MOSCOW — Russia kept U.S. leaker Edward Snowden at arm’s length on Saturday, saying it had not been in touch with the fugitive American and had not yet received a formal request for political asylum.
Remarks by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov signaled that Russia is weighing its options after Snowden, who is stranded at a Moscow airport, broke three weeks of silence and asked for refuge in Russia until he can secure safe passage to Latin America.
Washington officials urged Moscow to return Snowden to the United States, where he is wanted on espionage charges after revealing details of secret surveillance programs, and President Obama reportedly spoke by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Snowden’s leaks about U.S. spying methods, including eavesdropping on global e-mail traffic, have upset the United States’ friends and foes alike. Stuck at Sheremetyevo airport with his passport revoked, the former National Security Agency contractor has become an irritant in relations between the United States and Russia.
“We are not in contact with Snowden,” Russian news agencies quoted Lavrov as saying in Kyrgyzstan, where he was attending a meeting of foreign ministers.
Lavrov said he had learned of Snowden’s meeting with Russian human rights activists and public figures at the airport on Friday from the news media, “just like everyone else.”
Lavrov said that under Russian law, asylum seekers must first make an official appeal to the Federal Migration Service. But its director, Konstantin Romodanovsky, said on Saturday that the agency had not received such a request from Snowden.
Snowden is useful as a propaganda tool for Putin, who accuses the U.S. government of preaching to the world about rights and freedoms that it does not uphold at home. But his presence on Russia’s doorstep is a double-edged sword.
Putin has invited Obama for a bilateral summit in Moscow in September, and asylum for Snowden could jeopardize that, even though both countries have signaled that they want to improve ties that have been strained in Putin’s third presidential term.
And while pro-Kremlin politicians have cast Snowden, 30, as a rights defender, former KGB officer Putin said last month that the surveillance methods he revealed were largely justified if applied lawfully.
Putin has said twice that Snowden should choose a final destination and go there, and on July 2 he said Russia could take Snowden in only if he stopped activities “aimed at harming our American partners.”
Putin’s spokesman said Friday that the condition still stood.