Snowden wants asylum in Russia, but can he stick to Putin’s terms?

July 12, 2013

Edward Snowden speaks at Moscow's airport. (Tatanya Lokshina/Human Rights Watch)

NSA leaker Edward Snowden announced at a meeting Friday with human-rights organizations at Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport that he will seek asylum in Russia, Tatyana Lokshina of Human Rights Watch told The Washington Post. He explained that asylum is the only way he can guarantee his safety to stay in the country, where he's been since arriving from Hong Kong in late June. "I am only in a position to accept Russia's offer because of my inability to travel," he said, according to Lokshina, adding that he ultimately hopes to travel to Latin America, where three countries have offered him asylum.

This puts Snowden in a difficult position: He had previously applied for asylum in Russia but then withdrew his application after Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Snowden could only stay on certain terms. "If he wants to remain here there is one condition – he should stop his work aimed at inflicting damage on our American partners," Putin announced at a July 1 news conference. That was broadly taken as a condition that Snowden stop leaking classified U.S. information.

Snowden's earlier decision to withdraw his application for asylum in Russia seemed to suggest that he found Putin's terms unacceptable. It's not clear what's changed, but Snowden seems to have his own interpretation of Putin's conditions. "He has no problem with Putin's condition because he does not believe he damaged the United States, or is damaging it," Lokshina told the Post. Her comments to The New York Times also indicated that Snowden apparently believes his past leaks have not harmed the United States and so not violated Putin's terms.

Worryingly for Snowden, he and Putin seem to be speaking past one another. Putin said that Snowden would have to "stop his work" that was damaging the United States; Snowden says he's never damaged the United States. Clearly, they don't agree about what does and does not qualify as allowed under Putin's conditions for stay.

It's possible that Snowden believes he can technically adhere to the terms because he may have already passed all of his information on to WikiLeaks or other sources; in this thinking, perhaps, any future leaks sourced to him are not his responsibility. It's not clear whether or not Putin would see it this way.

Snowden, or at least the WikiLeaks representative Sarah Harrison who is working with him, might already see hints of these potential contradictions. Snowden asked the attendees at Friday's Moscow airport meeting to try to intervene with Putin on his behalf, Lokshina told The New York Times. And Russia, unlike three Latin American countries, has not yet offered Snowden asylum, beyond Putin's earlier conditional statement. Vyacheslav Nikonov, a member of parliament with Putin's political party, United Russia, told the Post that he believes Snowden will stay at the airport until a decision is made.

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Max Fisher | July 12, 2013