Welcome to Moscow’s transit lounge, Mr. Snowden

Edward Snowden stencil by Eclair Acuda Bandersnatch. Photo: Steve Rhodes/flickr.com

Uncle Volodya went to Finland this week and told three fairy tales.

– Gays have equal rights in Russia.

– Russia’s new Foreign Agent law, which is killing Russian non-governmental groups, is just a copy of a 1937 American law with a similar name.

– Russia’s intelligence agencies have not questioned Edward Snowden, the fugitive American leaker, since he arrived at Moscow airport Sunday afternoon.

Russia’s president routinely reserves the first two stories for foreign audiences. (Watching the press conference in Moscow, I could imagine eyes rolling among the Finnish reporters who had traveled from Moscow).

But the third fable offered a news nugget.

Russia’s President confirmed that Snowden is in the international transit section of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport.

Only a few hours earlier, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had huffily said of Snowden: “He didn’t cross the Russian border. And we consider the attempts we are seeing to accuse the Russian side of violating United States law as completely ungrounded and unacceptable.”

Putin matched the tone, dismissing U.S. criticisms as “ravings and rubbish.”

Taking the high road, the Russian president smiled and said: “I myself would prefer not to deal with these issues. It’s like shearing a piglet: there’s a lot of squealing, but there’s little wool.”

But Putin did end the international mystery of “Where’s Snowden?” But then Russia’s president seemed to veer back into fantasy land.

Asked if Russia’s FSB, the successor to the KBG, was questioning Snowden, he responded that Russian security agencies “never worked with Mr. Snowden and don’t work with him today.”

Mr. Putin, a former KGB colonel who spent five years in East Germany working with the Stasi secret police, knows a basic rule of intelligence: Do not reveal what you know.

Snowden, a former computer contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency, flew into Moscow with four laptop computers and a wealth of NSA documents downloaded onto a thumb drive. It is rare that such an American intelligence treasure trove just lands in the laps of Russian intelligence.

Snowden’s WikiLeaks travel agents apparently thought that he would get a good night’s rest, and then bounce onward, catching the 14:05 Aeroflot to Havana.

The Moscow-based press corps confirmed this onward reservation. Dozens of journalists scrambled to buy seats on the flight.

In an encouraging sign, police ringed the Aeroflot jet before takeoff for Cuba.

Oops. Maybe they were there to ensure one passenger did not board.

After the jet doors were locked, the reporters realized they were prisoners on a 13-hour flight to Havana, with no alcohol served on board. They consoled themselves with taking digital phone photos of seat 17A, Snowden’s empty window seat.

I guess everyone had expected that the FSB chief at Sheremetyevo would simply escort Snowden to his one-way flight to Cuba. Then, he would report back to his superiors: “Gee, it would have been interesting to talk to Snowden. But he was in the transit area of the airport, and we did not have the legal right to interrogate him (sigh).”

That agent’s next assignment: Border post Chukchi, scanning the horizon for suspicious “polar bears” crawling over the ice from Alaska.

So while the foreign ministers of Venezuela and Ecuador tumble over themselves to announce they are “considering” (wink, wink) offering asylum to Snowden, the price of Snowden’s Latin vacation may be getting higher by the day.

Maybe to turn up the heat a little, Russian authorities have not slapped down a proposal made here that Snowden be traded to the U.S. for Victor Bout, the Russian arms dealer who is serving a lengthy sentence in a U.S. jail.

Snowden’s heart must have sunk when he heard that Aeroflot jet rumble down the runway Monday afternoon for Havana. Then the Tuesday flight took off for Cuba. The next flight from Moscow is Thursday. But, some media speculate that the Castro brothers have decided, after half a century, that they want American tourists to come back to Cuba. Unlike the American hijackers of the 1970s. Snowden’s presence could be… inconvenient.

More likely, what stands between Snowden and his stay-out-of-jail boarding pass is cooperation with Russia’s intelligence service.

In public, the Kremlin revels in the global attention and the reaffirmation of its “independent” stance. Washington already sees any relationship with Putin’s Kremlin as transactional. In this case, the Kremlin seems to value the publicity over a deal.

But day after day, Snowden’s stay at Moscow’s airport in taking another toll: American public opinion.

Last month, the BBC completed its annual 25-nation survey of public attitudes toward other countries.

In one year, the portion of American respondents holding negative views of Russia spiked – from 47 percent to 59 percent. Among major countries, only Germans, 61 percent – and French, 63 percent – held greater negative attitudes toward Russia.

The sharp drop in American goodwill was probably due Russia’s reaction to American anti-corruption legislation. It banned American adoptions of Russian children. (Criticize us, and we will whack the kids!)

Once again, the Kremlin’s moves are drawing American hostility.

Walter Russell Meade writes in his blog on The American Interest website: “It appears that Putin is no longer content with just kicking sand in John Kerry’s face. With NSA leaker Edward Snowden in hand, Moscow is now giving wedgies and making the Obama administration eat bugs.”

Snowden’s revelations have left the American public struggling to digest the news of massive information gathering program.

More attractive debating that program, the U.S. Congress has chosen to demonize the messenger.

With each day that Snowden remains holed up in Moscow’s dingy airport transit area, the more American irritation grows with the Kremlin. By now the price for getting U.S. Congressional approval for any deal with Russia during the rest of the Obama Administration seems prohibitively high.

Foreign Minister Lavrov may have realized that on Wednesday when he told a reporter who asked about Snowden: “He is in the transit zone of the airport and has the right to fly to any direction he pleases. And as the president of Russia said, the sooner this happens, the better.”

Presumably, Snowden will not end up like the homeless figure portrayed by Tom Hanks in the Hollywood movie, The Terminal. The movie was based on Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee who lived in Terminal One of Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport — for 17 years.

(Edward Snowden stencil by Eclair Acuda Bandersnatch. Photo: Steve Rhodes/flickr.com)

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About the Author

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.