MOSCOW/NAANTALI, Finland (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin confirmed on Tuesday a former U.S. spy agency contractor sought by the United States was in the transit area of a Moscow airport but ruled out handing him to Washington, dismissing U.S. criticisms as “ravings and rubbish”.
In his first public comments since Edward Snowden flew in on Sunday, Putin appeared to make light of the diplomatic uproar over the fugitive, whose flight from U.S. authorities is becoming a growing embarrassment for President Barack Obama. Asked by a journalist about the affair, he smiled fleetingly.
“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,” Putin told a news conference in Finland.
Snowden, who worked as a systems administrator at a U.S. National Security Agency facility in Hawaii, is facing espionage charges from the United States after leaking details about secret U.S. surveillance programs to the news media.
Putin’s refusal to hand back Snowden risked deepening a rift with the United States that has also drawn in China and threatens relations between countries that may be essential in settling global conflicts including the Syrian war.
Republican lawmakers in Washington on Tuesday seized on the Snowden saga to portray Obama as an ineffective foreign leader.
Washington has gone to great lengths to try to ensure Snowden has nowhere to go to seek refuge. But Putin said Russia had no extradition treaty with the United States and suggested Moscow would expel Snowden only if he were a criminal.
“He has not crossed the state’s border, and therefore does not need a visa. And any accusations against Russia (of aiding him) are ravings and rubbish,” Putin said in the garden of a presidential residence, with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto beside him.
Shortly after Putin’s comments, the White House once again urged Russia to immediately expel Snowden and said Moscow had a “clear legal basis” to do so because of his revoked passport and the outstanding charges against him.
“Accordingly, we are asking the Russian government to take action to expel Mr. Snowden without delay and to build upon the strong law enforcement cooperation we have had, particularly since the Boston Marathon bombing,” said White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden.
Hayden said the United States agreed with Putin’s comment in Finland that it did not want the incident to negatively impact U.S.-Russia relations, but members of the U.S. Congress denounced Putin’s stance and said it would have an inevitable impact.
“It should cause a profound reevaluation on our relationship with Russia and with Vladimir Putin, something that a lot of us have been saying for a long time,” Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential contender, told reporters.
Hours earlier, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had cautiously questioned the Russian approach.
“It is accurate there is not an extradition treaty between Russia and the United States, but there are standards of behavior between sovereign nations,” Kerry said, in Jeddah.
Republican critics of the president said the Snowden furor was a sign of Obama’s weakness and declining international stature, and Russia was taking advantage of the United States.
“They know that he’s weak. They know that he’s so fearful about getting involved in balance-of-power foreign affairs and they’re playing on it, and they’re enjoying it very, very much,” said Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah.
Snowden has applied for asylum in Ecuador but Quito has said it is still considering the application and the United States is trying to persuade the governments of countries where he might head to hand him over. His plans remain unclear.
Putin said the 30-year-old Snowden was in the transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport and, not having gone through passport control, was free to leave.
“The sooner he chooses his final destination, the better it would be for us and for himself,” Putin said.
Russian law requires travelers who spend more than 24 hours in the airport’s transit area - as Snowden has done - to get a transit visa. It was unclear whether Snowden had sought or received a transit visa.
There has been speculation in the Russian media that Snowden may be talking to the FSB, the Russian security service, and could be involved in a prisoner swap. Putin said Russian security agencies “never worked with ... Snowden and are not working with him today”.
The U.S. State Department said diplomats and Justice Department officials were talking to Russia, suggesting they sought a deal to secure his return to face espionage charges.
“We’ve asked the Russian government to consider all potential options to expel him to return to the United States, and we’re going to continue those discussions in law enforcement and diplomatic channels,” State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters.
U.S. officials have said intelligence agencies are concerned they do not know how much sensitive material Snowden has and that he may have taken more documents than initially estimated which could get into the hands of foreign intelligence.
Snowden left Hong Kong for Moscow on Sunday, and the WikiLeaks anti-secrecy group said he was headed for Ecuador and is traveling on a refugee document of passage provided by Ecuador.
Journalists camped out at the airport have not spotted him inside, or leaving, the transit area. He has not registered at a hotel in the transit zone, hotel sources say.
A receptionist at the Capsule Hotel “Air Express”, a complex of 47 basic rooms furnished predominantly with grey carpets and grey walls, said Snowden had turned up on Sunday, looked at the price list and then left.
U.S. officials admonished Beijing and Moscow on Monday for allowing Snowden to escape their clutches but the United States’ partners on the U.N. Security Council, already at odds with Washington over the conflict in Syria, hit back indignantly.
“The United States’ criticism of China’s central government is baseless. China absolutely cannot accept it,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in Beijing, also dismissing U.S. criticism of Hong Kong, a Chinese territory, for letting Snowden leave.
Putin also praised WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is also a fugitive from U.S. justice, and questioned whether he or Snowden should be treated as criminals.
“Ask yourself: should such people be handed over to be imprisoned or not?” said Putin, who last week was smarting at being isolated over Syria at a summit of the G8 industrial powers and sees Washington as an overzealous global policeman.
Advisers to Assange declined to comment on the situation.
Fallout from a protracted wrangle over Snowden could be far-reaching, as Russia, the United States and China hold veto powers at the U.N. Security Council and their broad agreement could be vital to any settlement in Syria.
International mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said on Tuesday he was pessimistic an international conference on Syria could take place in July as hoped and urged Russia and the United States to help contain a conflict which has killed almost 100,000 people.
Talks between the United States and Russia to set up a Syrian peace conference produced no deal on Tuesday, with the powers on either side of the two-year civil war failing to agree when it should be held or who would be invited.
Additional reporting Gabriela Baczynska and Lidia Kelly in Moscow, Alexandra Valencia in Quito, Mark Felsenthal, Paul Eckert, Rachelle Younglai, Laura MacInnis, Mark Hosenball and Patricia Zengerle in Washington and Katya Golubkova in Havana; Writing by Elizabeth Piper, Timothy Heritage and John Whitesides; Editing by Karey Van Hall and Tim Dobbyn