The mystery over what will happen with former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden's on-again, off-again attempt to find refuge in Russia deepened Friday when the Kremlin suddenly announced that Russia's FSB security service was holding talks with representatives of the FBI about his case.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov made the announcement, which was reported by Russian news agencies. He added that the Kremlin is not involved in the discussions and insisted it would not lead to Mr. Snowden's extradition to the US to face charges of espionage and theft of government property over his mass leaks of alleged NSA secrets to the global media.
Reading between the lines of Mr. Peskov's statement, it appears possible that FSB experts are explaining to their FBI counterparts what measures they will take to prevent Snowden from doing further damage to US interests if he is granted some sort of temporary asylum in Russia.
"The president has demonstrated strong resolve to prevent [Snowden from doing anything to harm the US]. I have no doubts this will be so indeed, however the situation may develop further," the independent Interfax agency quoted Peskov as saying.
Asked whether Mr. Putin's oft-repeated stance that Russia will not extradite Snowden to the US has been altered, Peskov replied: "We have never surrendered anyone and we will never do so in the future."
In recent days, US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul has suggested in various tweets on the subject that perhaps Russia should simply "return" Snowden to the US, without calling it "extradition" – for which the US and Russia have no mutual treaty.
"The U.S. is not asking for 'extradition', but simply the return of Mr. Snowden. We have sent many people back to Russia," the official ITAR-Tass agency quoted Mr. McFaul as saying Thursday.
According to the English-language Moscow Times, US Secretary of State John Kerry told his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov at a recent meeting that the US "returned" 1,754 individuals over to Russia between 2007 to 2012 and was ready to hand over 101 more. However, the report says, Mr. Kerry was unable to supply a list of those people when pressed by the Russians.
Washington has been cranking up the pressure on Russia to turn Snowden over to face trial in the US, including a unanimous decision Thursday in the US Senate's Appropriations Committee to impose sanctions on Russia or any other country that harbors Snowden.
Another tack the US has taken is to address oft-repeated Russian concerns that Snowden might face the death penalty, or be tortured, if he is sent back to the US. It's a theme his lawyer has made much of in arguing that Snowden ought to be granted political asylum in Russia.
On Friday, US Attorney General Eric Holder released a letter sent to his Russian counterpart last Tuesday, assuring him that those claims are baseless.
"The United States will not seek the death penalty for Mr. Snowden should he return to the United States. The charges he faces do not carry that possibility, and the United States would not seek the death penalty even if Mr. Snowden were charged with additional, death penalty-eligible crimes," the letter said.
"Mr. Snowden will not be tortured. Torture is unlawful in the United States," it added.
Snowden has been stranded in the vast transit zone of Sheremetyevo airport for over a month, since arriving in Russia – uninvited, according to Russian officials – aboard a regular Aeroflot flight from Hong Kong on June 23. He apparently had an onward ticket to Cuba the next day, but failed to use it for reasons that remain completely unknown.
His presence in Sheremetyevo has deeply aggravated US-Russia relations, but also set up conflicts within Russia officialdom over how to deal with someone who is not a traditional defector and whose main supporters in Russia are human rights organizations with which the Kremlin is frequently at odds.
Snowden's Kremlin-connected lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, appeared confident Wednesday when he arrived at Sheremetyevo with a large brown paper bag which he told reporters contained all the paperwork necessary for his client's release from the airport's transit zone, plus a fresh suit of clothing and classical Russian literature by Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Anton Chekhov to help Snowden acclimatize to his new home.
But after several hours it became clear that there was no agreement within Russia's notoriously fractious bureaucracy about letting Snowden walk free in Moscow.
"I hope that this situation will be resolved in the nearest future. This is the first time Russia is facing such a situation, and this issue of course requires time for the immigration workers," Mr. Kucherena told journalists.
Vladimir Volokh, former deputy head of the Federal Migration Service and member of the Kremlin's Public Chamber, told Interfax Friday that there was no agreement among various Russian agencies over how to treat Snowden, and he will probably have to stay put in Sheremetyevo until a decision is made.
"He could stay in Sheremetyevo until his legal status is determined. The legislator has set the timeline of up to three months but the procedure could be extended for another three So he could be in the transit area for up to six months," Mr. Volokh is quoted as saying.
Any clear decision by Putin, of course, would change that situation instantly.