President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday gave his clearest signal yet that he will not let a dispute over the fate of former U.S. spy contractor Edward Snowden derail Russia's relations with the United States.
But a lawyer assisting Snowden, who is stuck in the transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport and wanted by Washington for leaking details of U.S. intelligence programs, said he expected Russia to grant him temporary asylum within a week.
The Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, also said Snowden had no plans to leave soon for any of the three Latin American countries that are offering him refuge because of U.S. pressure on its allies to bar his way.
Allowing Snowden, 30, to stay in Russia even temporarily would upset Washington. But a refusal would open Putin to criticism at home that he has not stood up to Moscow's former Cold War enemy, even though he has refused to expel Snowden to the United States to face espionage charges.
Asked during a visit to the eastern Siberian town of Chita whether the affair would cast a shadow over a U.S.-Russia summit due in September in Moscow, Putin told reporters: “Bilateral relations, in my opinion, are far more important than squabbles about the activities of the secret services.”
Putin did not say whether Russia would grant Snowden's temporary asylum request, filed on Tuesday after more than three weeks at Sheremetyevo, but reiterated that he must agree to do nothing to harm the United States.
“We warned Mr. Snowden that any action by him that could cause damage to Russian-American relations is unacceptable for us,” the former KGB spy said.
Snowden, who arrived after fleeing Hong Kong on June 23, is useful as a propaganda tool for Putin, who accuses the United States of preaching to the world about rights and freedoms it does not uphold at home.
But Putin wants the September meeting with Obama, and a G20 summit due to follow it in St Petersburg, to go smoothly and would not want to risk a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in the southern Russian city of Sochi next February.
Both countries have signaled they want to improve ties, strained by issues ranging from the Syrian conflict to Putin's treatment of opponents and Western-funded non-governmental organizations since he started a third term in 2012.
Kucherena said he expected a positive response to Snowden's request for temporary asylum in Russia so that he can stay until he is sure of safe passage to another country. Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela have offered him sanctuary.
“The grounds that he cited in the application...hardly allow for a refusal of asylum,” he told reporters. “He has no plans to go elsewhere (immediately). He can't go anywhere, even if he gets a valid passport.”
Asked whether Snowden might apply for Russian citizenship, Kucherena said, “He does not rule it out”.
He said he had given Snowden a children's Russian ABC book to get him started learning the language.
Kucherena quoted Snowden as saying he had expected to be persecuted but had been surprised by the “excessive, disproportionate” response.
Putin has accused the United States of trapping Snowden, but Russia has kept the former contractor at arm's length by saying it regards the transit area between the runway and passport control as neutral territory.
President Barack Obama's administration on Tuesday repeated its call for Russia to send Snowden back to the United States, saying he was not a human rights activist or dissident and was accused of leaking classified information.
In Russia, temporary asylum is granted for a year and can be extended. Unlike political asylum, which would require a decree from Putin, the decision to grant temporary asylum is officially up to the Federal Migration Service (FMS).
The FMS has three months to decide but Kucherena told Reuters he expected Snowden to able to leave Sheremetyevo within a week and that Snowden had given him a verbal promise that he would stop anti-U.S. activities.
But a human rights activist who attended a meeting with Snowden on Friday said the American did not regard his leaks as harmful to his home country. Snowden has said that he was acting in U.S. interests, not against them.