As NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden remains stashed in the Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow, his fate is causing a major rupture in the United States’ relationships with both Russia and China, leading some observers to fear that the mild-mannered, 30-year-old former NSA contractor could be sending the three superpowers back to a Cold War-like distaste and distrust.
Russian President Vladimir Putin made it clear that Russia would not comply with the U.S. requests to have Snowden returned, saying he 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 said. “With the United States, we have no such agreement.”
Putin angrily lashed out at accusations from the U.S. that the Kremlin was harboring a fugitive.
“Any accusations against Russia are nonsense and rubbish,” Putin said.
He brought WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, currently holed up at Ecuador’s embassy in London, into the debate.
“Assange and Snowden consider themselves human rights activists and say they are fighting for the spread of information,” he said. “Ask yourself this: should you hand these people over so they will be put in prison?
“In any case, I’d rather not deal with such questions, because anyway it’s like shearing a pig – lots of screams but little wool.”
The White House said Tuesday that Russia had a “clear legal basis” to expel Snowden because of the status of his travel documents – the U.S. has revoked his passport – and the pending espionage charges against him, according to National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden.
“Accordingly, we are asking the Russian government to take action to expel Mr. Snowden without delay and to build upon the strong law enforcement cooperation we have had, particularly since the Boston Marathon bombing,” she said.
As the U.S. tries to press Moscow and Beijing on human rights abuses and pushes its case that China has engaged in illegal hacking, the matter opens up the U.S. to charges of hypocrisy—an accusation both Russia and China love to level.
Igor Morozov, a Russian lawmaker, said the case exposed an American “policy of double standards.” Xinhua, the state-owned Chinese news agency, wrote in an editorial 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.”
President Obama has argued that there’s 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.”
“That’s theft,” the president added, “and we can’t tolerate that.”
Snowden is still seeking asylum in Ecuador. While there are no direct flights from Moscow to Ecuador, Thursday is the next flight from Moscow to Havana, Cuba, where Snowden could travel en route to Ecuador.