President Vladimir Putin warned the U.S. that Russia won’t yield to pressure to hand over Edward Snowden, while insisting he won’t allow the fugitive American to poison ties between the former Cold War foes.
“We won’t behave like many countries are behaving,” Putin told reporters in the Siberian city of Chita, a day after the former U.S. security contractor bid for temporary asylum in Russia. “We are an independent country and we have an independent foreign policy and we will carry it out. I hope our partners understand this and respond calmly.”
The Russian leader reiterated a demand that the 30-year-old American cease activities that would harm U.S.-Russian relations. Snowden, whose efforts to reach refuge in Latin America have been blocked by the U.S. and its European allies, is willing to stop revealing secrets and accept all conditions to win asylum, according to a Russian lawyer advising him.
Snowden’s presence in Russia has heightened tensions with the U.S. less than two months before Putin and President Barack Obama are due to hold a summit in Moscow ahead of a meeting of Group of 20 nations. The Obama administration has repeatedly urged the Russian government to expel Snowden to the U.S.
Snowden “should come home and have the courage to come face the charges against him,” U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters yesterday in Washington. “The Russians know how strongly we feel in this case and how important it is for him to come home and face justice.”
The fugitive, who exposed classified U.S. programs that collect telephone and Internet data, lodged an application for temporary asylum yesterday at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, where he’s been holed up in the transit area since arriving on a flight from Hong Kong on June 23.
He’s been seeking asylum around the world as U.S. authorities press for his return to face prosecution. While Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia have indicated they’d be willing to take him, Putin has accused the U.S. of stranding Snowden in Moscow by putting pressure on other countries to prevent his travel through their airspace and deny him refuge.
Bolivian President Evo Morales’s plane was grounded in Austria and searched while he was flying back from a gas exporters’ summit in Russia after France, Italy, Spain and Portugal had refused to allow the aircraft into their airspace.
Putin, whose government has cracked down on foreign-supported non-government organizations, including U.S.-funded vote monitor Golos, accused the U.S. government of hypocrisy by targeting Snowden.
“Human rights work carries certain risks, but if it’s conducted under the U.S. umbrella, with its financial or political support, it’s a fairly comfortable activity,” he said. “But if you criticize the U.S., that’s much more difficult and the example with the Bolivian president’s plane shows that.”
Russian authorities have as much as three months to decide whether to grant temporary asylum to Snowden. It’s valid for 12 months, after which it can be renewed indefinitely each year, and allows its holder to travel freely and work in Russia, according to Anatoly Kucherena, a lawyer who helped Snowden lodge his application.
Snowden’s intention is still eventually to reach another country if he can obtain safe passage, Kristinn Hrafnsson, a spokesman for anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, which has helped the fugitive American, said by phone from Reykjavik yesterday.
Snowden, a former worker for government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp., has been charged with three felonies in connection with the disclosure of top-secret U.S. National Security Agency programs that collect phone and Internet data.
In his asylum application, he listed the fear that he’d face torture or the death penalty if he’s brought back to the U.S., Kucherena said.
Snowden doesn’t face the death penalty under the existing espionage and theft charges the U.S. has brought against him. Each of the three counts has a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
The U.S. has lashed out at Russia and China over their handling of Snowden’s case. The self-governing Chinese territory of Hong Kong, which Snowden fled to from the U.S., allowed him to depart for Moscow after refusing an American extradition request.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and a member of the Armed Services Committee, said the Russian behavior is “outrageous” and deserves an “unequivocal signal,” such as a U.S. boycott of the Winter Olympics that Russia is hosting next year, The Hill newspaper reported yesterday.
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said Graham is “dead wrong” to call for a U.S. boycott of the Olympics.
“Why would we want to punish U.S. athletes, who have been training for three years to compete in the Olympics, over a traitor who can’t find a place to call home?” Boehner told reporters in Washington today.
“International relations are considerably more important than squabbles between intelligence services,” Putin said today, expressing the hope that the controversy will blow over.