MOSCOW — Seat 17a was empty Monday afternoon as Aeroflot Flight 150 took off from a Moscow airport. But most seats around it were filled.
Dozens of journalists had scrambled to book seats at the last minute, certain they were a half-step from the most sought-after interview in the world: Edward J. Snowden, who was widely reported by Russian news agencies to have booked Seat 17a. But as the plane taxied from the gate, a reporter from The Associated Press published a photograph of the empty seat, and the situation became abundantly clear.
It seemed that a stream of reports from unnamed Russian officials, disseminated over Russian news agencies, had been an exuberant deception, throwing up a cloud of dust while Snowden quietly evaded the U.S. government. At nightfall, it was impossible to say with certainty where Snowden was.
By contrast, everyone knew where half the Moscow press corps was: halfway to Havana, on one of the few regular Russian flights that does not serve alcohol. It was the kind of plan that the FSB, and the KGB before it, would described as a “special operation.” And somewhere in Moscow, it was clear, someone was laughing.
“When the president is a former spy, from time to time in this country they organize spy games, the Spy Olympic Games, and they have fun,” the novelist Victor Erofeyev said Monday evening. “We are people from outside, who don’t understand how fun it is to put all the journalists on a plane and send them to Havana. They are having the greatest dinner tonight.”
Russian officials clearly savored the Snowden affair from the very beginning, as payback for years of U.S. criticism over Russia’s human rights record. President Vladimir V. Putin was especially angered by Congress’ passage last year of the Magnitsky Act, which punishes Russian officials implicated in human rights abuses.
But Russian experts say the Kremlin has stopped short of measures that would lead to a confrontation with the United States, like welcoming Snowden on Russian territory, or allowing him to hold a news conference.
“I think there are not a few people at the very top who kind of enjoy poking America in the eye,” said Vladimir V. Pozner, the host of a political talk show on Russia’s Channel One. “But on the other hand, those people realize they don’t really want to create a situation that would seriously hurt a relationship. It’s OK to kind of pinch somebody’s behind, perhaps, but not to hit them with a baseball bat.”
He added, “It’s sort of like, ‘How do we get our kicks without spoiling a relationship that is already very brittle?’”
Part of the answer, apparently, was Flight 150, which boarded Monday in an atmosphere of electric tension. Dozens of news outlets had splurged for next-day tickets, in some cases sending camera crews and producers through Havana to Caracas, Venezuela, where Snowden was reportedly heading at first before yet another possible destination surfaced — Quito, Ecuador. Reporters were hurriedly writing notes to Snowden, hoping to coax him into an interview. Meanwhile, Aeroflot’s flight crew was stone-faced and high-strung, as if they were launching a space capsule.
They cordoned off a large area with elastic tape, blocking passengers’ view as the plane was serviced. Police officers were scattered on the tarmac, and several vans were parked within steps of the gangway. A reporter from Reuters saw a man in a white shirt climbing into the airplane, but said he could not be identified from the transit area. Some observers speculated that Snowden could be traveling in a crew rest area below the flight deck.
The last passenger had boarded the plane when a murmur moved through the Aeroflot crew: Five passengers had not arrived.
“He is not on board,” said one, whose name tag identified him as Nikolai Sokolov. He looked a little sad. “You were waiting for him? I was waiting for him myself.”
The reporters on board got the picture quickly. “He ain’t here,” Max Seddon of The Associated Press wrote, publishing a photograph of a sun-dappled, orange-upholstered window seat. Almost instantaneously, some anonymous wit opened a fake Twitter account titled “17a: SnowdenSeat,” and remarked, “I feel empty.”
The account produced a stream of commentary over the next 10 hours, at various points grousing, “What does a seat have to do to get a drink around here, Aeroflot?” and “The real threat to national security: Airline food. Am I right?”
Kremlin officials have said they played no part in Snowden’s flight from Hong Kong. But Putin has shown a penchant for springing big surprises on an unsuspecting audience.
When forced to choose a successor as president in 2007, one of his top lieutenants, Sergei B. Ivanov, was so convinced he would be the next president that he groomed himself for the job, before finding out that Putin had chosen Dmitry A. Medvedev. Putin played another trick in September 2011, when he suddenly announced that he would replace Medvedev after one term — news that caught the capital unprepared, and became the germ of a wave of protests.
Pozner, the television host, called it “a kind of byzantine way of doing things,” but traced it back far beyond Putin, to Josef Stalin and the czars who came before him.
“There has never been open discussion” in Russian politics, he said. “It’s all illusions, smoke and mirrors.”
Asked about Flight 150, Pozner chuckled.
“It might not seem funny to you, and it might seem very funny to a lot of top people, who are maybe congratulating each other, patting each other on the back and saying, ‘Didn’t we screw them?’” he said. “It’s not very delicate, but that’s the way it is.”