MOSCOW — President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia appeared Tuesday to rule out sending Edward J. Snowden back to the United States to face espionage charges, leaving him in limbo even as Moscow and the United States seemed to be making an effort to prevent a Cold War-style standoff from escalating.
In his first public comments on the case, Putin said that Snowden — the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked documents about US surveillance programs — had committed no crime on Russian soil and was “a free man” who could choose his own destination. “We can only extradite some foreign nationals to the countries with which we have the relevant international agreements on extradition,” he added. “With the United States, we have no such agreement.”
Even as US officials remained angry at China for letting Snowden fly to Moscow, however, they and their Russian counterparts toned down the red-hot language that threatened a deeper rupture in relations. Putin said he saw little to gain in the conflict. “It’s like shearing a piglet,” he said. “There’s a lot of squealing and very little wool.” Some US officials interpreted the comment as a positive signal and speculated that Snowden would be sent to another country that could turn him over.
Yet the Russian president’s remarks during an official visit to Finland also underscored what may be the lasting damage the case has caused for US relations with both Moscow and Beijing. In noting that Snowden viewed himself as a “human rights activist” who “struggles for freedom of information,” Putin made clear that it would be harder for President Obama to claim the moral high ground when he presses foreign leaders to stop repressing dissenters and halt cyberattacks.
In the days since Snowden fled Hong Kong for Moscow, the Russians and the Chinese have seized both on his revelations about surveillance and the fact that the United States is seeking his arrest to make the case for a you-do-it-too argument. Igor Morozov, a Russian lawmaker, wrote that the case exposed a US “policy of double standards.” Xinhua, the state-owned Chinese news agency, editorialized that “the United States, which has long been trying to play innocent as a victim of cyberattacks, has turned out to be the biggest villain in our age.”
Until lately, the United States seemed to have Beijing on the defensive, with evidence that Chinese military units were behind recent computer attacks. Then Snowden told a Hong Kong newspaper that the United States had been engaged in a vigorous hacking campaign in China.
Obama has insisted that there is a difference between common espionage and China’s behavior. “Every country in the world, large and small, engages in intelligence gathering,” he told Charlie Rose in an interview on PBS. But intelligence gathering is different from “a hacker directly connected with the Chinese government or the Chinese military breaking into Apple’s software systems to see if they can obtain the designs for the latest Apple product,” he said.
“That’s theft,” the president added, “and we can’t tolerate that.”
China does not acknowledge the theft, or buy Obama’s argument. “The timing couldn’t be worse for Obama,” one senior Asian diplomat said. “I know he draws distinctions between stealing intellectual property and spying, but for most people that difference is not significant.”
The timing is also bad with Russia, which Obama is depending on to help resolve the war in Syria. When Secretary of State John Kerry criticized Russia on Monday as a repressive country, he personally offended Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov. On Tuesday, Lavrov lashed out at the United States, saying, “There are no legal grounds for this kind of behavior from American officials toward us.”
Within hours, though, the two sides appeared to pull back. Kerry told reporters traveling with him in Saudi Arabia that the United States was “not looking for a confrontation.”
Putin, who is scheduled to host Obama in St. Petersburg and Moscow in September, said he hoped the Snowden case would “not affect in any way the businesslike character of our relations with the United States.”
The Obama administration was relying on Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns, a low-key, respected former ambassador to Russia, to negotiate with Moscow. The administration argued Tuesday that even though the United States and Russia did not have an extradition treaty, Washington had regularly sent back Russians sought by Moscow. Over the past five years, the Department of Homeland Security said Tuesday, the United States had returned 1,700 Russian citizens, with more than 500 of them being “criminal deportations.”
In Moscow, Snowden was being compared to Cold War dissidents. “I have never heard of any case when the United States would extradite someone’s fugitive spy,” said Vlacheslav Nikonov, a member of Parliament. “It just never happened. Why would they expect that would happen?”
Snowden remained in the transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. Putin said Russian intelligence agencies had not questioned him, although some independent analysts cast doubt on that assertion. “If I still worked there, I would talk to him,” said Aleksandr Kondaurov, a retired KGB general.
Snowden, who remained out of sight for another day, has requested asylum from Ecuador. There are no direct flights from Moscow to Quito, the Ecuadorean capital, so if he were to head there, he might travel through Havana. The next flight from Moscow to Havana is Thursday.