Edward Snowden's latest attempt to stay out of U.S. hands threatens to push President Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin toward a standoff that both leaders say they want to avoid.
The U.S. is pressing Russia to expel the fugitive former security contractor, whose bid yesterday to stay in Russia while seeking safe passage to Latin America has cast a shadow on preparations by Obama and Putin for a summit in early September
Both leaders, who discussed the impasse during a previously scheduled call yesterday, have signaled that they don't want to let Snowden's case sour relations. The situation recalls Cold War-era flare-ups over spies and expulsions of diplomats that rarely had long-term consequences.
"My sense for this is that both sides, the Americans and the Russians, have tried not to let this thing blow up into something major that starts to divert the whole future of the relations," James F. Collins, who was U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Clinton administration, said in an interview.
Snowden's presence in Moscow has been the latest irritant in U.S.-Russia relations already frayed by the Obama administration's criticism of Moscow's human-rights record, the case of an alleged U.S. spy caught in Moscow in May, and their sharply divergent views of the civil war in Syria.
Snowden, 30, has been in the transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport since June 23, after he fled Hong Kong. He is now seeking to stay in Russia while routes to Latin America are blocked, according to activists who met him yesterday at the airport. Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia have indicated they are amenable to giving him asylum.
U.S. officials ratcheted up their criticism of Russia for allowing Snowden's airport meeting yesterday with human-rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
"Providing a propaganda platform for Mr. Snowden runs counter to the Russian government's previous declarations of Russia's neutrality," White House press secretary Jay Carney said. State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said the U.S. was "disappointed" that Russia facilitated the meeting.
Carney said that the U.S. and Russia have more pressing issues in front of them.
"We don't believe this should, and we don't want it to, do harm to our important relationship with Russia," he said.
The two presidents have sought to avoid raising the stakes over Snowden. Putin, a frequent critic of U.S. policy, said on July 1 that Snowden would have to stop his efforts that harm the U.S. if he wants to be considered for asylum in Russia. Obama said June 27 that he wasn't going to let Snowden's case be "elevated to the point where I've got to start doing wheeling and dealing and trading on a whole host of other issues."
A White House statement on yesterday's call between Obama and Putin said they "discussed a range of security and bilateral issues, including the status of Mr. Edward Snowden."
It isn't clear that Putin ever wanted Snowden in Moscow, said Collins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a policy research organization in Washington.
"All the signals from the beginning have been that he didn't find Mr. Snowden's presence in Sheremetyevo to be much of a positive in any way," Collins said. "It was a problem from the outset."
It remains unlikely that Putin would be willing to deliver Snowden to the U.S., he said.
"Anyone with any sense of realism never expected the Russians would just turn him over to the Americans, because they wouldn't," he said. "I think we probably wouldn't if we were in the same position."
Snowden is making his latest bid for asylum as the White House is making plans for Obama to travel to Moscow for talks with Putin just ahead of a summit of Group of 20 nations in St. Petersburg on Sept. 5-6. Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, wrote in a posting on Twitter in Russian on July 8 that he was making preparations for both of Obama's stops and looking forward to the visit.
The two leaders last met June 17 at the G-8 Summit in Northern Ireland, agreeing to pursue "enhanced bilateral engagement," including the planned Moscow meeting to work on economic and security issues.
A week later, Snowden landed at Sheremetyevo Airport for what was initially described as a transit stop en route to asylum in Ecuador or Venezuela. Since then, the U.S. has pressured allies to deny airspace rights for any plane carrying the fugitive.
Snowden is more likely to get refuge because he's now ready to commit not to harm U.S. interests, Vyacheslav Nikonov, a lawmaker in the lower house of parliament from the ruling United Russia party and part of the group that met Snowden, told reporters at the airport.
Snowden, a former worker for government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp (BAH)., has been charged with three felonies in connection with the disclosure of top-secret U.S. National Security Agency programs that collect phone and Internet data. Carney said there is "absolute legal justification" for Russia to expel him.
It will take about three weeks for the Russian authorities to decide whether to grant asylum to Snowden, Anatoly Kucherena, a lawyer and a member of the Public Chamber who attended the airport meeting, told Bloomberg News.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov yesterday repeated Russia's offer to allow Snowden to stay under the conditions previously set out by Putin.
If he is granted asylum, "it's a slap in the face to the Obama administration, and they're caught like a deer in the headlights," Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington policy center, said.
Snowden has a "serious asylum claim that should be considered fairly by Russia or any other country where he may apply," Dinah PoKempner, general counsel at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement following Snowden's meeting at the airport. "He should be allowed at least to make that claim and have it heard."
"Snowden has disclosed serious rights violations by the U.S.," the group said in a statement. "But U.S. law does not provide sufficient protection for whistle-blowers when classified information is involved."
The New York-based group isn't providing "financial support, counseling or any other support to Snowden," PoKempner said in an e-mail.
Snowden said in a letter to activists that a U.S.-led effort was making it impossible for him to travel to the Latin American countries that offered him asylum.
"We have witnessed an unlawful campaign by officials in the U.S. government to deny my right to seek and enjoy this asylum under Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," he said. "The scale of threatening behavior is without precedent."
U.S. officials have said that Snowden isn't a whistle-blower and should be held legally accountable for his actions disclosing highly classified information about U.S. intelligence programs.