Edward Snowden, the contractor who worked as a systems administrator at a US National Security Agency (NSA) facility in Hawaii, arrived in Moscow from Hong Kong on June 23, apparently planning to fly to Havana the next day, but has stayed in limbo in Russia—officially in the transit passenger’s zone of Sheremetyevo International Airport, though no one has seen him there eating at a food joint or walking around. On July 1, the media reported that Snowden applied for asylum in Russia together with a number of other nations, but on July 2 the application was withdrawn after President Vladimir Putin publicly demanded Snowden stop any “anti-American” activities to stay in Russia (Interfax, July 2). Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua eventually offered Snowden asylum, but he remains in Moscow. On July 12, Snowden appeared in person in the Sheremetyevo transit zone, where he held a meeting with a group of Russian human rights officials and announced he wants to stay in Russia (RIA Novost July 12).
Anatoly Kucherena, a lawyer with strong links to the Kremlin, advised Snowden on the particulars of Russian refugee law and helped with the paperwork. “Temporary political asylum” does not exist in Russia, and permanent political asylum, while existing legally, is almost never given to anybody. Instead Russian authorities may grant refugee status, and in the end Snowden applied for “temporary refuge,” normally given to foreigners, who do not qualify as permanent refugees, but still cannot be deported, “because of humanitarian considerations.” The “temporary refuge” is typically granted for a year, but may be prolonged indefinitely. According to Kucherena, Snowden wants to stay in Russia permanently and may apply for Russian citizenship. Kucherena insisted that Snowden cannot be sent back to the United States, “since he may face death or torture” (RIA Novosti, July 16).
Two weeks ago, when Snowden had just announced he changed his mind and will not seek asylum in Russia, a person with close connections to the Russian intelligence community told Jamestown on condition of anonymity: “Snowden will not go from here anywhere, we believe.” The source told Jamestown Snowden was not in fact dwelling in the Sheremetyevo transit zone, but was residing after arrival in Moscow at a safe house or “konsperativnaya spets dacha,” controlled by the Federal Security Service (FSB). Snowden’s behavior was described as erratic, but it was believed he will eventually come around and accept the conditions announced by Putin: to cease his anti-US revelations in the public domain and cooperate. The Russian intelligence community apparently believes it owes its US counterparts a favor to gag Snowden’s public campaign of embarrassing the NSA. The source told Jamestown the US spy community has kept from public disclosure information about Russia spying on its allies in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) that was disclosed by a “recent defector.” This defector could be former KGB Colonel Alexander Poteev, who defected in 2010 and was sentenced to 25 years in absentia in Moscow in 2011. Poteev disclosed a number of Russian spies, including the 10 “illegals,” among them Anna Chapman, who were expelled from the US in 2010.
This week, in his public statements, Putin continued to express annoyance with the way the Snowden situation was developing: “We told him [Snowden], he may stay if he stops hindering our relations with the US, but he refused.” According to Putin, Snowden wants to continue to “fight for human rights” that are “being abused by the US by intruding into private lives” and “he may do that, but without us.” At the same time Putin accused the US of deliberately “blocking [Snowden] on our territory,” putting Russia in a tight spot (RIA Novosti, July 15). Later something seemed to have changed. Kucherena announced that Snowden has given assurances he will obey Putin’s terms and thereafter Putin himself told journalists: “We warned Snowden that any activity that may undermine US-Russian relations is unacceptable.” Putin added: “I do not understand why Snowden decided to stay all his life in Russia, but that is his choice” (Interfax, July 17).
The Barack Obama administration and the US Congress continue to insist that Snowden be returned to the United States, but this now seems a remote possibility. Some anxiety remains in Moscow that the US may reply to the granting of “temporary refuge status” to Snowden with sanctions, like the expansion of the so called “Magnitsky list” of Russian officials barred entry to the US for alleged human rights abuses, which was published on April 12 this year. It is also possible that Obama may embarrass Putin by shortening his visit to Russia next September to include only the G20 summit in St. Petersburg and not going to Moscow for a meeting with Putin (Kommersant, July 18).
Putin may be annoyed by the Snowden saga and by the NSA leaker’s apparent reluctance to act as a defector must act, but it seems the Russian intelligence services have insisted that keeping Snowden may work. Snowden apparently has passed on to journalists, including The Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, a database of files he had stolen from the NSA; thus, the publication of damaging revelations may continue with Snowden himself gagged and holed up somewhere in Russia. Of course, from the point of view of the Russian intelligence services Snowden’s data discs without Snowden himself to verify their validity are not of much use—not real “documents,” but a collection of files of questionable origin. On the contrary, while holding Snowden (if it is, indeed, possible to tame him into full cooperation), the Russians could work through the database during a genuine debriefing procedure and collect useful insights into the NSA’s work. Serious problems may still arise, however, if Putin decides that Snowden has once again changed his mind, broken his word and is, in fact, continuing to publicly attack the US government and the NSA, using Moscow as a cover. Russian law does not allow the arbitrary expulsion of a person given “temporary refuge status,” but Putin’s wrath is known to have bent Russian law in different directions. It is not absolutely clear whether Snowden understands the actual circumstances he is in, or the rules of the place of his refuge.