Here's How Snowden Could Escape from Moscow and Exactly Where He Could Go
If Edward Snowden wants to leave Russia, here's how he can do so: Leave the terminal, get onto a plane, fly to another country. But we have to ask: Is there anywhere that Snowden can get without flying through another country's airspace?
If Edward Snowden wants to leave Russia, here's how he can do so: Leave the terminal, get onto a plane, fly to another country. That's it. Of course, each of those steps presents a different set of challenges, none more than the last one. Prompting the question: Is there anywhere that Snowden can get to without risking being blocked from flying through another country's airspace?
Before we answer that, let's get steps one and two out of the way.
Step one: Leave the terminal.
Whether or not Snowden can depart Russia depends, first and foremost, on whether or not Russia wants him to leave. The Atlantic Wire spoke with attorney David Leopold of Leopold & Associates who's been practicing immigration law for decades and who is familiar with the vagaries of international travel. The only thing blocking Snowden's departure, Leopold told us, were the Russians. "If the Russian authorities decide that's what they want to do, that's their sovereign territory and they can do it." Last week, Russian president Vladimir Putin said, "He came as a transit passenger, he does not need a visa or any other documents. He has the right to buy a ticket and fly wherever he wants." And on Tuesday, the country suggested it was more than willing to let him leave, particularly if he didn't stop damaging American interests.
Assuming that the CIA isn't waiting outside the terminal doors dressed as baggage attendants, Snowden's path seems clear. There's no violation of international law, Leopold pointed out, nor do Russia and the U.S. have an active extradition treaty. Snowden is probably free to go.
Step two: Get on a plane.
We're assuming that, if he wants to go, Snowden will avail himself of air travel rather than a lengthy cruise or, say, a cab. In that case, he has two options: commercial or private flights.
The former, a flight on a commercial aircraft, is probably a non-starter. First of all, it's unlikely that a carrier, regardless of national origin, would be enthusiastic about risking the ire of the United States government by transporting Snowden around the world. Second, Leopold notes that airlines are responsible for ensuring that their passengers have valid travel documents allowing them into their destination country. After having had his U.S. passport revoked, Snowden doesn't have any such valid document. (One issued by Ecuador last week has since been revoked.)
The rule around travel documents is flexible, in a sense. "At this level and with this kind of attention and the interest of both sides, this is a very delicate diplomatic dance," Leopold notes. "The law says one thing, and the law is there — but you can't look at the law in the abstract." Any sovereign nation that wants to could welcome Snowden with or without a travel document. But that flexibility likely doesn't extend to commercial flights. (Try going to your local US Airways counter and telling them that China is cool with your showing up without a visa. Let us know in the comments how that goes.)
Which brings us to private aircraft. When Snowden was still in Hong Kong, a WikiLeaks supporter apparently had a plane on standby at that city's airport. There's nothing preventing a private aircraft from landing at Sheremetyevo International Airport, picking up Snowden, and taking off, travel documents or no.
Step three: Fly to another country.
Last night seems to have demonstrated that flying from country to country is not as easy you might think. The private flight of President Evo Morales of Bolivia was apparently barred from flying over some European countries under the (also apparently) mistaken belief that he had Snowden on board. If Snowden boarded a private aircraft and left Moscow — and if the United States or its allies found out about it — it's nearly certain that many countries would similarly bar the flight from entering its airspace.
Which brings us to the key question: Where could Snowden go, without passing through another country's airspace?
First, we need to know how far the plane can fly. If it can't pass through any other countries' air spaces, it also can't land in those countries to refuel. Adam Twidell, founder and CEO of UK-based private charter service PrivateFly, explained to us by email how far these aircraft can go.
"A direct flight on an aircraft is also subject to the head and tailwinds involved for the routing, that would shorten the possible range," he noted. But: "The longest range private jet currently on the market is the Gulfstream G550, with a direct range of 6750 nautical miles." Other more common aircraft have shorter ranges. The Boeing Business Jet can go 6,141 nautical miles, for example.
Update, July 9: An emailer notes that this data is outdated. The Bombardier Global 8000 can travel 7,900 nautical miles.
Twidell also pointed out that, by law, private aircraft have to land with fuel on board, in case the aircraft needs to divert from its intended destination in an emergency, somewhat shrinking the range under normal conditions. But we'll set that aside for our purposes. (He also noted that commercial aircraft, bigger and carrying more fuel, routinely fly much farther. A regular flight between Newark and Singapore in an Airbus A340 covers 8,200 nautical miles.)
Which brings us to the question of where he can go. We've updated our map showing countries to which he's applied for asylum; it appears below. Black indicates a country that has rejected an asylum claim; yellow, a pending one; green, a country that has indicated some level of support.
Based on this, we narrowed the possibilities down to four: Iceland, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Cuba. (Update: We added Venezuela.) Why not China? Snowden has had better opportunities to get to China, but didn't avail himself of them.
Using Google Earth's handy distance calculation tool, we looked at the distances between Snowden's current location and the airports near the capital cities of each country in an effort to figure out how far that private plane would have to fly.
Reykjavik, Iceland: 2,210 nautical miles
In each of the ensuing maps, you'll notice that we assumed the same route: north from Moscow, past the eastern edge of Finland, but outside its territorial control, along the northern edge of Norway. Russia has a lot of coastline, but for travel west, which all of these scenarios require, it's by far the fastest way.
In the case of Iceland, the next stretch of the flight is simple. Snowden's plane could simply continue on to Reykjavik, landing safely well within the plane's operational distance.
Sucre, Bolivia: No can do
Unfortunately for Snowden, Bolivia turns out not to be an option. Completely land-locked, there's no way that his plane could make it to the country without passing through another nation. Not to mention that it's by far the longest flight of all of the options.
Caracas, Venezuela: 6,017 nautical miles
This flight is a little trickier than the one to Iceland. First of all, it's much longer. Second, it requires navigating the small Caribbean islands just off the Venezuelan coast. (That red dot furthest to the west in that image represents that avoidance.) In all, though, manageable.
If Snowden's jet is a Gulfstream G550, this is in range. But not by much. He might want to ensure that there are no storms brewing over the Atlantic before setting a departure date.
Havana, Cuba: 6,068 nautical miles
Trickier still. As with the flight to Venezuela, the flight requires navigating the sovereign territory of the islands to the east of the island, part of why this flight is longer than the one to Caracas. But the big problem is that this requires Snowden traveling awfully close to the United States — almost certainly an unwelcome idea. The president has said he wouldn't scramble jets to intercept Snowden, but if his plane is only 100 miles from Florida, the temptation might be too great.
Update, Friday — Managua, Nicaragua: 6,479 nautical miles
With reports that Nicaragua is open to accepting Snowden's bid for asylum, it's worth seeing how he could get there.
A flight to Managua is substantially trickier. It opens up one new possibility: going from the eastern edge of Russia across the Pacific. But leaving from the southeastern city of Chabarovsk yields a path that's still over 6,900 nautical miles. The north-of-Scandanavia route saves a much-needed 500 miles, but also requires navigating the Caribbean islands, as with Cuba. This is by far the farthest option. In other words, Nicaragua may be willing to take Snowden, but it would be testing the limits of the aircraft to get there without refueling.
In other words, it (still) all hinges on Iceland. It's within a safe range. It's easy to get to. And the country has not yet rejected his overtures about seeking asylum; in fact, they likely haven't been considered. As Johannes Tomasson of Iceland's Ministry of the Interior explained in an email to The Atlantic Wire, "a person has to be present within or at the borders of Iceland to be able to apply for asylum in Iceland."
So there you go, Edward. Open the terminal door, get on a private plane, hug the Scandinavian coast, land in Reykjavik, and keep your fingers crossed. It's your best option.
Photo: A Gulfstream G550 takes off from an airfield in Germany. (AP)