MOSCOW -- Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden had asked Russia for help before he flew to Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin said during a wide-ranging interview with First Channel, a Russian federal television network, and the Associated Press.
Snowden, who leaked classified U.S. national security documents to several media outlets, met with Russian diplomats in Hong Kong before he flew to Russia, Putin said in the televised interview recorded Tuesday at Putin’s country residence of Novo-Ogaryovo near Moscow and posted on the official Kremlin website.
“I was informed that there was such a agent of special services. I asked them: ‘What does he want?’” Putin said. "[They said,] 'He is fighting for human rights, for free spreading of information.' ... I said: ’So what? If he wants a stay [in Russia], he is welcome and can stay, but in this case he must stop all activities that could destroy Russian-U.S. relations.'”
Putin said Snowden then said he wanted to continue his struggle.
“'No, we won’t struggle together with him,' I said. Let him struggle by himself,” Putin said. “And he went away, he simply went away, that is all. Then he began his flight to Latin America.”
Putin said that he understood that Snowden then went on a flight bound for a Central American or South American country, and that he only learned the fugitive National Security Agency contractor was on board a Moscow-bound plane two hours before it landed.
Putin also said the Obama administration could have a valid argument for the extradition of Snowden, but he noted that Russia has not granted the U.S. request because the two countries do not have an agreement to do so.
“The problem is not that we are defending Snowden. We are not protecting him at all," Putin said. “The problem is that we don’t have an agreement with the United States on the mutual handing-over of criminals.”
Russia has proposed such an agreement on numerous occasions, Putin said, but has been rejected by the U.S. each time.
Putin criticized U.S. handling of the Snowden case as unprofessional, suggesting that Washington put public acknowledgment of U.S. pressure on Russia ahead of actually obtaining Snowden.
“After [the U.S.] found out that he is flying to us and that it is a transit flight, they applied pressure on all the countries they could reach, all Latin American countries and some European ones,” he said. “Instead of intercepting him in transit when he flies to a country with some light operative regime, the way they did it with the plane carrying the president of one Latin American country. ... They scared everybody off, and he automatically stayed here in the airport with us.”
Putin accused the Obama administration of "snobbism" for expecting Russia to deliver Snowden to U.S. authorities.
“What must we do? Give him away? Then strike an agreement with us. ... Give us back our bandits,” Putin said. “If you don’t want to, it is OK, but then why do you demand a unilateral extradition from us? What kind of snobbism is that?”
Putin maintained that Russia did not get any secret information from Snowden. “He never tried to give us anything, and we never tried to fish something out of him,” Putin said.
The Russian president said Snowden has doomed himself to a difficult life but that Russia will not extradite him to the U.S.
“I can’t even imagine what he will be doing in the future,” Putin said. "But it is already clear that we will not hand him out and that he can feel safe here.”
“Maybe some time will pass and America will understand that it is dealing not with a traitor and spy but with a man who has certain convictions,” Putin said. "And maybe some compromises will be found in that case.”
Snowden remains in Moscowm living at a secret location and “getting his bearings,” his Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, told The Times.
Snowden, who was granted temporary asylum in Russia on Aug. 1 on condition that he supplies no more leaks, is keeping his promise, Kucherena said.
Snowden has reportedly received a number of job offers from Russian companies, including a lucrative offer from Pavel Durov, a Russian social media mogul. So far, he has not responded to any offers.