MOSCOW — Yes, he’s at a Moscow airport, and no, you can’t have him.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gave the first official acknowledgment of the whereabouts of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden on Tuesday and promptly rejected U.S. pleas to turn him over.
Snowden, who is charged with violating American espionage laws, fled Hong Kong over the weekend, touching off a global guessing game over where he went and frustrating U.S. efforts to bring him to justice.
Putin said Snowden is in the transit zone of Sheremetyevo Airport and has not passed through Russian immigration, meaning he technically is not in Russia and thus is free to travel wherever he wants.
After arriving Sunday on a flight from Hong Kong, Snowden registered for a Havana-bound flight Monday en route to Venezuela and then possible asylum in Ecuador, but he didn’t board the plane.
Speculation has been rife that Russian security services have been talking to Snowden and might want to keep him in Russia for a more thorough debriefing, but Putin denied that.
“Our special services never worked with Mr. Snowden and aren’t working with him today,” Putin said at a news conference during a visit to Finland.
Because Moscow has no extradition agreement with Washington, it cannot meet the U.S. request, he said.
“Mr. Snowden is a free man, and the sooner he chooses his final destination the better it is for us and for him,” Putin said. “I hope it will not affect the businesslike character of our relations with the U.S. and I hope that our partners will understand that.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that the U.S. wants Russia to show respect for the rule of law and comply with common practices when it comes to fugitives from justice.
Putin’s staunch refusal to consider deportation shows his readiness to further challenge Washington at a time when U.S.-Russian relations are already strained over Syria and other issues, including a Russian ban on adoptions by Americans.
“Just showing America that we don’t care about our relations, we are down to basically a Cold War pattern: The enemy of your government is our friend,” said Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center.
“The Russian administration has not come that far, but we don’t know what it’s up to,” she said.
Despite Putin’s denial, security experts believe Russia’s special services wouldn’t miss the chance to question a man who is believed to hold reams of classified U.S. documents and could shed light on how the U.S. intelligence agencies collect information.
Igor Korotchenko, director of the Center for Global Arms Trade and editor of National Defence Magazine, said Snowden would be of particular interest because little is known about digital espionage.
“The security services would be happy to enter into contact with Mr. Snowden,” Korotchenko said.
Russia also has relished using Snowden’s revelations to turn the tables on the U.S. over its criticism of Russia’s rights record.
Putin compared Snowden to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been given asylum in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, saying that both men were labeled criminals but consider themselves rights activists and champions of freedom of information.
“Ask yourself a question: Should people like that be extradited so that they put them in prison?” he said. “In any case, I would prefer not to deal with such issues. It’s like shearing a piglet: a lot of squealing and little wool.”
In an apparent reference to claims that Russia could have played a role in Snowden’s exit from Hong Kong, Putin said his arrival in Moscow was a “complete surprise” and dismissed such accusations as “ravings and sheer nonsense.”
“He doesn’t need a visa or any other documents, and as a transit passenger he has the right to buy a ticket and fly wherever he wants,” Putin said.
Snowden, 30, is a former CIA employee who later was hired as a contractor for the NSA.
In that job, he gained access to documents that he gave to newspapers the Guardian and The Washington Post to expose what he contends are privacy violations by an authoritarian government.
Snowden also told the South China Morning Post newspaper in Hong Kong that “the NSA does all kinds of things like hack Chinese cellphone companies to steal all of your SMS data.”
He is believed to have more than 200 additional sensitive documents in laptops he is carrying.
Russian news media had reported that Snowden remained in a transit zone at the airport, which is separate from regular departure areas. He has not been seen by any of the journalists who have been roaming Sheremetyevo in search of him, furthering speculation that he had been secreted away.
The Interfax news agency, citing an unidentified airport official, said Snowden could be staying in a room in the transit zone normally reserved for flight crews and other personnel.
Legally, an arriving air passenger only crosses the border after clearing Russian immigration checks.
Earlier Tuesday, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov rejected the U.S. push to turn over Snowden, but he wouldn’t specify his whereabouts, saying only that he hadn’t crossed the Russian border.
Kerry called for “calm and reasonableness.”
“We would hope that Russia would not side with someone who is a fugitive from justice,” Kerry said at a news conference in Saudi Arabia.
The U.S. has revoked Snowden’s passport.
A representative of WikiLeaks has been travelling with Snowden, and the secret-spilling organization is believed to be assisting him in arranging asylum. Assange, the group’s founder, said Monday that Snowden was only passing through Russia and had applied for asylum in Ecuador, Iceland and possibly other countries.
A high-ranking Ecuadorean official told The Associated Press that Russia and Ecuador were discussing where Snowden could go, saying the process could take days. He also said Ecuador’s ambassador to Moscow had not seen or spoken to Snowden. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case publicly.
The Kremlin has previously said Russia would be ready to consider Snowden’s request for asylum.
Some observers said Snowden’s revelations have provided the Kremlin with propaganda arguments to counter the U.S. criticism of Russia’s crackdown on opposition and civil activists under Putin.
“They would use Snowden to demonstrate that the U.S. government doesn’t sympathize with the ideals of freedom of information, conceals key information from the public and stands ready to open criminal proceedings against those who oppose it,” Konstantin Remchukov, the editor of independent daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, said on Ekho Moskvy radio.
Putin has accused the U.S. State Department of instigating protests in Moscow against his re-election for a third term in March and has taken an anti-American posture that plays well with his core support base of industrial workers and state employees.
Huuhtanen reported from Naantali, Finland. Associated Press writers Lynn Berry in Moscow and Michael Weissenstein and Gonzalo Solano in Quito, Ecuador, contributed to this story.