Somewhere in a Moscow airport, Edward Snowden is watching a departure board.
Each flight spirits its passengers far from Sheremetyevo Airport and the "transit zone" where Snowden is holed up, with the international media prowling about for any sign of him, but none carries the NSA leaker. Oh, the places he could go — if only he weren’t the world’s most-wanted man at the moment. Instead he’s stuck, in limbo, while American officials clamor for his arrest.
What’s particularly striking is how few options Snowden has. Using data from OpenFlights.org, FP put its travel agent hat on — examining the potential routes Snowden could have taken from Hong Kong to end up in a country conceivably willing to shield him from U.S. extradition. In order to satisfy the requirements of this exercise, his itinerary couldn’t connect through the airport of a U.S.-friendly country — a scenario that would all but assure Snowden’s arrest. Many of the potential sanctuaries that emerge are about as unappealing as the prospect of a stiff U.S. jail sentence.
So when he left Hong Kong over the weekend, what options did Snowden have? We’ve sketched out some possible itineraries in the map below:
The original limiting factor for Snowden’s travel arrangements was the airports Hong Kong International services. China as a first stop was not an option — Chinese officials reportedly wanted Snowden out of the country. Given the remaining destinations for flights originating in Hong Kong International, Russia was the only logical first stop — either Moscow or Vladivostok.
Let’s say Snowden chose to fly to Vladivostok from Hong Kong. From there he could have transited to Pyongyang. While he would have been formally required to present a visa, North Korea would probably have been delighted to shelter the leaker. Then again, Snowden chose not to fly to Vladivostok. The reasons are as obvious as his choices are limited.
Instead Snowden flew to Moscow. From there, he has some options — especially in Latin America — but they’re still sparse.
Snowden has applied for asylum in Ecuador, a country he could reach by flying direct from Moscow to Havana, Cuba, and then catching a connecting flight to Caracas, Venezuela before a final leg to Guayaquil, Ecuador. He could, of course, also stop in Havana or Caracas if the respective governments would have him (which they likely would).
But let’s say Snowden wants to spend his sunset years in Africa. Once in Havana, he could catch a flight to Luanda, the capital of Angola. Relations with the United States have warmed a bit over the past couple of decades, but keeping Snowden out of America’s clutches would certainly be sweet revenge for the years the United States spent arming an insurgency in the country during the Cold War.
Then again, Snowden could also take refuge in the greater Middle East. Starting in Moscow, he could fly direct to Tehran and a warm embrace from the mullahs. Alternatively, he could connect in Tehran to Karachi. Heading to Pakistan, a nominal U.S. ally, would certainly be a gamble, but America isn’t exactly beloved in Islamabad at the moment, and sheltering Snowden would give the Pakistanis leverage in their seemingly futile campaign to stop the United States from carrying out drone strikes with impunity inside the country’s borders.
So why are Snowden’s travel options so limited? The simple explanation is that there are few direct flights to the countries most at odds with the United States. For example, a candidate in Southeast Asia, Laos, was off limits because the countries through which Snowden would have had to connect from Hong Kong would have happily handed him over to U.S. authorities.
An easy way around this problem, of course, would be for a government jet — one belonging to Cuba, perhaps — to come pick Snowden up. But so far the NSA leaker appears determined to fly commercial. That restricts his options greatly.
But, hey, we hear summer in Tehran is fabulous.
Rebecca Frankel and John Reed contributed research and reporting.