MOSCOW » Edward Snowden’s on-again, off-again relationship with the Russian government appeared to take a nosedive again, when President Vladimir Putin said he hoped the American fugitive would leave the country "as soon as he has the chance."
Elaborating on past comments about the former National Security Agency contractor, who has leaked sensitive data about American surveillance methods, Putin suggested that it wouldn’t be worth the diplomatic fallout for his country to offer Snowden asylum. Snowden has said he intended to apply for asylum in Russia, among other places.
Speaking to students at a summer archaeology camp on Gogland island near St. Petersburg, the Russian president seemed bemused as he described Snowden’s plight.
"We suggested to him: ‘If you want to stay you are welcome, but you must stop your political activities,’" he said, smiling. "’We have certain relations with the United States and we don’t want you to harm our relations with your activities.’"
"He said: ‘No, I want to continue my activities, I want to struggle for human rights, I believe the United States is violating certain international legal norms, interfering in private life and today my goal is to fight it.’"
Putin and the students chuckled as he said: "We said: ‘Only without us. We have other things to fight with.’"
"As soon as he has a chance he may move somewhere and I hope he will do it," the Russian president said. But, he added: "The situation has not reached its final resolution yet."
Russia’s attitude toward Snowden has appeared to rise and fall, rotating between suggestions that he might be welcome to stay and impatience that he has not yet left.
Andrei Piontkovsky, a senior researcher at the System Analysis Institute, said Monday that he believed Putin’s attitude had hardened after a conversation Friday with President Barack Obama.
"Putin obviously doesn’t want to cross the red line in relations with the United States," Piontkovsky said in an interview. "Obama must have found the right arguments not to hurry with granting asylum to Snowden after all."
Putin laid responsibility on the United States for driving Snowden into a corner.
"Our American partners in fact have blocked his flying movements," Putin said. "No other country wants to take him."
On Friday, Snowden met with a group of Russian lawyers and rights activists in the transit zone of Sheremetyevo-2 airport, where he apparently has been confined since his arrival in Russia more than three weeks ago. He appealed to them to vouch for him with Putin to be granted asylum in Russia.
Russian lawyer Anatoly Kucherena, who was part of the group, said Monday that the delay in Snowden’s formal application for asylum was caused by the fugitive’s ignorance of Russian laws.
"Before writing an application for a political asylum he must know Russian legislation and know how to do it," Kucherena said.
"Today," Kucherena added, "he knows nothing … and doesn’t know what to do."