The unexpected talk of Russian asylum added urgency to the question of Snowden’s fate, after eight days in which he has been stranded in a Moscow airport with a revoked U.S. passport that left him unable to leave and seek asylum elsewhere.
In a statement issued late Monday by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, Snowden assailed the Obama administration for tactics that he said had left him “a stateless person.” He made no mention of his asylum application.
The fallout from Snowden’s disclosures continued to plague President Obama, who was forced to defend U.S. intelligence gathering while traveling in Tanzania on Monday, after weekend reports that European allies were among the targets of covert surveillance programs.
Snowden, who has been seeking refuge in Ecuador, faces charges in the United States for disclosing details of U.S. surveillance programs. Russia has refused to turn him over, in a demonstration of its unwillingness to bow to U.S. desires.
But at a time of ever more tense relations between the countries, Russia has avoided being too provocative and has sidestepped the asylum issue.
Although Putin did not try to deepen the U.S. embarrassment on Monday, he laid out detailed conditions for Snowden’s possible asylum in Russia in a way that made it unclear whether he was seriously considering such an offer or was making an opening bid in negotiations with the United States over Snowden’s future.
“If he wants to stay here,” Putin said, “there is one condition: He has to stop his work undermining our U.S. partners, as odd as it may sound coming from me.”
Even a tentative Russian embrace of the former government contractor hardly seemed a possibility after Snowden left Hong Kong bound for Ecuador by way of Moscow and Havana. Russia has a poor reputation among its citizens for protection of free speech and human rights.
But by Monday, it had become increasingly clear that Snowden had few other options.
Although the leftist government in Ecuador praised Snowden early last week and had been defiant toward Washington, President Rafael Correa’s position subtly shifted by Friday. That was when Vice President Biden called to ask that Ecuador return Snowden to the United States should he arrive in the South American country.
The conversation was “very cordial,” Correa told state radio on Monday. But he said Biden also told him that bilateral relations would “strongly deteriorate” should Snowden receive asylum. Speaking before it was known that Snowden had asked Russia for asylum, Correa said Biden’s point was “an argument, a factor” that his country would consider if Snowden were to officially petition Ecuador for asylum.