|▲ “If he wants to go somewhere and they accept him, please, be my guest,” Vladimir V. Putin said of Edward J. Snowden.|
MOSCOW — The Kremlin on Monday found itself confronted with a dilemma it had hoped to avoid, after an official revealed that Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor wanted by the United States, had submitted a request to Russia for political asylum.
Kim N. Shevchenko, the consul at Sheremetyevo airport, said that Mr. Snowden’s traveling companion hand-delivered Mr. Snowden’s request late Sunday evening to a Russian consulate in Terminal F of the airport, and that it had been passed to the country’s Foreign Ministry.
No high-level officials confirmed the report on Monday. President Vladimir V. Putin’s press secretary, Dmitri S. Peskov, said he did not know whether the request had been submitted. “I do not have any information,” he said.
Mr. Putin has tried to stake out a neutral position since Mr. Snowden landed at Sheremetyevo airport eight days ago. If he grants Mr. Snowden asylum, Mr. Putin will inflict severe damage on Russia’s relationship with the United States. If he plays a part in his capture, he will appear to have bent to Washington’s will.
At a news conference on Monday, Mr. Putin tried to thread the needle, saying Mr. Snowden was welcome to stay in Russia as long as he stopped publishing classified documents that hurt the United States’ interests. He went on to acknowledge that this was unlikely to happen.
“If he wants to go somewhere and they accept him, please, be my guest,” Mr. Putin said. “If he wants to stay here, there is one condition: He must cease his work aimed at inflicting damage to our American partners, as strange as it may sound from my lips.”
He added, “Because he sees himself as a human-rights activist and a freedom fighter for people’s rights, apparently he is not intending to cease this work. So he must choose for himself a country to go to, and where to move. When that will happen, I unfortunately don’t know.”
Mr. Putin’s comments reflected an increasingly sober view of the outcome if Mr. Snowden remains in Russia. For the second time, he took pains to say that Mr. Snowden had not been recruited by Russian intelligence — an impression that could corrode Mr. Snowden’s image as a truth-teller and drive away some supporters.
“He sees himself not as a former agent of a special service but as a fighter for human rights, a sort of a new dissident, someone similar to Sakharov, on a different scale, though,” Mr. Putin said. “But nevertheless, at his core he is a fighter for human rights, for democracy.” The reference was to the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov.
Eight days ago, Mr. Snowden arrived on an Aeroflot flight from Hong Kong to Moscow, apparently intending to board a connecting flight headed for Latin America. After that, however, the United States announced that his American passport had been revoked, leaving him in a geopolitical limbo, stripped of any valid identification and unable to leave Sheremetyevo’s transit zone.
While Mr. Snowden remains in this suspended state, the United States has engaged an array of countries that have considered granting him asylum, making clear that doing so would carry big costs. Ecuador, the country that is sheltering the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, has distanced itself, with top officials saying that it could take as long as two months to process Mr. Snowden’s asylum request and that Russia bore most responsibility for his fate.
Mr. Putin’s spokesman, meanwhile, said as recently as Sunday that Mr. Snowden’s case “was not one on the Kremlin’s agenda,” noting that Sheremetyevo’s transit zone is legally not the part of territory of the Russian Federation.
“Snowden himself is in a pretty difficult situation,” said Dmitri V. Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “I think he was following Assange’s advice trying to get to Ecuador, but then Ecuador, and, indirectly, Cuba, have failed him. I think Venezuela is talking to the U.S. as well. The U.S. can offer things to Venezuela.”
Mr. Snowden’s application for asylum could make it difficult for the Kremlin to remain neutral, especially since the case has become a primary topic for public discussion in Russia over the last several days.
A parade of public figures — including human rights activists, pro-Kremlin figures, Communists, nationalists and parliamentarians — have made statements in favor of granting him asylum. As anchors read reports on Mr. Snowden’s case on a popular news program Monday night, a vivid blue-and-red backdrop read “Betray Snowden — Betray Freedom” and showed President Obama wearing headphones, a visual reference to the surveillance programs Mr. Snowden has revealed.
“To be honest, I can’t see any problem there,” Ivan Melnikov, one of the leaders of Russia’s Communist Party, told Interfax. “If the problem is hysterics from the United States, they ought to remember that, historically speaking, granting political asylum to figures like Snowden is normal historical practice, and there’s no reason for Russia to be embarrassed and drop out.”
At a round table on Monday, a prominent leader of United Russia, the main pro-Kremlin party, said Mr. Snowden “has done no less to win the Nobel Prize than Barack Obama.” Kirill Kabanov, a member of the presidential human rights council, described Mr. Snowden as a man who “tried to save the world.”
Sergei A. Markov, a pro-Kremlin analyst, said if Mr. Snowden received asylum, he could acquire a Russian transit document and leave the country, or else remain in the country as a public figure, which he said would be “very good for public relations, he will be like Gérard Depardieu.” Mr. Depardieu, the French actor, sought Russian citizenship to avoid taxes in his home country.
Mr. Markov said Russian leaders had spent several days weighing their options and taking a measure of domestic public opinion. The result, he said, was “more or less consensus over this issue.”
As an international oil and gas forum convened here on Monday morning, analysts speculated that Mr. Putin and President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela would use the opportunity to negotiate terms for Mr. Snowden to leave the Russian airport.
Russia enjoys warm ties with Venezuela, a major arms customer and energy partner, which sees the alliance as a way of countering the United States’ influence in Latin America.
The newspaper Izvestia even speculated that Mr. Maduro could spirit Mr. Snowden away on his presidential plane when he leaves Russia on Tuesday, arranging to take off from Sheremetyevo instead of a government facility at Vnukovo Airport. Mr. Putin responded blankly to that theory at Monday’s news conference.
“As to the possible departure of Mr. Snowden with some official delegation,” he said, “I know nothing.”