Russia has granted a three-year residency permit to former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who has leaked thousands of top-secret documents on the agency’s communications collection programs, his lawyer announced on Thursday.
The decision will add new fuel to Cold War-like tensions between Russia and the United States over what the Obama administration charges is the Kremlin’s military and economic support for pro-Russia separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine.
In addition to granting Snowden the residency permit, Moscow on Thursday announced a total embargo on food imports from the United States, European Union and other countries in retaliation for sanctions they’ve slapped on Russia for backing the insurgents in Ukraine.
Anatoly Kucherena, Snowden’s lawyer, announced his client’s residency permit approval at a Moscow news conference. “He has got a three-year residence permit starting from August 1,” Kucherena was quoted as saying by the state-run ITAR-TASS news agency. “He is also free to move across the country and travel abroad, but for a term not exceeding three months, since, according to the legislation, the residence permit may be cancelled.”
Snowden, who is wanted by the U.S. government, could in the future apply for Russian citizenship, he said.
The 31-year-old former U.S. intelligence contractor, who also worked for the CIA, was given a yearlong residency permit last year after spending some 40 days in the transit lounge of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport following the revocation by the United States of his U.S. passport.
He flew into Moscow after turning over to Western journalists in Hong Kong thousands of top-secret documents detailing NSA communications collection programs, including several that gathered the communications data of millions of ordinary Americans.
The revelations triggered a major political debate over privacy versus the powers the government says it needs to uncover terrorist plots.
U.S. officials have denounced Snowden as a traitor; he maintains he is a whistleblower who exposed illegal U.S. surveillance operations.