MOSCOW — Brushing aside pleas and warnings from President Barack Obama and other senior U.S. officials, Russia granted Edward J. Snowden temporary asylum and allowed him to walk free out of a Moscow airport transit zone Thursday despite the risk of a breach in relations with the United States.
Russia’s decision, which infuriated U.S. officials, ended five weeks of legal limbo for Snowden, the former intelligence analyst wanted by the U.S. for leaking details of the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, and opened a new phase of his legal and political odyssey.
Even as his leaks continued with new disclosures from the computer files he downloaded, Snowden now has legal permission to live — and conceivably work — here for as long as a year, safely out of the reach of U.S. prosecutors. Although some supporters expect him to seek permanent sanctuary elsewhere, possibly in Latin America, Snowden now has an international platform to continue defending his actions as a whistle-blower exposing wrongdoing by the U.S. government.
In a statement issued by WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy organization that has been assisting him since he made his disclosures in June, Snowden thanked Russia for giving him permission to enter the country “in accordance with its laws and international obligations.” He accused the Obama administration of disregarding domestic and international law since his disclosures, but added that “in the end, the law is winning.”
White House officials indicated that Obama was leaning against his plan to meet President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in Moscow next month after the summit meeting of the Group of 20 nations in St. Petersburg, although officials stopped short of canceling the meeting outright. While U.S. and Russian officials acknowledge the need to work together on issues of global importance, such as the reduction of nuclear weapons and the war in Syria, Snowden’s case now casts a shadow over relations in the way little has since the days of Cold War defections.
“We are extremely disappointed that the Russian Federation would take this step,” the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, said in Washington. He pointedly added that the administration was evaluating “the utility of having a summit.”
Putin, who spent the day at his official residence on the outskirts of Moscow, has appeared increasingly impervious to entreaties from the United States — even those directly from Obama, who called him last month to discuss Snowden’s case.
Putin, who met with the president of Tajikistan, in part to discuss the impact of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan next year, made no public comments about Snowden on Thursday. The Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said the decision had been made by immigration officials and not by Putin himself, although it is widely assumed here that any decision with such potentially severe diplomatic consequences would require approval from the Kremlin.
By late Thursday night, Snowden’s whereabouts remained unclear. He left the international transit zone at Sheremetyevo airport at 3:30 p.m. after his lawyer, Anatoly G. Kucherena, spent the day with officials from the Federal Migration Service. Kucherena delivered him a passport-like document issued Wednesday and valid until July 31, 2014, granting him status as a “temporary refugee” in Russia.
Kucherena, in an interview, said he would not disclose Snowden’s whereabouts, although he expected that Snowden could make a public appearance soon. “I cannot give out details,” Kucherena said in an interview.
WikiLeaks said that Snowden was accompanied by one of its representatives, Sarah Harrison, who appears to have remained with him since his flight began in Hong Kong in June. Kucherena said in television interviews that, while he would continue to act as counsel, he was not involved in arrangements for Snowden’s housing in Russia.
Snowden, 30, could still decide to seek permanent asylum in another country. According to Kucherena, he has not officially applied for permanent political asylum in Russia and could simply remain until he is able to fly elsewhere, although the logistics of that have been complicated by intense pressure from the Obama administration on countries to block his transit.
After Snowden’s departure from the Moscow airport Thursday there was frenzied news media speculation, including one specious report that he was headed to a notorious expatriate bar known as the Hungry Duck that had in fact closed.
Snowden’s official arrival in Russia was broadly cheered by many here who have defended his decision to leak the secrets of U.S. surveillance. Ivan Melnikov, a senior Communist Party member of Parliament and a candidate for mayor of Moscow in next month’s election, called him a hero. “Frankly speaking,” Melnikov said, according to the Interfax news agency, he is “like a balm to the hearts of all Russian patriots.”
Although Putin has sought to avoid a personal confrontation with Obama over Snowden — calling his limbo in the airport “an unwanted Christmas present” — officials across the political spectrum have delighted in criticizing what they perceive as U.S. arrogance and hypocrisy. Robert Shlegel, a member of Parliament in the pro-Kremlin majority party, United Russia, noted that the disclosures exposed surveillance efforts against U.S. allies in Europe as well.
“Will Obama cancel meetings with their leaders, too?” he said.