Russian President Vladimir Putin has goaded reporters once again. Yes, Edward Snowden is in Moscow, he told them on Tuesday night during a state visit to Finland. And yes, the fugitive whistleblower from the United States remains in the transit area of the Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport.
Snowden is a "free man," said Putin, sparking yet another frenzy among journalists in Moscow, who have been scrambling to find Snowden since Sunday. The reporters combed over the bars and fast-food restaurants in the transit zone again, not to mention the benches that stranded passengers stretch out on to rest. They also searched the terminal's "capsule hotel," called V-Express, where Snowden had allegedly checked in.
The airport has a "vast amount of locked doors," noted The New York Times on Tuesday, "something you might not notice without spending 17 hours looking for Mr. Snowden."
But there isn't a trace of him -- except, of course, for the steady stream of quotations that the Russian news agency Interfax gets from a mysterious source supposedly "close" to Snowden. The former contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA), who leaked information about America's massive Prism surveillance program, can't buy a plane ticket because Washington revoked his passport.
'Does Snowden Even Exist?'
Some 48 hours have passed since Snowden's Aeroflot flight from Hong Kong landed in Moscow on Sunday. Journalists say that not a single passenger on that flight can remember seeing him. There are no photos of Snowden in Russia. There are also no known images of him taken at the airport by surveillance cameras -- and there are a lot of cameras there.
"Was Snowden even in Moscow?" asks the Russian tabloid daily Komsomolskaya Pravda. Reader comments go one step further, asking: "Does Snowden even exist?" The information vacuum is being filled by conspiracy theories.
Putin's statements haven't ended speculation, either. If Snowden really is free, why would he stay in the airport terminal so long? Putin also claimed that Russian intelligence officials have had no contact with Snowden. But many observers refuse to believe Moscow is capable of such selfless restraint -- particularly given the fact that Ilya Kostunov, a member of Russia's parliament, said the country's intelligence apparatus must review "whether Snowden has documents that offer insights into cyber-espionage."
The Speculation Game
And wouldn't snagging Snowden be a feat for Russian intelligence, which just this May detained and expelled an American diplomat on accusations of spying? Snowden's presence in Moscow is like a "king salmon jumping into the lap of a grizzly bear," according to website of the US magazine Time.
The only thing that seems clear is that Snowden traveled to Russia. But, even if that is the case, the transit zone of the Moscow airport is a strange choice of refuge. The length of his stay could mean that his fate -- and his travel route -- are no longer under his control.
Of course, like much surrounding Snowden's case, this is only speculation. Despite the dearth of facts, there are a few possible scenarios. For example, it's likely that Snowden is having problems with his invalidated passport, which makes traveling the world virtually impossible. He could be forced to seek asylum in Russia, an option the Kremlin already floated days ago. But, in return for asylum, Snowden would probably have to share some of his secrets.
This would surely be an unprecedented propaganda coup for Putin, particularly after he scolded Washington and America's powerful intelligence agencies and portrayed himself as the potential protector of a dissident. Snowden's reputation among the Western public would suffer serious damage if he provided valuable information to the Kremlin, whose intelligence services are known for cracking down on both the opposition and human rights activists.
Perhaps Snowden has not flown out of Russia yet because the authorities there have arrested him in the hopes of finding out more details about his treasure trove of secret data.
And there's also a chance that Snowden has not flown out of Russia because Moscow is hesitant to enter into open conflict with Washington. On Tuesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry used a markedly less aggressive tone toward Moscow, saying that there was no need to "raise the level of confrontation." The United States, he added, is "simply requesting under a very normal procedure for the transfer of somebody." His Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, had reacted angrily earlier, calling threats from America "absolutely baseless and unacceptable."
Despite the often ostentatious display of diplomatic feuding between Russia and America, the fact is that both countries cooperate on many issues, ranging from the fight against terrorism to Afghanistan. Granted, President Putin has excluded the possibility of handing Snowden over, citing the lack of a legal foundation because the countries do not have an extradition treaty. However, the State Department views the matter differently, noting that recent years have seen the US transfer a number of wanted criminals to Russian authorities.
And, lastly, Moscow might also want offer to hand Snowden over in return for Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms trafficker serving a 25-year sentence in the US.
'Run, Snowden, Run'
No matter what has happened or what its motives have been, the Kremlin has already capitalized from the affair more than one could have anticipated when the disclosures were first made. The pro-government media in Russia, which usually display little affection for dissidents, are suddenly bursting with praise for this 30-year-old American fugitive.
"Run, Snowden, Run," ran the headline of the Rossiyskaya Gazeta, a daily published by the Russian government. And the Izvestiya daily triumphantly wrote that, in the battle against Snowden and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the US "is trying on the black mask of Darth Vader, and this mask has the trait of adhering to the skin."
Indeed, the Kremlin's strategy in the Snowden case is clear: to make Russia's own sins pale in comparison to America's misconduct.