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When Edward Snowden, the former security contractor turned whistleblower, flew to Moscow on June 23 – apparently en route to Havana – he looked like a gift that had fallen right into the Kremlin’s lap.
The situation seemed to tick every box: Russia would get a brief cameo in the Snowden saga, a chance to needle Washington and a diversion from its own dismal human rights record. Then it could get him on the next flight out so he could quickly become someone else’s problem.
Nine days later, with Mr Snowden still apparently stuck in the transit zone of Sheremetyevo airport, Moscow appears to have miscalculated.
“The plan has gone awry,” said Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center think-tank. “The original idea was to channel him across Russia to Latin America, but now nobody wants the risk of taking him in. Russia clearly wants to hand him off but there are no takers.”
With Mr Snowden casting about for asylum options and getting refusal after refusal, only a handful of countries appear to be even considering taking him in – mainly Latin American governments with leftwing leaders. But even intercontinental travel now seems out of the question after the private jet of Bolivian President Evo Morales was grounded in Vienna for 16 hours following a rumour that Mr Snowden was on board.
President Vladimir Putin has made it clear that the Russians will not hand the fugitive whistleblower over to the US. “Russia never extradites anyone anywhere and is not going to extradite anyone,” he said on Monday.
But Mr Putin, who relishes defying the US, appeared less than excited about the prospect of Mr Snowden staying in Russia for the foreseeable future and being a thorn in the side of US-Russia relations. Despite the increasingly unhinged anti-western rhetoric emanating from the Kremlin in recent months, the Russian leader managed to find the irony in the fact that Mr Snowden was becoming a problem for him. “If he wants to stay here, there is one condition: he has to stop his work aimed at damaging our US partners – no matter how strange this sounds coming from me,” Mr Putin said.
Indeed, Russia has made clear that Mr Snowden is wearing out his welcome fast: when he requested asylum in Russia, the Federal Migration Service at first pretended that he had not and, the following day, a spokesman for Mr Putin announced that the fugitive had “changed his mind”.
Moscow is not trotting Mr Snowden out as it has other western trophy “defectors”, such as the French actor Gérard Depardieu, who was presented with a Russian passport by Mr Putin in December after he renounced his French citizenship as a tax exile and who has since been a fixture on Russian state television.
Though he has been showered with praise by the state-run media, Mr Snowden has clearly been under some sort of gag order since setting foot on Russian soil. “They do not want any of these [spying] revelations coming out of Moscow,” said Mr Trenin.
For the time being, it seems to serve Moscow’s purposes to let Mr Snowden be on the loose but otherwise play a plausibly deniable role in events. The Kremlin says Mr Snowden is a private citizen, is in the airport transit area, has not passed into Russia and is getting no help from the government. (Never mind that dozens of journalists have been scouring the airport for more than a week and found no trace of the man, which may indicate he has been hidden with the help of Russia’s security services.)
But Russia is not keen to offer more overt help, such as supplying an aircraft. Mr Putin, who has recently accused the US of fomenting protests against his rule, is making it clear that, while the Kremlin is all for scoring easy publicity points with its domestic audience, it has little desire to cross the red line that the US has drawn around Mr Snowden.
Rather than exploit Mr Snowden, then Russia has gone for plan B: do as little as possible, sit back and watch the US government and its national security apparatus wrong-foot itself in its increasingly maladroit attempts to find the whistleblower and get him to America.
Russian media took evident glee on Wednesday at European countries’ denying their airspace to Mr Morales after he made an offhand comment that Bolivia might grant Mr Snowden asylum. “Without even saying anything, Edward Snowden managed to force down the plane of the president of Bolivia,” commented the announcer on Channel One news.
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