WASHINGTON — Rebuffed by Russia's president, the Obama administration toned down demands Tuesday that fugitive National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden be expelled from a Moscow airport in a sign that the U.S. believes he is not worth scuttling diplomatic relations between the former Cold War enemies.
The White House issued a measured, if pointed, statement asking again that Russia help U.S. authorities capture Snowden — but stopped far short of threatening a cooling detente if he escapes.
It was a turnabout from tough talk against China a day earlier for letting Snowden flee Hong Kong instead of sending him back to the U.S. to face espionage charges for revealing classified national security surveillance programs that critics worldwide say violate privacy rights.
The outright refusals by Russia and China to cooperate on Snowden served as a fresh wake-up call to the U.S. that it cannot expect burgeoning superpowers to comply with its requests despite recent attempts to overcome longtime suspicions, and improve global partnerships.
Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking to reporters in Saudi Arabia, called for "calm and reasonableness" as Moscow and Washington danced around Snowden's fate.
"We would hope that Russia would not side with someone who is a fugitive from justice," Kerry said. "We're not looking for a confrontation. We are not ordering anybody."
Russian President Vladimir Putin also said he wished to avoid a diplomatic showdown over Snowden. But he refused to back off his refusal to turn over Snowden to the U.S.
"Mr. Snowden is a free man, and the sooner he chooses his final destination the better it is for us and for him," Putin said. "I hope it will not affect the business-like character of our relations with the U.S. and I hope that our partners will understand that."
Snowden remained for a third day in the transit zone of Sheremetyevo Airport, and Putin said he was out of Moscow's reach since he had not passed through immigration and was, technically, not on Russian territory. Snowden was believed to be waiting to fly to an undisclosed location — most likely in South America or Iceland — that would give him political asylum despite frustrated U.S. demands that he be extradited.
Experts predicted that Putin, ultimately, will not stop Snowden from leaving or take any steps to help the U.S. catch him. But Washington may have to place Snowden's escape against the risk of damaging relations as the U.S. and Russia negotiate a number of high-priority issues, including nuclear arms reductions and a peace settlement in Syria.
Gary Hart, the former Democratic senator and presidential candidate, doubted that Washington would let Snowden make already poor U.S.-Russian relations any worse. Hart is an expert on Russia and board chairman of the American Security Project think-tank that was created by Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
"An incident like this should not interfere with the ongoing relationship between both countries," Hart said in an interview Tuesday. "There is too much else at stake to seriously impair a bilateral relationship with both Russia and China. In the grand scheme of things I don't think it's going to make much difference."
But Russia hasn't made it easy for the U.S.
Earlier this month, Putin held off President Barack Obama's call for negotiations to reduce nuclear weapons by noting that any talks would have to involve other nations. And Putin has refused to back down from Russia's support for the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and, in turn, has forced leaders of the Group of Eight industrial economies to call for a negotiated Syrian peace settlement instead of Assad's outright ouster.
"For quite some time now, the Russians have shown themselves when the opportunity presents itself to poke a finger in the U.S. eye," said Andrew Weiss, a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace expert who oversaw Russian issues on the White House National Security Council in the late 1980s and 1990s.
"At this point, both sides see an interest in not having a huge rupture over Snowden, mostly, I think, over the expectation that Snowden doesn't want to stay in Russia," Weiss said. "I think on the U.S. side there's a desire, with President Obama scheduled to be in Moscow in early September, not to blow up the relationship over this issue."
Kerry also was expected to meet next week with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Brunei.
On Tuesday, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell would not discuss how the Obama administration might respond if Snowden was allowed to leave the Moscow airport unscathed. "We're not there yet," Ventrell said.
Obama administration lawyers believe Russia has legal authority to deport Snowden, even though Moscow says it does not. Ventrell also noted that the U.S. has returned "many hundreds of criminals over the recent years" to Russia as Moscow has requested, and cited stepped-up law enforcement cooperation between the two countries since the April 15 twin bombings at the Boston Marathon that killed three people. The attack allegedly was carried out by two brothers who are ethnic Chechens originally from the Russian province of Dagestan.
Several Republican lawmakers urged Obama to step up pressure on Putin.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, speaking on CNN, called Putin "an old KGB colonel apparatchik." And Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., a former ambassador, said the Russian leader's refusal to expel Snowden "reinforces a concern all of us have that these relations are deteriorating."
"There is essentially no respect between these two presidents of these two very important countries," Coats said.