Fleeing National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden pulled a vanishing act in Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport Monday by failing to show up for an Aeroflot flight to Havana that he was booked on – sending a planeload of frustrated Moscow-based journalists off for an unplanned vacation in Cuba.
Aeroflot, Russia's national airline, had confirmed Monday that Mr. Snowden was booked to fly to Cuba on a regular flight leaving Monday afternoon. But as the plane's doors closed and he was still a no-show, reporters for major news outlets who'd scrambled to buy tickets for the flight in hopes of talking with the elusive whistleblower tweeted photos of his empty seat and resigned themselves to an unwanted twelve-and-a-half hour flight.
Russian news services had reported that Snowden arrived in Moscow Sunday aboard an Aeroflot flight from Hong Kong. An unidentified Aeroflot source told journalists that he and his companion, WikiLeaks official Sarah Harrison, spent the night in the "capsule" hotel Vozdushni Express inside Sheremetyevo's transit area. Reporters saw the ambassador of Ecuador, the country to which Snowden has applied for asylum, arrive and go inside the transit zone. But there have been no independently confirmed sightings of Snowden himself.
Though Snowden himself remains invisible, Ecuador's foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño Aroca, read out a statement from him – reported by the Guardian – in which he compares himself with Bradley Manning, the former US army private currently on trial for handing hundreds of thousands of classified US documents to WikiLeaks.
"Manning has been subjected to cruel and inhuman treatment. The trial of Bradley Manning is taking place now and secret witnesses have been summoned to court and secret documents have been submitted," Snowden is quoted as saying in defense of his decision to seek asylum in Ecuador.
"I think that because of the circumstances it is unlikely that I will have a fair trial or humane treatment before trial, and also I have the risk of life imprisonment or death," he added.
The apparent news that Snowden might still be in Russia could energize efforts by Washington to convince Russia to give him over, despite the fact that Russia and the US have no mutual extradition treaty.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, in several statements to the Russian media, has insisted that President Vladimir Putin has no knowledge of Snowden's whereabouts or interest in his itinerary. "Overall, we have no information about [Snowden]," he told the independent Interfax agency Monday.
Overnight, the US appealed urgently to Russia to see Snowden as an acid test of partnership and the security cooperation Moscow has been hoping to get from the US in advance of the upcoming Sochi Winter Games.
"Given our intensified cooperation after the Boston marathon bombings and our history of working with Russia on law enforcement matters – including returning numerous high-level criminals back to Russia at the request of the Russian government – we expect the Russian government to look at all options available to expel Mr. Snowden back to the U.S. to face justice for the crimes with which he is charged," US National Security Council Spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement.
Speaking to journalists during a visit to New Delhi Monday, US Secretary of State John Kerry suggested that the episode is likely to damage US relations with both Russia and China if they should prove to have been officially involved in his flight.
"It would be deeply troubling, obviously, if they [Russia and China] had adequate notice, and notwithstanding that, they make the decision willfully to ignore that and not live by the standards of the law," news agencies quoted Mr. Kerry as saying.
"As a result there would be without any question some effect and impact on the relationship and consequences," he said.
Russian experts say it's highly unlikely that Snowden boarded an Aeroflot plane, without a valid US passport, and flew to Moscow without at least the acquiescence of the Kremlin.
"I'm pretty sure this could not have taken place without some level of involvement on the part of Russian and Chinese authorities," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy journal.
"Russia can resist pressure, and that's why he's here in safety. But I don't think Russia wants to keep him, even if [the Kremlin] has suggested that it would be open to that. It's one thing to show that we can't be pushed around, and quite another to have this as a permanent headache in our relations with the US," he says.
Alexei Pushkov, the chair of the State Duma's international affairs committee, told journalists Monday that the US should stop posing as the offended party, in light of the recent "red-handed" capture of an alleged CIA agent in downtown Moscow and disclosures by Snowden that the NSA and its British counterpart tried to listen to former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's phone calls during a G-20 summit in London in 2009.
"I think we should be guided by our own understanding of what we should do. We do not see any special restraint on the part of U.S. special services with regards to Russia," Mr. Pushkov told Interfax.
"If Snowden were the only problem upsetting perfect relations between Russia and the US, that would be one thing," says Alexei Makarkin, director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow.
"But as things stand now, we have different positions on all the key issues of world politics. Russia is extremely disenchanted with the US and given up all hopes of building normal relations with it. So, why would Russia trouble itself over threats that this Snowden case might worsen our ties with Washington?" he adds.