MOSCOW — Fugitive Edward Snowden has asked Russia for political asylum, according to a consular official who spoke out after President Vladimir Putin said Monday that such a request might be considered if Snowden refrained from releasing harmful information about the United States on Russian soil.
Putin’s suggestion that Russia might seek to impose some constraints on the former National Security Agency contractor was an unusual gesture from a foreign leader who has been a strong critic of the United States. But any offer of asylum from Russia would defy Washington’s requests that Snowden be returned to the United States.
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.
Another possible option for Snowden was Venezuela, whose president, Nicolás Maduro, was in Moscow on Monday, leading to speculation that Snowden could leave with him on his official plane.
Perhaps as his options narrowed, Russia seemed the last resort for Snowden, according to Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia and its security agencies at New York University.
“If they had wanted to, they could have given him some kind of pass and put him on a plane,” Galeotti said, but as Ecuador’s doubts about accepting Snowden increased, Russia took full advantage.
On Monday evening, Kim Shevchenko, the consular officer on duty in the transit zone at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport, said Snowden had applied for asylum Sunday night.
The request was delivered by Sarah Harrison, a top WikiLeaks lieutenant who accompanied Snowden to Moscow from Hong Kong, and was sent on to the Foreign Ministry for consideration, Shevchenko said. Kremlin officials said they could offer no comment.
Although Putin spoke as if he knew nothing about the request, it appeared unlikely that he could have been unaware of Snowden’s application.
And as the story became more and more like a spy novel, the clues offered by Putin, a former KGB officer, tantalized. As he was wrapping up a forum of 11 gas-
producing countries, with the presidents of Iran and Venezuela in attendance, the Russian president said at a news conference that Snowden could stay if he refrained from what Putin called his human rights activity.
That might prove difficult for Snowden, Putin said, so he needs to choose a country willing to tolerate his work and move there. “When this will happen,” Putin said, “I do not know, unfortunately.”
Russia has no extradition treaty with the United States, and it refuses to extradite its own citizens, though, as Putin pointed out Monday, there have been exchanges of accused spies. “Russia never extradites anyone anywhere,” he said, “and is not going to extradite anyone.” He also repeated his assertion that Snowden was not turning over information in his possession to Russia operatives.
Galeotti said he thought Russia was reluctant to keep Snowden forever and may instead consider him a bargaining chip.
Russia badly wants the return of Viktor Bout, a convicted arms smuggler sentenced to 25 years in prison in New York last year. Galeotti suspects that Bout had ties to Russian intelligence. “Like the Soviets, the Russians are determined to get their people home,” he said, and they may see Snowden as a way to do that.
Since Snowden turned up here — remaining unseen — Russian officials have avoided gloating about how he has eluded American officials and damaged U.S. security. Neither have they gone out of their way to be helpful by expelling Snowden.
Putin has made needling the United States a favored pastime — he accuses it of meddling in Russia’s domestic affairs and propping up political opposition with U.S. support for democracy and human rights. At the same time, Putin has been eager to have Obama visit Russia for a summit, which the U.S. president has promised to do in conjunction with the Group of 20 meeting in St. Petersburg in September. Harboring Snowden could threaten the presidential meeting.
David Nakamura in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Juan Forero in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.