On Sunday night, Edward Snowden asked for political asylum in Russia, and in a matter of hours President Vladimir Putin agreed to grant it. But there was just one catch: the NSA whistle-blower had to hang up his whistle. “If he wants to stay here, there is one precondition,” Putin said on Monday, a few hours before Snowden’s asylum request was made public. “He has to stop doing work that is aimed at harming our American partners.”
In other words, no more leaks. Whatever secrets Snowden has left to expose would have to be locked away (except maybe for a private Kremlin showing) and the stream of revelations he has got from his work for U.S. intelligence agencies would have to stop. On Putin’s part, this proposal is a clever bit of brinkmanship, but it will hardly please everyone — or anyone — involved.
Crucially, the U.S. would not get the satisfaction of putting Snowden on trial for espionage, as it has been trying to do ever since he went on the run in May. And Washington is not likely to let the matter drop — it would become a permanent thorn in U.S.-Russian relations.
But that is a reality Putin seems willing to face. In his remarks on Monday, he went so far as to compare Snowden to Andrei Sakharov, the most famous dissident and rights activist in Soviet history. Earlier that day, the Russian political establishment began falling into line behind him. At a meeting of the Public Chamber, an advisory body to the Kremlin, everyone from lawmakers and spin doctors to senior Russian diplomats hailed Snowden as a hero who needs the motherland’s protection. “If he asks for political asylum, we must provide it,” said Robert Shlegel, a parliamentarian from Putin’s political party. Another one of the party’s lawmakers, Alexander Sidyakin, even pledged to nominate Snowden for the Nobel Peace Prize.
One of Snowden’s most vocal supporters at the meeting was a former officer of the Russian intelligence services, Kirill Kabanov, who now sits on the Kremlin’s human-rights council. Speaking to TIME afterward, he went so far as to welcome the existence of whistle-blowers everywhere, a rare position for a veteran of the secret police. “They’re like a nice bloodletting,” he says, referring to Snowden and other whistle-blowers. “They lead to better health.” Never mind that Moscow goes after its leakers with no less gusto than Washington — Snowden has brought whistle-blowing into style in Russia. He is the hero of the hour.
The main question now is whether he will accept Putin’s precondition for asylum. Having been stuck in the purgatory of a Moscow airport for more than a week, Snowden’s position seems desperate enough to take the deal. Over the weekend, his best shot at political asylum fell through when the President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, said Snowden’s fate was now in Moscow’s hands.
But for Snowden, it may not be as easy as destroying his hard drives full of secrets and finding a cottage in the Russian countryside. Julian Assange, the founder of the whistle-blowing organization WikiLeaks, has said Snowden’s revelations are now on autopilot. “There is no stopping the publishing process at this stage,” Assange, who has been helping Snowden find safe haven, told ABC on Sunday. “Great care has been taken to make sure that Mr. Snowden can’t be pressured by any state to stop the publication process.”
If that’s the case, Putin’s asylum offer may have come with a false bottom — he would be able to revoke it if Snowden’s revelations continue to be published. At his press conference on Monday, Putin suggested as much. “Since [Snowden] sees himself as a rights activist, a defender of human rights, it seems he has no intention of stopping his work. So he needs to pick a country and make his way over there,” Putin said. “When that will happen, unfortunately, I have no idea.”
One option — perhaps the last remaining one for Snowden — could be Venezuela, whose President, Nicolás Maduro, is now in Moscow for talks with Putin. Russian media have speculated that he could whisk Snowden away to Caracas. On Monday, Assange’s WikiLeaks website published a statement ostensibly written by Snowden himself, in which the American accused the Obama Administration of wielding “the old, bad tools of political aggression” — a phrase that echoes the anti-imperialist hectoring of Maduro’s mentor, the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. But wherever Snowden ends up, the whistle-blower is winning a lot of supporters in Russia and around the world, and the U.S. is losing them just as fast.