A week in Moscow was enough for Edward Snowden to change his plans completely. No one has seen the National Security Agency leaker since he landed at Sheremetyevo Terminal E on June 23, intending to go on to Ecuador, where he had requested political asylum. Now he isn’t going there: On July 1, the Russian consul at Sheremetyevo reported that the night before, Snowden asked for asylum in Russia.
Dithering by the Ecuadorean authorities and, apparently, some prompting from the Russian special services have transformed the former NSA contractor full of romantic notions about Internet privacy and information freedom into a modern-day Kim Philby, destined to live out his life in a country waging a cold war against his homeland.
Russia seemed to be a safe stopover for Snowden, wanted in the U.S. for exposing the NSA’s top secret efforts to monitor e-mails and chats using the infrastructure of American Internet giants such as Google Inc., Microsoft Corp., Facebook Inc. and Apple Inc. Moscow has no extradition treaty with Washington. From Russia he could fly to Havana and then on to the Ecuadorean capital, Quito, where the authorities seemed sympathetic to his plight. Ecuador has, after all, harbored WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in its London embassy.
As soon as it emerged that Snowden had a booking on the Aeroflot flight to Havana, several dozen journalists rushed to get on the same plane, jockeying to be next to 17A, his supposed seat. But as the plane took off, it remained vacant.
Where was he then? In the Sheremetyevo transit area, said Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 25. “He came as a transit passenger, he does not need a visa or any other documents,” Putin said, adding: “He has the right to buy a ticket and fly wherever he wants.”
Putin denied that the Russian special services were debriefing Snowden. “I would prefer not to deal with such matters because it’s like shearing a piglet -- there’s a lot of squealing and not much wool,” Putin said.
Yet Snowden wasn’t going anywhere. There were unofficial reports that he couldn’t buy a ticket because his U.S. passport had been annulled. Reporters looked for him in the transit area pub, in the duty-free shops, in the capsule hotel. They waited for him at the Burger King, which became the Snowden-spotters’ unofficial headquarters. They bought cheap tickets to Kiev or Minsk to get into the transit area, and they stayed there. A document check on June 27 showed there were more than 20 passengers camping between passport control and the departure gates with overdue boarding passes.
No luck. As the reporters found out, Sheremetyevo had plenty of doors that wouldn’t open to them for love or money: Behind them lay the domain of the border guards, who are part of the FSB, Russia’s counterintelligence service.
Russians found it hard to believe that the annulled U.S. passport was indeed hindering Snowden’s departure. They also laughed at Putin’s suggestion that he wasn’t really in Russia because he hadn’t gone through passport control. “Aeroflot can, if it wishes, put any transit passenger on any plane,” wrote Pavel Felgenhauer in the weekly Novaya Gazeta. “Also, according to international law, the Sheremetyevo transit area is the sovereign territory of Russia with all its laws, rules and law enforcement agencies.”
The columnist pointed out that if Snowden were indeed “all squealing and no wool” to the Russian special services, it would have been easy to send him back to Hong Kong as an undesirable foreigner. “Yet Snowden remained in Sheremetyevo like a suitcase with a broken-off handle: a pain to carry and a shame to throw away,” Felgenhauer wrote. “As a means of anti-American propaganda Snowden could be used anywhere, even in Ecuador, but it was only here that he could be used as a source of intelligence.”
Ecuador, where Snowden had requested political asylum, has sent out mixed signals. The Ecuadorean consul in London issued the American a safe passage document, but then the government in Quito canceled it.
The Ecuadorean official stance seesawed from renouncing U.S. trade benefits in support of Snowden to saying the asylum proceedings could take months. On June 30, Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s leftist president, stated the obvious: “It’s up to the Russian authorities if he can leave the Moscow airport for an Ecuadorean embassy.”
Correa’s words fell in nicely with the common belief that Russian counterintelligence wouldn’t let Snowden go until it was satisfied that the “piglet” had no more “wool.” Whatever was happening behind those closed doors at Sheremetyevo -- or wherever the leaker really is -- Snowden’s reputation as a truth-seeker was becoming irretrievably marred.
“Snowden only had one chance to stress his independence on arrival to Moscow,” investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov wrote on Forbes.ru. “That was to wait for his next flight surrounded by journalists. Snowden did the opposite, putting himself, his WikiLeaks supporting team and even the Kremlin in an awkward position.”
Putin, however, wasn’t feeling awkward at all. As a former intelligence officer, he is completely at home in situations like this. On July 1, apparently already informed of Snowden’s asylum request, he told journalists at an international conference that if Snowden “wants to stay here, he must desist in his work aimed at doing damage to our American partners, even if this does sound strange coming from me.”
Putin also reaffirmed his decision not to turn over the leaker to the U.S. “We are not going to hand anyone over, and no one has ever turned anyone over to us. All we’ve ever done was exchange our intelligence officers for those arrested and sentenced by Russian courts.”
Putin’s professional skill at putting up smoke screens has turned the Snowden situation into a traditional Cold War-style spy scandal, complete with denials that the Russian special services have even talked to him. Yet indications are that Putin’s propaganda machine will still try to use Snowden as a rights champion. Pro-Putin parliament deputy Alexander Sidyakin has even suggested that Snowden be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Putin has turned out to be quite an efficient piglet-shearer: Snowden’s every bristle will be used for the yarn the Kremlin is already beginning to spin.
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter.)