One of the biggest mysteries surrounding the odyssey of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden is how he ended up trapped in the no-man's-land of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport for six weeks instead of catching the flight to Havana, Cuba that he had booked on the Russian national airline Aeroflot before he left Hong Kong on June 23?
On Monday, the pro-business Moscow daily Kommersant offered an explanation that, if true, answers that question and also raises a good many more about the role Russia may have played in the fugitive former CIA employee's flight from Hong Kong.
The newspaper's story, which it said was based on the accounts of unnamed Russian officials and other "informed sources," says that Mr. Snowden approached the Russian consulate in Hong Kong with a request for help, and even spent two days there before boarding the Aeroflot flight to Moscow with a US passport the Russians knew had already been cancelled by US officials.
Snowden failed to board an onward flight to Cuba the next day, the paper says, again citing Russian officials, because the US put intense pressure on Cuba, warning of "adverse consequences" if Snowden were allowed to board the plane. The Cubans subsequently informed Moscow that the regular Aeroflot flight would not be permitted to land in Havana if Snowden was aboard.
"A Kommersant source who is close to the US State Department confirmed that Cuba was one of the countries whose authorities had been warned by the US that any assistance provided to Snowden will lead to 'adverse consequences.' Later Vladimir Putin said that the United States 'in fact, blocked [Snowden's] further flight' to Latin America," leaving him stuck in Russia.
There seems little doubt that the US put on mega-pressure to convince nations not to help Snowden and were even apparently successful in convincing at least three European countries to deny their airspace to the official aircraft of Bolivian President Evo Morales as it left Moscow in early July, because US intelligence thought Snowden might be on board.
But news that Cuba may have also succumbed to US warnings, though it has been suggested, has never before been confirmed.
The paper offers little detail about Snowden's alleged sojourn in the Russian Hong Kong consulate, where he apparently even marked his 30th birthday.
"A Kommersant source in Russian state agencies admitted that Snowden was in the Russian diplomatic mission in Hong Kong before the flight to Moscow," the paper says.
"But our source stressed that he spent only two days there. [The official] says the consulate did not reach out to Snowden, but rather Snowden himself appealed to the Russian Consulate-General stating that he intended to request asylum in a Latin American country, and showed a valid ticket on Aeroflot's flight to Havana, via Moscow, for June 23."
According to the source, "the fugitive said that due to his human rights activities his life was in serious danger, and he requested help, referring to the international convention on the rights of refugees."
Russian experts say they believe the Kommersant story is substantially accurate.
"It's pretty clear that Snowden planned his own actions, and knew what he was doing," says Viktor Baranets, a columnist on security issues for the Moscow daily Komsomolskaya Pravda.
"On the other hand, I never thought Snowden's trip was a complete surprise for Russia. I believe our special services were watching him from the beginning. If Russian leaders say they know nothing, well, what would American leaders say if some Russian intelligence officer turned up in a US airport with secrets? I suspect everything happening around Snowden since he came here has been the result of political games," Mr. Baranets says.
Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute for Stategic Assessments in Moscow, says the Snowden saga shows that all the nations involved, including Russia, were reacting to moves made by a very smart fugitive who represents a cause that is new – and probably unwelcome – to all big governments.
"I see a fair bit of sense in the Kommersant story," Mr. Konovalov says.
"Until now I couldn't see how Russia walked smack into this Snowden affair. It struck me as very unprofessional," on the part of Russian authorities, he says.
"After all, Snowden spilled his secrets to the Guardian, not to us. He wasn't looking to work with our special services at all, but to inform the world public about a threat he perceives...
"Snowden, [Chelsea] Manning, [Julian] Assange are all a new type of people that nobody appears ready to deal with. In the past, people defected for ideological or more venal reasons, but these people are children of the new information society and believers in total freedom. Snowden probably frightens Putin as much as he scared the US establishment. Hence all the official confusion. But these people have followers in Russia, and around the world, and we probably need to expect more of this in future," he adds.