Is Snowden about to become a refugee in Russia?

The former NSA contractor could walk out of the Moscow airport with temporary political asylum Wednesday – much to the chagrin of the United States.

Tanya Lokshina/Human Rights Watch/AP
NSA leaker Edward Snowden looks down during a press conference at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, Friday, July 12, 2013.

Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden could walk out of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport on Wednesday as a documented Russian political refugee, according to the Kremlin-connected lawyer who's been handling his affairs.

"He should get this certificate [allowing him to leave the airport] shortly," the official Voice of Russia radio station quoted lawyer Anatoly Kucherena as saying.

Russian authorities have suggested it could take up to three months to fully process his request for political asylum. But Mr. Kucherena said a temporary document will likely be issued tomorrow that will enable him to leave the legal limbo of Sheremetyevo's transit zone – where he has now been stranded for exactly a month – and move to premises in downtown Moscow.

One straw in the wind that suggests Russian authorities may be leaning toward taking in the wayward ex-CIA employee, despite intense US pressure not to, is a timely round of statements from Russian government sources slamming the US for its "double standards" in dealing with Russian extradition requests.

The main thrust of Washington's appeal to Moscow has been that Mr. Snowden is a common criminal who should be handed over out of shared civilizational values, even though there is no formal extradition treaty between the US and Russia.

"Mr. Snowden ought to be returned to the United States to face the felony charges against him," United States Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul tweeted on Monday.

But in what looked like a coordinated pair of official blasts, Russian law enforcement agencies claimed that they have never experienced that sort of courtesy from their US counterparts.

"[Russian] law agencies have asked the US on many occasions to extradite wanted criminals through Interpol channels, but those requests were neither met nor even responded to," interior ministry spokesman Andrei Pilipchuk is quoted as saying by the Kremlin-funded, English-language news network Russia Today, which prefers to be known as RT.

And Sergei Gorlenko, head of the chief prosecutor's extradition office in Moscow, told the independent Interfax agency that "the United States has repeatedly refused Russian requests to extradite individuals, to hold them criminally liable, including those accused of committing serious crimes. We have been denied the extradition of murderers, bandits and bribetakers."

Officially, Russia has struck an ambivalent attitude toward Snowden since he arrived – completely uninvited, President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly insisted. On one hand, Mr. Putin has said from the beginning that Russia will never extradite him to the US. On the other hand, he and other Russian officials have frequently wished out loud over the past month that Snowden would just move along, and stop creating unwanted complications for an already troubled US-Russia relationship.

Many Russians have embraced the idea of taking Snowden in, largely because it would represent an impressive turning-of-cold-war-tables, in which Russia becomes a free-speech haven for dissidents fleeing the US.

But Putin has been visibly cold to the idea, perhaps out of worries that the ongoing Snowden situation could chill planned talks with President Barack Obama at the St. Petersburg G20 summit that's barely a month away, or even prompt a US-led boycott of the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics, as at least one US senator has suggested.

One piece of the puzzle regarding official Russia's attitude toward Snowden concerns the role of the lawyer, Mr. Kucherena, who has apparently enjoyed almost unrestricted access to his client in the extraterritorial no-man's land of Sheremetyevo's transit zone.

Kucherena is chairman of the law enforcement commission in Russia's Public Chamber, a semi-official assembly of Kremlin-approved civil society groups and a prominent Moscow lawyer. The Kremlin-funded RT network, which has been able to talk extensively with Kucherena, has posted a thumbnail biography of him.

But other analysts suggest Kucherena may be part of a Kremlin plan to admit Snowden to Russia, but keep him boxed in and under tight control of Russian security services.   

In other words, Snowden may successfully leap from the frying pan of Sheremetyevo's sterile transit zone, but it remains to be seen where he will land.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.