MOSCOW -- Russia's President Vladimir Putin said Monday that former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden will have to stop leaking U.S. secrets if he wants to get asylum in Russia, but he believes that Mr. Snowden has no intention of doing so.
Mr. Putin's statement came at a news conference hours after Mr. Snowden sought political asylum, according to the Interfax news agency, citing a consular official at the Moscow airport where the leaker has been caught in legal limbo for more than a week.
President Barack Obama, speaking amid a three-nation trip in Africa, said there have been high-level discussions between the United States and Russia about Mr. Snowden's expulsion, though Mr. Putin repeated that Russia will not send Mr. Snowden back to the United States.
Mr. Putin's stance could reflect a reluctance to shelter Mr. Snowden, which would hurt already-strained U.S.-Russian ties. At the same time, the Russian leader seemed to keep the door open to allowing him to stay, a move that would follow years of anti-American rhetoric popular with Mr. Putin's core support base of industrial workers and state employees.
"If he wants to go somewhere, and there are those who would take him, he is welcome to do so," Mr. Putin said. "If he wants to stay here, there is one condition: He must stop his activities aimed at inflicting damage on our American partners, no matter how strange it may sound coming from my lips."
Mr. Snowden has been stuck in the transit zone of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport since his June 23 arrival from Hong Kong.
The United States has annulled his passport, and Ecuador, where he has hoped to get asylum, has been coy about whether it would take him.
Mr. Putin insisted that Mr. Snowden isn't a Russian agent, and that Russian security agencies haven't contacted him.
"He's not our agent and hasn't cooperated with us," he said at the news conference. "I'm saying with all responsibility that he's not cooperating with us even now, and we aren't working with him."
Mr. Snowden doesn't want to halt his revelations about the U.S. surveillance program, likely because he considers himself a rights activist and a "new dissident," Mr. Putin said. "Just because he feels that he is a human rights defender, a rights activist, he doesn't seem to have any intention to stop such work."
The newspaper Izvestia, a Kremlin mouthpiece, speculated Monday that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who is attending a summit of gas exporting nations in Moscow, would take Mr. Snowden with him when he leaves. The newspaper, citing a Kremlin source, said Mr. Putin would discuss Mr. Snowden with Mr. Maduro at their one-on-one meeting today. But Mr. Putin said he didn't know if any summit participants would aid Mr. Snowden.
The United States has appeared to back off tough public words as it tries to broker Mr. Snowden's return, in part to avoid increasing tensions as Mr. Obama looks for Russia's cooperation in finding a path to peace in Syria.
Nikolai Patrushev, head of Russia's presidential Security Council, said in televised remarks Monday that Mr. Putin and Mr. Obama had ordered their security agencies to seek a way out of the situation: "It's not an easy task, because they need to find a solution in the framework of international law. There is no such norm, there is not a ready recipe."
Mr. Obama would not confirm that Russian and U.S. law enforcement agencies were working together.
Three U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to publicly discuss the Snowden case, said Washington's efforts are focused primarily on getting Russia to deport Mr. Snowden either directly to the United States or to a third nation, possibly in eastern Europe, that would then hand him over to U.S. authorities.
At the same time, the officials said, the United States is trying to discourage Mr. Maduro from getting involved, warning that it would severely impair a nascent rapprochement between the United States and Venezuela.
Mr. Putin's comments come as Mr. Obama's administration is facing a breakdown in confidence from key allies over secret programs that reportedly installed covert listening devices in EU offices.
Europe's outage was triggered by a Sunday report by German news weekly Der Spiegel that the NSA bugged diplomats from friendly nations -- such as the EU offices in Washington, New York and Brussels. The report was partly based on Mr. Snowden's ongoing series of leaks about U.S. eavesdropping.