MOSCOW — Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said Monday that former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden will have to stop leaking U.S. secrets if he wants to get asylum in Russia, but he believes that Snowden has no intention of doing so.
Putin’s statement came hours after Snowden asked for political asylum, according to the Interfax news agency, citing a consular official at the Moscow airport where the leaker has been caught in legal limbo for more than a week.
President Barack Obama said there have been high-level discussions between the U.S. and Russia about Snowden’s expulsion, though Putin repeated that Russia will not send Snowden back to the United States.
Putin’s stance could reflect a reluctance to shelter Snowden, which would hurt already strained U.S.-Russian ties. At the same time, the Russian leader seemed to keep the door open to allowing him to stay, a move that would follow years of anti-American rhetoric popular with Putin’s core support base of industrial workers and state employees.
“If he wants to go somewhere and there are those who would take him, he is welcome to do so,” Putin said at a news conference. “If he wants to stay here, there is one condition: He must stop his activities aimed at inflicting damage on our American partners, no matter how strange it may sound coming from my lips.”
Snowden has been stuck in the transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport since his arrival from Hong Kong on June 23. The U.S. has annulled his passport, and Ecuador, where he has hoped to get asylum, has been coy about whether it would take him.
The Interfax news agency quoted Kim Shevchenko, the duty officer at the Russian Foreign Ministry’s consular office in the airport, as saying that Snowden’s representative, Sarah Harrison, handed over his request for asylum late Sunday.
Putin didn’t mention his move to seek asylum in Russia, and his spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to say what the response could be.
Putin insisted that Snowden isn’t a Russian agent and that Russian security agencies haven’t contacted him.
“He’s not our agent and hasn’t cooperated with us,” Putin said at a news conference. “I’m saying with all responsibility that he’s not cooperating with us even now, and we aren’t working with him.”
Snowden doesn’t want to stop his efforts to reveal information about the U.S. surveillance program, likely because he considers himself a rights activist and a “new dissident,” Putin said.
“Just because he feels that he is a human rights defender, a rights activist, he doesn’t seem to have any intention to stop such work,” Putin said.
The newspaper Izvestia, a Kremlin mouthpiece, speculated Monday that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who is attending a summit of gas-exporting nations in Moscow, would take Snowden with him when he leaves. The newspaper, citing a Kremlin source, said Putin would discuss Snowden with Maduro during their one-on-one meeting Tuesday, but Putin said he didn’t know if any of the summit participants would help Snowden.
The U.S. has appeared to back off tough public words as it tries to broker Snowden’s return, in part to avoid increasing tensions as Obama looks for Russia’s cooperation in finding a path to peace in Syria.
Nikolai Patrushev, the head of Russia’s presidential Security Council, said in televised remarks Monday that Putin and Obama had ordered their security agencies to search for a way out of the situation: “It’s not an easy task, because they need to find a solution in the framework of international law. There is no such norm, there is no a ready recipe.” Obama would not confirm that Russian and U.S. law enforcement agencies were working together.
Three U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to publicly discuss the Snowden case, said Washington’s efforts are focused primarily on getting Russia to deport Snowden either directly to the United States or to a third country, possibly in eastern Europe, that would then hand him over to U.S. authorities.
At the same time, the officials said they are trying to discourage Maduro from getting involved, warning that it would severely impair a nascent rapprochement between the U.S. and Venezuela.
Putin’s comments come as Obama’s administration is facing a breakdown in confidence from key allies over secret programs that reportedly installed covert listening devices in EU offices. Europe’s outage was triggered by a Sunday report by German news weekly Der Spiegel that the NSA bugged diplomats from friendly nations – such as the EU offices in Washington, New York and Brussels.
The report was partly based on the ongoing series of revelations of U.S. eavesdropping leaked by Snowden.
Many European countries had so far been muted about revelations of the wide net cast by U.S. surveillance programs aimed at preventing terrorist attacks, but their reaction to the latest reports indicate Washington’s allies are unlikely to let the matter drop without at least a strong show of outrage.
Obama maintained that all nations in the world with intelligence services try to understand what other nations are thinking. He added the U.S. is still evaluating the Spiegel report, adding that the U.S. will provide all the information European allies are requesting.
French President Francois Hollande demanded that the U.S. immediately stop the alleged eavesdropping and suggested that the widening surveillance scandal could derail negotiations for a free-trade deal potentially worth billions.
“We cannot accept this kind of behavior from partners and allies,” Hollande said on French television on Monday.
In a sign of the distrust the report had sowed, the German government launched a review of its secure government communications network, and the EU’s executive, the European Commission, ordered “a comprehensive ad hoc security sweep.”
“Eavesdropping on friends is unacceptable,” German government spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters in Berlin. “We’re not in the Cold War anymore.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday he didn’t know the details of the allegations, but tried to downplay them, maintaining that many nations undertake various activities to protect their national interests. He failed to quell the outrage from allies, including France, Germany and Italy.
It’s unclear how widespread similar practices actually are. But some in Europe have raised concerns that U.S. efforts include economic espionage. When asked whether Germany spies on its allies, Seibert responded: “It’s not the policy of the German government to eavesdrop on friendly states in their embassies. That should be obvious.”
According to Der Spiegel’s report, the NSA planted bugs in the EU’s diplomatic offices in Washington and infiltrated the building’s computer network. Similar measures were taken at the EU’s mission to the United Nations in New York, the magazine said.
It also reported that the NSA used secure facilities at NATO headquarters in Brussels to dial into telephone maintenance systems that would have allowed it to intercept senior officials’ calls and Internet traffic at a key EU office nearby.