MOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir Putin bluntly rejected U.S. pleas to turn over National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden on Tuesday, saying he is free to travel wherever he wants and insisting that Russian security agencies haven't contacted him.
Snowden is in the transit zone of a Moscow airport and has not passed through Russian immigration, Putin said, meaning he is not technically in Russia.
After arriving Sunday on a flight from Hong Kong, Snowden registered for a Havana-bound flight from Moscow on Monday en route to Venezuela and then possible asylum in Ecuador, but he didn't board the plane.
Snowden's whereabouts since then have been a mystery, and Putin's comments were the first time Russia has made clear it knows where he is.
Speculation has been rife that Russian security agencies might want to keep Snowden in Russia for a more thorough debriefing, but Putin denied that.
"Our special services never worked with Mr. Snowden and aren't working with him today," Putin said at a news conference during a visit to Finland.
Putin said that because there is no extradition agreement with the U.S., it couldn't meet the U.S. request.
"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."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that though the United States does not have an extradition treaty with Russia, it wants Moscow to comply with common law practices between countries where fugitives are concerned.
Putin's staunch refusal to consider deporting Snowden shows the Russian president's readiness to further challenge Washington at a time when U.S.-Russian relations are already strained over Syria and a Russian ban on adoptions by Americans.
A Kremlin decision to provide even temporary shelter and safe transit to Snowden would embarrass Washington. And despite Putin's denial, security experts believe the Russian special services wouldn't miss the chance to question a man who is believed to hold reams of classified U.S. documents and can shed light on how the U.S. intelligence agencies collect information.
Igor Korotchenko, director of the Center for Global Arms Trade and editor of National Defense Magazine, said Snowden would be of particular interest because little is known about digital espionage.
"The security services would be happy to enter into contact with Mr. Snowden," Korotchenko said.
Russia also relished using Snowden's revelations to try to turn the tables on U.S. criticism of Russia's rights record.
Putin compared Snowden to WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, who has been provided asylum in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, saying that both men were labeled criminals but consider themselves rights activists and champions of freedom of information.
"Ask yourself a question: should people like that be extradited so that they put them in prison or not?" he said. "In any case, I would prefer not to deal with such issues. It's like shearing a piglet: a lot of squealing and little wool."
In an apparent reference to claims that Moscow could have played a role in Snowden's exit from Hong Kong, he said that his arrival was a "complete surprise" and dismissed accusations against Russia as "ravings and sheer nonsense."
"He doesn't need a visa or any other documents, and as a transit passenger he has the right to buy a ticket and fly wherever he wants," Putin said.