MOSCOW -- Fugitive National Security Agency document-leaker Edward Snowden surfaced Friday afternoon, even if behind closed doors, at Sheremetyevo International Airport, and in announcing to a group of visitors that he plans to seek asylum in Russia, he ensured that a problem neither Moscow nor Washington wants is not about to go away.
Mr. Snowden had hoped to go to Latin America, but as that prospect has come to appear more difficult, he is facing the more immediate challenge of getting out of the airport after nearly three weeks there. He told his guests that he sees Russian asylum as a short-term solution, in hopes that he can later make his way to Venezuela, Nicaragua or Bolivia, which have offered him asylum.
Russia has been ambivalent at best about his presence, as an unwelcome complication in already-strained relations with the United States. But by late evening, Russian authorities seemed to be making the best of a difficult situation, as a line of officials sought out the media and voiced support for asylum. If asylum is granted, the Obama administration would be forced to decide how to react without ruining relations with Moscow entirely.
Mr. Snowden told his guests, they reported afterward, that he likes Sheremetyevo Airport well enough but can't stay cooped up forever. Russian officials said it may take two or three more weeks to decide.
Mr. Snowden has been out of public sight since he arrived June 23 in Moscow from Hong Kong, a step ahead of U.S. efforts to have him sent back to the United States for revealing classified information about data collection programs run by the NSA. But Thursday night he sent e-mail invitations to a group of defense lawyers, pro-Kremlin politicians and human rights advocates to meet him the next day at the airport. There he read a statement critical of the United States and told them of his hopes for Russian asylum.
In a comment that seemed to raise more questions than answers, he repeated claims that as an NSA contractor, he "had the capability without any warrant to search for, seize and read your communications. Anyone's communications at any time."
In a statement Friday, the White House said President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone about Mr. Snowden's status and "a range of security and bilateral issues."
Until now, Russia has been eager not to prolong Mr. Snowden's stay, though it has been unwilling to return him to the United States. Moscow's relations with Washington are complicated enough, Russian politicians have said, without a professed whistleblower and fugitive from prosecution standing between them.
"I do not want a human fate to hinge on the relations between two countries," said Vladimir Lukin, Russia's human rights commissioner and a meeting participant. "But at the same time, it would be undesirable if relations between two countries hinged on one man's will."
The Kremlin insisted again that if he is to stay, Mr. Snowden must agree "to fully stop activities causing damage to our American partners and Russian-American relations," Putin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said at a briefing.
Mr. Snowden told his visitors that he has no problem meeting that condition, said Tatyana Lokshina of Human Rights Watch, because he believes he has not caused any harm to the United States with his revelations.
It's unclear that the Kremlin would be in line with those semantics. "As far as we know, he has considered and continues to consider himself a human rights champion and a defender of the rule of law and democracy, and that he did not plan to abandon these activities," Mr. Peskov said.
The State Department expressed "disappointment" that Russia let human rights activists in the airport transit zone "despite the government's declaration of Russia's neutrality." Mr. Snowden, she said, is "not a whistleblower. He's not a human rights activist. He's wanted on a series of serious criminal charges brought in the Eastern District of Virginia in the United States."