First he did, then he didn’t, and now he did again: NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s multiple asylum requests to Russia have bordered on confusing.
But for Russia, they’ve become downright uncomfortable.
As Snowden prepares to plant his stakes in Moscow until finding a suitable getaway route to Latin America, the 30-year-old former intelligence worker is likely to pose a serious challenge to a Kremlin apparently fed up with the friction he has caused in the US-Russian relationship.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appeared eager on Saturday to emphasize that his ministry has not been “in contact” with Snowden, a day after the whistleblower said he would renew his bid for asylum in Russia.
Lavrov added that the Federal Migration Service (FMS) is responsible for processing all asylum requests.
But FMS chief Konstantin Romodanovsky confirmed to Russian news agency Interfax on Saturday that officials have not yet received Snowden’s asylum application.
Those comments arrived hours after the White House chided Moscow for providing Snowden with a “propaganda platform.”
"It's also incompatible with Russian assurances that they do not want Mr. Snowden to further damage US interests," White House spokesman Jay Carney said late Friday.
Carney was referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s stipulation earlier this month that Snowden must stop his “work aimed at harming our American partners” if he decides to stay in Russia.
That is a condition Snowden is prepared to meet, according to Russian rights workers who attended a meeting with him on Friday at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. But given Snowden’s position that his leaks only benefit the American people, it remains unclear exactly how he interprets Putin’s terms.
Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who originally reported on Snowden’s exposure of a top-secret US surveillance program, added a fresh degree of uncertainty to the mix on Friday after he said he would continue reporting on the information Snowden provided him — even if the whistleblower asked him to stop.
"I'd deal with that hypothetical only in the extremely unlikely event that it ever happened, but I can't foresee anything that would or could stop me from further reporting on the NSA documents I have," he told POLITICO.
Putin and US President Barack Obama reportedly discussed the Snowden affair in a telephone conversation Friday evening, but neither side has disclosed details of the chat, which also covered a range of other issues, including bilateral counter-terrorism efforts.
Last week, Russian media reported that Obama could potentially cancel a planned trip to Russia in September over Snowden’s continued presence.
The Kremlin was originally thought to have relished the opportunity to host an American whistleblower who exposed alleged US human rights abuses. Since Putin’s return to a third term as president last year, he has taken a confrontational course with Washington — all while absorbing hefty criticism over an alleged crackdown on dissent in his own country.
But the Kremlin has so far proven cool to the idea of taking Snowden in.
While Putin has categorically refused to turn the fugitive over to US authorities, he has also largely held back on defending Snowden’s whistleblowing activities, unlike a range of other public figures in Russia who have backed him.
Other Russian officials, such as Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, have suggested in recent days that Snowden look elsewhere for protection.
Some Russian experts have suggested that the Kremlin will likely drag its feet in processing Snowden’s reported asylum application, in an effort to buy time in an uncomfortable situation.
“There may be all sorts of catches [in the application process], and you never know what else might be found, or what kind of skeletons Snowden has in the closet,” foreign policy researcher Mikhail Troitsky, a professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, told RIA Novosti on Friday.
Others say the affair is quickly winding its way to the top of the long litany of thorny issues in the US-Russian relationship, which also includes virtual deadlocks over the Syrian crisis and a US missile defense shield in Europe.
According to Pavel Baev, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, the “political calculations change” the longer Snowden remains in Moscow, turning the fugitive whistleblower from a one-time trophy into a liability.
“This hot potato is good fun for a while, but Putin is definitely looking for an elegant way to throw it to somebody else's lap,” he said.