MOSCOW (AFP) – Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, who received asylum in Russia, is a “strange guy” who condemned himself to a difficult fate.
“You know, I sometimes thought about him, he is a strange guy,” ex-KGB spy Putin said in an interview with state-run Channel One television.
“How is he going to build his life? In effect, he condemned himself to a rather difficult life. I do not have the faintest idea about what he will do next,” Putin said.
The case has intensified strains between Russia and the United States and prompted President Barack Obama to cancel a visit to Moscow for a bilateral summit ahead of the G20 summit in Saint Petersburg this week.
“Well, it’s clear we will not give him up, he can feel safe here. But what’s next?” Putin said, suggesting that Washington, which wants to put him on trial, may in time reconsider its stance. “And maybe some compromises will be found in this case.”
But asked what would he do with the leaker were he a Russian national, Putin said he would do everything to make sure he is “held responsible in strict accordance with Russian law.”
Putin said while U.S. special services consider Snowden a traitor “he is someone with a completely different frame of mind and considers himself to be a fighter for human rights.”
Before receiving temporary asylum Snowden spent over a month marooned in the transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport where he arrived from Hong Kong on June 23.
In the interview, Putin revealed for the first time that he had known about Snowden’s request to receive asylum in Russia while he was still in Hong Kong and told him via his aides that he was welcome to arrive in Russia as long as he stopped his leaks.
“He was told about it,” Putin said of Snowden, adding he did not agree to his conditions. “And he left, just left, and that’s it,” he said, referring to the Russian diplomatic mission in Hong Kong which he said Snowden had contacted.
“Then he started flying to Latin America on a plane. I was told that Mr. Snowden was flying to us two hours before the plane’s landing.”
Putin’s revelation comes after he repeatedly stressed that Snowden had turned up in Russia uninvited.
The Russian strongman insisted that Russia did not receive any information from Snowden, reiterating that the country could not extradite him simply because Moscow and Washington did not have an extradition treaty even though Russia proposed concluding such an agreement.
“And what should we do after it? Hand him over there? Then conclude the agreement with us. If you do not want to, fine,” Putin said, adding Washington should not then insist that Russia extradite Snowden when the United States refuses to expel Russian “bandits.”
Snowden’s pro-Kremlin lawyer Anatoly Kucherena said for his part that the 30-year-old, who was previously based in Hawaii, was gradually adjusting to his new life in Russia.
“Right now everything is absolutely fine,” he told popular daily Moskovsky Komsomolets.
Kucherena declined to release any specifics or say where Snowden was staying, noting only that the American was in touch with his family as he awaited a visit by his father.
He was enjoying his new-found freedom, even if he “practically” had no money, Kucherena said.
“He likes to travel, he makes trips, he is getting himself acquainted” with Russia.
No sightings of Snowden have been reported since he left the airport last month.
Kucherena said Snowden likes reading the works of classic Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky and his Russian language skills were improving.
“He reacts, understands some things,” he said. “One cannot say that he has mastered the language but he will devote a lot of time to it.”
“But already he can say words such as “tyazhko, tyazhko” (it’s tough, it’s tough) and “stakan” (a glass).”