MOSCOW — Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said Monday that former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden will have to stop leaking U.S. secrets if he wants to get asylum in Russia, but he believes that Snowden has no intention of doing so.
Putin’s statement came hours after Snowden asked for political asylum, according to the Interfax news agency, citing a consular official at the Moscow airport where the leaker has been caught in legal limbo for more than a week.
President Barack Obama said there have been high-level discussions between the U.S. and Russia about Snowden’s expulsion, though Putin repeated that Russia will not send Snowden back to the United States.
Putin’s stance could reflect a reluctance to shelter Snowden, which would hurt already strained U.S.-Russian ties. At the same time, the Russian leader seemed to keep the door open to allowing him to stay, a move that would follow years of anti-American rhetoric popular with Putin’s core support base of industrial workers and state employees.
“If he wants to go somewhere and there are those who would take him, he is welcome to do so,” Putin said at a news conference. “If he wants to stay here, there is one condition: He must stop his activities aimed at inflicting damage on our American partners, no matter how strange it may sound coming from my lips.”
Snowden has been stuck in the transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport since his arrival from Hong Kong on June 23. The U.S. has annulled his passport, and Ecuador, where he has hoped to get asylum, has been coy about whether it would take him.
The Interfax news agency quoted Kim Shevchenko, the duty officer at the Russian Foreign Ministry’s consular office in the airport, as saying that Snowden’s representative, Sarah Harrison, handed over his request for asylum late Sunday.
Putin didn’t mention his move to seek asylum in Russia, and his spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to say what the response could be.
Putin insisted that Snowden isn’t a Russian agent and that Russian security agencies haven’t contacted him.
“He’s not our agent and hasn’t cooperated with us,” Putin said at a news conference. “I’m saying with all responsibility that he’s not cooperating with us even now, and we aren’t working with him.”
Snowden doesn’t want to stop his efforts to reveal information about the U.S. surveillance program likely because he considers himself a rights activist and a “new dissident,” Putin said.
“Just because he feels that he is a human rights defender, a rights activist, he doesn’t seem to have any intention to stop such work,” Putin said.
The newspaper Izvestia, a Kremlin mouthpiece, speculated Monday that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who is attending a summit of gas exporting nations in Moscow, would take Snowden with him when he leaves. The newspaper, citing a Kremlin source, said Putin would discuss Snowden with Maduro during their one-on-one meeting Tuesday, but Putin said he didn’t know if any of the summit participants would help Snowden.
The U.S. has appeared to back off tough public words as it tries to broker Snowden’s return, in part to avoid increasing tensions as Obama looks for Russia’s cooperation in finding a path to peace in Syria.
Nikolai Patrushev, the head of Russia’s presidential Security Council, said in televised remarks Monday that Putin and Obama had ordered their security agencies to search for a way out of the situation: “It’s not an easy task, because they need to find a solution in the framework of international law. There is no such norm, there is no a ready recipe.” Obama would not confirm that Russian and U.S. law enforcement agencies were working together.