Western sources say Russia sought out the American whistleblower when he was on the run in Hong Kong. The Kremlin denies it.
MOSCOW – Edward Snowden never meant to spend much time in Russia.
Information from Kommersant sources paints a new picture of how the former National Security Agency employee ended up stuck in a Moscow airport, eventually to be granted temporary asylum.
After divulging sensitive documents about U.S. surveillance programs to the Guardian newspaper from a hotel in Hong Kong, Snowden talked to Russian officials about his travel plans before boarding the fateful flight to Moscow that was meant to be just the first leg on a longer journey to Latin America.
According to sources we spoke to, Snowden spent several days in the Russian consulate in Hong Kong before flying to Moscow on June 23. The diplomatic mission is located on the 21st floor of the Sun Hung Kai building in a fashionable neighborhood of Hong Kong. According to our sources, Snowden celebrated his 30th birthday at the Russian consulate on June 21.
Informed Western officials confirmed that Snowden spent time at the Russian consulate — and they say they know how he ended up there: the Russians most likely extended an invitation through the Chinese, who were looking to get rid of the high-profile spy turned whistleblower.
Neither the American embassy in Moscow nor the Russian consulate in Hong Kong responded to questions about how Snowden ended up at the Russian consulate.
A source in the Russian government confirmed that Snowden spent two days in the country's consulate in Hong Kong. According to this source, however, no one invited the American — he came to the consulate on his own, and informed the officials there that he intended to apply for asylum in Latin America, showing them his plane ticket to Havana, with a layover in Moscow. He explained to the officials that his life was in serious danger and asked for help, in accordance with the international convention on the rights of refugees.
According to one source, the fact that Russia did in fact agree to help does not contradict President Vladimir Putin’s statement that Snowden ended up in Moscow coincidentally. “Both his travel itinerary (meaning Latin America by way of Moscow) and his request for help were totally unexpected for us," says the source. "We didn’t know him.”
It appears as though circumstances forced Snowden to ask Russia for help. His identity as the leaker of documents about the NSA surveillance program came out when he gave an interview to The Guardian on June 9. The next day Snowden left the Mira hotel, where he had lived since mid-May, and disappeared. During his interview with The Guardian, Snowden said that he feared he could be kidnapped, and that he would ask for refugee status in a country that respects the freedom of speech, preferably Iceland.
On June 11, Dmitri Peskov, the press secretary for President Putin, announced that Moscow would consider an application from Snowden, should it receive one, and referenced Snowden’s remark from the interview.
One last chance
Two days later, the United States opened a criminal case against Snowden and asked a long list of countries not to admit him as a refugee. On June 15, Britain forbade airlines flying through the country to carry him. On the same day, Iceland announced that it would consider his asylum request only if he came to Iceland, and the following day Hong Kong said it would consider an extradition request from the U.S., which indeed sent the request five days later.
This whole time, Snowden was in the home of one of his friends in Hong Kong, where he met with WikiLeaks attorney Sarah Harrison and two local attorneys, who were trying to figure out how to avoid his extradition. They determined that he would probably be placed under arrest while the request was examined, but that the government would likely not prevent him from leaving the country if he did so soon. On June 21, he bought a ticket to Havana through Moscow, and on the same day, the U.S. informed Hong Kong and Beijing that Snowden’s passport had been blocked.
There is circumstantial evidence that Snowden might have asked Russia for assistance sooner. Just after he departed from Hong Kong, WikiLeaks released a statement saying that he had chosen a route that “guaranteed his safety.”
According to the source in the Russian government, Russia was counting on Snowden’s departure from Russian territory no later than 10 p.m. on June 23, as his plane ticket indicated. But he was not in seat 17A on the flight to Havana.
According to several sources, the Cuban government was pressured by the United States and informed Moscow that the plane would not be allowed to land in Cuba with Snowden on board. A source in the U.S. State Department confirmed that Cuba was one of the countries that received a warning from the U.S. that any help to Snowden would have “undesirable consequences.” Later, Putin remarked that the United States had blocked Snowden’s flight by scaring the countries through which he could travel to get to Latin America.
Edward Snowden had one last chance to make it to Bolivia on the presidential plane of Bolivian president Evo Morales, who was coming to Moscow for a planned visit in early July. As events would prove (nearly all European countries refused to let Morales’s plane fly in their airspace, and the plane was forced to land and be searched in Vienna), Snowden made the right choice in deciding not to take advantage of that chance.