Updated: June 24, 11:30 a.m.
When the pilot announced his plane’s descent toward Moscow on Sunday, whistle-blower Edward Snowden, one of the most wanted men in the U.S., would have had reason to be both nervous and relieved. There are not many countries left on the planet where he can safely set foot since he leaked a trove of secrets from the National Security Agency in the past weeks. But at least as a transit point, Russia was likely a reliable bet. It has no extradition treaty with Washington, and Snowden would not be the first Western whistle-blower to get a bit of help in Russia.
In 2001, the first full year of Vladimir Putin’s presidency, Richard Tomlinson, a former officer of the British foreign-intelligence service MI6, was looking to publish a memoir laced with secrets. British authorities tried hard to keep his revelations under wraps, even sentencing him to a year in prison for exposing official secrets when he sent his manuscript around to publishers. He served five months of that sentence in 1997. But after his release, a fly-by-night firm in Moscow — which had all the outward trappings of a front for the Russian security services — agreed to print his memoir; it was the only book that publisher ever released. Titled The Big Breach, Tomlinson’s work alleged many embarrassing things about the British intelligence services, including plans to kill foreign leaders like Muammar Gaddafi and Slobodan Milosevic.
His book was, however, not nearly as damaging to British intelligence services as Snowden’s revelations have been for their U.S. counterparts in the past month. In sharing top-secret documents with the Guardian and the Washington Post, Snowden exposed a vast surveillance and data-gathering program that U.S. spy agencies have been carrying out for years on millions of U.S. citizens.
Initially, he fled to Hong Kong, which does have an extradition treaty with the U.S., but decided to keep running after the Justice Department on June 21 formally charged the 30-year-old with espionage and theft of government property — charges that each carry up to 10 years in prison.
Russian authorities insisted that they were not informed beforehand of Snowden’s intention to fly to Moscow, and that technically he never entered Russian territory. He has not cleared passport control at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow. Instead, officials from Ecuador, where Snowden is seeking asylum, came to meet with him inside the international terminal — a sort of extraterritorial limbo. And it certainly seemed to be a quick layover: on Monday morning, Snowden was booked aboard an Aeroflot flight to Havana, Cuba, thought to be a stopover en route to his predicted final destination. But a throng of journalists who stood vigil at the gate in Moscow and later boarded the plane hoping for a glimpse of the leaker were greeted by the empty 17A seat which had been registered to Snowden. The missed flight leaves his current whereabouts a mystery, but he appears to be taking his cues from the world’s most famous whistle-blowing organization, WikiLeaks.
The founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, has for months been dodging arrest at the Ecuadorean embassy in London, and his assistant was reportedly chaperoning Snowden on his flight from Hong Kong to Moscow on Sunday. The involvement of WikiLeaks also helps explain the choice of Russia as a transit point. Assange, after months of isolation last year, got some badly needed help and exposure from the Russian state news network RT, which offered him a television show to host.
The choice of Russia did come with some risks for Snowden, albeit minor ones. Sergei Bout, the brother of convicted international arms trafficker Viktor Bout, called on Sunday for Snowden to be arrested and swapped for his brother, who is serving a lengthy sentence in a U.S. prison. But as eager as Russian authorities have been to bring Viktor Bout home, they did not give any official support to Sergei Bout’s madcap suggestion. Instead, they made clear Snowden had no reason to fear arrest in Russia. “Snowden does not have any international warrants for his arrest,” a source in the Russian security services told Itar-Tass news agency. “He has not passed customs, so he has not formally crossed the border.”
That last point could have been a hint at the limits of Russian hospitality — if he does cross the border, the picture could change. But for now, it seems Moscow is a safe enough place for whistle-blowers to seek some respite, however temporary.
This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Snowden failed to show up for his Monday morning flight to Havana.
Soldatov is a journalist in Moscow and a co-author of The New Nobility, a history of Russian security services in the era following the Soviet Union’s collapse