop leaking to earn refuge in Russia may be more than just a former KGB agent's empathy with the beleaguered NSA. He's probably also got his eye on the potential domestic fallout of taking someone like Snowden to Russia's bosom.