Russia was never meant to be Edward Snowden’s final destination. When he decided in 2013 to leave his comfortable job in Hawaii as a U.S. intelligence contractor and expose his government’s most invasive spying programs, the whistle-blower knew he was likely to live in exile for a while. He was hoping for asylum somewhere in Latin America or maybe Western Europe. But he wound up marooned inside a rival superpower, playing a bit part in a new Cold War.
It could have been worse; his fellow leaker of government secrets, U.S. Army Private Chelsea Manning, was sentenced to 35 years in prison in 2013 for sending hundreds of thousands of secret files to the WikiLeaks site. Manning has served her time since then as a transgender woman inside a military prison for men at Fort Leavenworth, where she has attempted suicide at least once. But Manning’s story has since taken a happier turn. In one of the final acts of his tenure, President Barack Obama commuted her sentence on Jan. 17. He did not grant any such clemency to Snowden, whose path home now looks a lot more treacherous.
During his campaign for the presidency, Donald Trump referred to Snowden as a traitor, and his pick for director of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, has called for his execution for endangering the lives of American service members. In the days before Trump’s Inauguration, some wondered whether Russian President Vladimir Putin might decide it was now time for Snowden to return home and face justice. Michael Morell, former acting director of the CIA, wrote in a column published on Jan. 15 that the whistle-blower would be the “perfect Inauguration gift” for Trump. “It would allow the soon-to-be President to publicly demonstrate, with reason, that his relationship with Putin and his new approach to Russia are paying dividends,” Morell wrote on the Cipher Brief, a national-security blog.
Yet the Kremlin does not look ready to offer up those dividends. Rarely, if ever, has Russia been in a position to amplify the voice of a free-speech campaigner whom the U.S. has sought to imprison. Putin has relished that reversal of roles, and he has used it to distract from his own abysmal record on human rights and to condemn the U.S. for hypocrisy. As a propaganda tool and a geopolitical bargaining chip, Snowden is worth more to the Kremlin than any Inauguration gift.
So it was no surprise when the Russian Foreign Ministry responded to Morell’s column by announcing on Jan. 17 that Snowden’s right to stay in Russia had been extended. His lawyer in Moscow, Anatoly Kucherena, confirmed to TIME that his client’s residence permit is now valid until 2020. He is free to travel around the country, to campaign for the cause of transparency and to appear via video link at conferences around the world. He has even been free to criticize the Russian government. “After 70 years of Soviet power, we have come a long way toward achieving a situation where free speech is ensured,” Kucherena says. “And I think Edward is a very good sign of that. This only makes us glad to have him here.” Russia has also been glad to watch Snowden’s disclosures embarrass the U.S. government and strain its alliances around the world.
That doesn’t mean his extradition to the U.S. is off the table, as Trump and Putin look for ways to cement their relationship. Snowden does not have permanent asylum in Russia, and his legal status amounts to a kind of limbo. Nor is he any closer to returning home on his own terms. What he has long demanded is the right to return to the U.S. and face a public trial before a jury, rather than a closed military court like the one that jailed Manning. Under Obama, the U.S. government has refused to promise him that right. Even as it considered the possibility of granting him a pardon, the White House was careful to differentiate between the crimes that Snowden and Manning committed–and the ways they have dealt with the consequences. While Manning faced justice, Snowden “fled into the arms of an adversary,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Jan. 15. That may be true. But by refusing Snowden’s appeals, Obama has effectively left him in the hands of that adversary–and made him another trump card in Putin’s deck.
This appears in the January 30, 2017 issue of TIME.