MOSCOW — In a high-profile spectacle that had the hallmarks of a Kremlin-approved event, Edward J. Snowden, the fugitive US intelligence contractor, broke his silence after three weeks of seclusion Friday, telling a handpicked group of Russian public figures that he hoped to receive political asylum in Russia.
The guests, several of them closely aligned with President Vladimir Putin, were invited through a mysterious e-mail that many had thought was fake and were then swept past passport control into the restricted border zone where Snowden has been confined since his arrival June 23.
When they emerged, it appeared more likely that Snowden would be granted his wish and remain in Russia as he waits for conditions that would allow him to travel safely to Latin America, where three countries have offered him asylum.
Russia allowed Snowden to fly into Moscow, and officials have clearly relished the opportunity to embrace a US dissident after weathering years of Western criticism of their human rights record.
Once Snowden was ensconced in the airport, however, the prospect of his long-term presence in Russia apparently seemed less appealing. His first request for asylum two weeks ago was discouraged, and Russia has taken pains to portray itself as neutral. Since then, Snowden’s options have narrowed, and so have the Kremlin’s, said Dmitri V. Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a research center in Moscow.
“They cannot keep him here indefinitely, they cannot extradite himself to the US, they cannot send him out of the country so that he can be picked up,” Trenin said. “The government at this stage feels they have to do something to end this stalemate, and the only way to end the stalemate is to go to a default position — that has always been that he stays in Russia and observes certain rules.”
The Kremlin has laid some groundwork for holding Snowden on a more permanent basis. Ten days ago, perhaps in an attempt to limit damage to the bilateral relationship, Putin said Snowden could stay only if he agreed to “cease his work aimed at inflicting damage on our American partners.” A number of conservative, Kremlin-connected figures have praised Snowden as a defender of human rights and called for granting asylum.
On Friday evening, President Obama talked to Putin by phone in their first conversation since Snowden arrived in Moscow. The White House offered no details about the call, other than to issue a statement saying the two had discussed “the status of Mr. Edward Snowden” as well as issues like counterterrorism and the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Earlier Friday, Putin’s spokesman reiterated the Russian president’s previous offer, and human rights figures who participated in the airport event reported that Snowden said he accepted the conditions. But Snowden has said on numerous occasions that he did not think his disclosures had hurt US interests, and it remained unclear whether he planned to continue leaking classified documents.
The developments precede by just two months Obama’s scheduled visit to Moscow and St. Petersburg, part of an effort to reinvigorate a relationship that has declined sharply over the past year.
The White House complained that the prospect of Russian asylum would violate Moscow’s own stated desire to avoid any further damage to US national security, but it also said that the United States did not want the episode to undercut relations.