Russia’s own visa rules say Moscow has had legal right to seize Snowden for past 24 hours

June 25, 2013

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Yuri Kochetkov/Reuters)

Russian officials' stance on Edward Snowden's status in their country is that he's not in their country. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said  Monday that Snowden "did not cross the Russian border," implying that he is still in the Moscow airport's "transit zone" -- a sort of diplomatic neutral space. Given that, Lavrov argued, the Russian government has no real jurisdiction over him. President Vladimir Putin, adding that Snowden had not broken any Russian laws, also cited the transit zone.

This argument might exaggerate the power of the transit zone a bit: It is defined as outside a given country’s border so that travelers between flights can avoid the hassles of going through passport control and the state does not have to oversee their status during their layover. It is not quite the international legal free-for-all or Hobbesian state of nature that Lavrov seems to imply, but you can see his point.

Still, the transit-zone rule does mean Russia doesn't have to decide whether or not to grant Snowden a visa, which helps officials there maintain their position that they have no jurisdiction over him. Except that it turns out, per colleague Rajiv Chandrasekaran, that according to Russia's own visa rules for American travelers, spelled out on the official Web site of the Russian Embassy in Washington, a special transit visa is required for anyone staying more than 24 hours in the transit zone. Snowden arrived at 5:03 p.m. local time on Sunday, more than 48 hours ago. He's officially exceeded his window.

What does that mean? It means that, according to Russia's visa rules, as of Monday evening Snowden was either required to get his hands on a Russian travel visa or he would be in the country illegally. That would seem to have forced Moscow into the uncomfortable position of either giving Snowden the visa or allowing him to remain there illegally. Either response is a form of intervention on Snowden's behalf, contradicting Lavrov's official explanation that the country has no jurisdiction over the American. For more than 24 hours now, Russia has had a legal right --  a requirement, according to its own rules -- to exercise jurisdiction over Snowden.

The fact that Russian officials still claim, despite this, to have no jurisdiction over Snowden is hardly surprising. Moscow clearly does not want to extradite Snowden to the United States, but neither does it want to admit that it's refusing to do so for political reasons. This claim about visas and transit zones, however transparent, would seem to be enough.

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Max Fisher · June 25, 2013