Welcome to Moscow’s Transit Lounge, Mr. Snowden

Posted June 26th, 2013 at 8:27 pm (UTC+0)

Patrick Chappatte, cartoonist for The International Herald Tribune, has this explanation for why Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency leaker, has seen his overnight stay at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport stretch on for days.

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.

Russian President Putin confirms to reporters that Edward Snowden is in transit area of a Moscow airport, but stresses that he is “a free man.” Here Putin speaks Tuesday at a joint press conference with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto in Naantali, Finland. Photo: Reuters/Kimmo Mantyla/Lehtikuva

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?”

Where is Edward? During his first four days at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport, there were no photos or confirmed sightings of fugitive NSA analyst, called by the Russian press “the world’s most wanted man.” This frame grab taken from a video interview in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP

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.

Russian press mob scene at Moscow’s international arrivals terminal in Sheremetyevo. The report that Snowden was on Monday’s flight from Moscow to Havana provoked a stampede to buy tickets. Photo: Reuters//Sergei Karpukhin

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.

Once the jet doors were locked, reporters realized they had been tricked. During the 13-hour flight to Havana, reporters took photos of empty seat 17A, the window seat booked for Edward Snowden. A fake Twitter account was also started: “17A: SnowdensSeat.” One tweet: “I feel empty.” Photo: Reuters/Maxim Shemetov

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

The Steven Spielberg movie featuring Tom Hanks was based on the real case of an Iranian refugee who lived in Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport for 17 years. Credit: DreamWorks Pictures

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.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

3 responses to “Welcome to Moscow’s Transit Lounge, Mr. Snowden”

  1. Gennady says:

    1. The author euphemistically described a president in a foreign trip telling three fairy tales on burning issues of his country he tried to represent in front of the world mass media. It didn’t take moments to test the uprightness of the tales and the integrity of the man. I wonder if it was hard for him not to laugh at the television cameras, if he bothered about his exposure and if he really knew and understood what was going in the country. About 175 years ago Hans Christian Andersen described the phenomenon in his fairy tale The Emperor’s New Clothes.

    2. But there is a huge difference between the vain Emperor (with his clothes in mind) and the president of a thermonuclear state telling the world fairy tales. Were they his first fairy tales for the world consumption? No, in the last two years the world has already consumed many more fairy tales from him. The same was with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with his denial that Snowden had crossed Russian border. Some people in the West are very peculiar. After devouring a huge helping of such tales from leaders of Russia some of the people still have positive views and attitudes toward Russia under Mr. Putin. Nevertheless, Mr. Putin hopes that billions of foreign investments which fled from Russia (which Russia badly needs) will return one day.

    2. As a native Russian, I applauded the genius of Patrick Chappatte, cartoonist for the International Herald Tribune, for his truthful explanation for why Snowden got stuck at Moscow’s Airport. The cartoon is an absolute masterpiece and visionary to picture methods of work of the FSB (federal security service) regime from inside, the regime which high jacked Russia and holds it hostage. Naïve and blinded Snowden couldn’t have done more stupid thing as to fly through Putin’s Russia. I’m sure, there won’t be spared any psychedelic and psychotropic drugs, any psychotronic tool to make Snowden speak and reveal what he knows. In one I’m certain; people who still retain positive attitudes toward Russia are as unsophisticated as Snowden.

  2. Bob Ezergailis says:

    There are clear indications that Snowden, groomed by the CIA for some years, and privy to some, as yet to be more fully fathomed knowledge of United States intelligence operations, voluntarily chose to deliver the goods to both China and Russia. Hong Kong, China’s, response of a maze of technicalities standing in the way of arrest and potential extradition are typical indicators that China received something of value from Snowden. Putin has himself confirmed, in no uncertain terms, that Russia has received something of value. Pigs are a symbol of good luck in that part of the world and Snowden, the young US intelligence defector, squealed loudly and a lot against United States intelligence interests and programs. Putin being perfectly in character as to when he feels he has won against his arch competitors, and once mortal foes, the United States. The prize for Snowden, in each instance, and his gambit, is that when a spy delivers to the enemy, he is likely to go free there, rather than being detained and extradited. There has to be some reward for defection even if it is only that. The extent of Snowden’s grooming for advancement in intelligence work, and what he might have been privy to, remains conjectural, but it is a lot more of value to China and Russia, than merely telephone tapping.

  3. Lara says:

    Thank you, Mr. Brook for the article and the cartoon. I haven’t laughed so much since quite long. But I think the case is not going to be funny for Mr. Snowden himself. He will end up very badly, maybe even getting killed by those sly FSB agents when they draw everything out of him.



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 in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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