Russia's Federal Migration Service is processing Edward Snowden's hand-scrawled application for temporary asylum in Russia, and the former National Security Agency contractor's Russian lawyer says he might be able to walk out of Sheremetyevo airport – where he's been holed up for over three weeks – holding Russian refugee papers within a few days.
"The question of giving him temporary asylum won't take more than a week. I think that in the near future he will have the possibility to leave the Sheremetyevo transit zone," the independent Interfax agency quoted the lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, as saying.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who's treated Mr. Snowden's forced presence in the Sheremetyevo transit area as an "unwelcome gift," also appeared resigned to having the former CIA employee as a guest of Russia for the foreseeable future in remarks made to reporters during a visit to Siberia Wednesday.
"I won’t give you any details. We have warned Snowden that any activity of his that could damage US-Russian relations is unacceptable for us," Russian news agencies quoted Mr. Putin as saying.
"As I understand it, Snowden didn’t aim to spend his whole life in Russia. I don’t understand how a young man decided to do what he did, but it’s his choice," Putin added.
On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney hinted that failure to satisfactorily resolve the Snowden affair might result in "long-term problems" for US-Russia relations.
Moscow and Washington have recently been "engaging on a number of important issues, both economic and security related issues, and we want to continue that relationship unimpeded by this issue," Mr. Carney said. If Russia were to turn Snowden over, or at least expel him from the country, that would "resolve this situation that they have been dealing with now for three weeks," he added.
Carney didn't spell out the nature of the "problems" Snowden's continued presence in Russia might generate. But it's not hard to guess what they might be.
President Obama is slated to visit Russia in September to attend a G20 summit in St. Petersburg, and both sides have pinned hopes for a warming of the deepest diplomatic chill since the cold war on planned sideline meetings between Obama and Putin. It's hard to predict a positive outcome for that if Snowden is still being harbored in Russia at that point.
Another vulnerable point for Russia – where memories of the US-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games are still painfully alive – could be a similar move to shun the upcoming Sochi Winter Games, into which Russia has invested over $50 billion and much Russian prestige, over the Snowden issue.
That very threat was explicitly floated Tuesday by US Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, who told NBC news that the US should consider leading a Sochi boycott to let the Russians know that "enough is enough" if they won't hand Snowden over.
"I love the Olympics, but I hate what the Russian government is doing throughout the world," Senator Graham is quoted as saying. "If they give asylum to a person who I believe has committed treason against the United States, that's taking it to a new level."
There seems little doubt that Putin is sensitive to such talk. In his remarks to journalists Wednesday he reiterated that Russia would take steps to ensure that Snowden will inflict no harm on the US during his stay in Russia, and he seemed to dismiss the whole matter as a minor tiff between spy agencies that shouldn't be allowed to interfere with serious politics.
"International relations, in my opinion, are more important than the special services' hassles," the official RIA-Novosti quoted Putin as saying.
A home in Russia?
In a lengthy interview with the Kremlin-funded English-language TV network Russia Today, which prefers to be called RT, Snowden's lawyer Mr. Kucherena said that his client had told him that Putin's demand that he do no further damage to US interests was "attainable."
"I believe that [Snowden] will be true to his word," said Kucherena, who has met three times with the ex-NSA contractor in Sheremetyevo, and says he questioned him deeply about his motives, beliefs, and intentions.
"From his replies, I can understand that he is an adamant human rights activist and when he says that his past employment duties blatantly violated universal human rights, he says it sincerely. Because he, unlike someone else, understands that he used certain methods to spy on people, to read their communication."
Kucherena said Snowden refuses to return to the US because he does not believe he will be treated humanely or get a fair trial.
"He fears for his life and well being.... [H]e is also afraid of torture, and that he could get executed. And what he says sounds quite convincing, because the US still administers capital punishment and torture," he said.
Political asylum in Russia would provide Snowden with documents enabling him to live in Russia and enjoy many privileges of a Russian citizen, and be renewable annually, he added.
"I’m not eliminating [the possibility that he might remain permanently] because he told me that he would like to stay in Russia. [In this case] he will become a citizen with all rights and privileges," Kucherena told RT.