When the American whistleblower, Edward Snowden, fled to Hong Kong, after leaking details of a top-secret US surveillance programme, Washington launched a furious campaign to get him back.
It fielded high-level officials to denounce him, while applying formally to Hong Kong for his extradition. The request was rejected on a technicality – leading US officials to vent the sort of frustration UK officials have felt in similar circumstances and underlining that extradition is a very tricky area of law. Meanwhile, Mr Snowden had moved on.
For the past 10 days, he appears to have been holed up in a transit zone of Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow. It is hard to believe that the Russians will not have availed themselves of this heaven-sent intelligence gift and that this is a cause of the delay. What has also emerged, though, is that Mr Snowden may have had no choice, for want of any country willing to grant him asylum. Having failed in its judicial approach, is Washington now playing diplomatic hardball to ensure he has no hiding place?
As well as dispatching envoys around the world to press its case, the US appears to be applying other sorts of leverage. Hence perhaps President Putin’s public insistence that asylum would be conditional. Hence, too, the difficulties encountered by the Bolivian President as he flew home from a Moscow energy summit. That a head of state should be stranded at a European airport because air space has been closed to his plane says much about the real reach of US power – and it does not bode well for Mr Snowden’s escape prospects.
It is understandable, not least because of the disgraceful way the US authorities have treated the WikiLeaks whistleblower, Bradley Manning, that Mr Snowden should prefer to defend himself from outside US jurisdiction. But if the choice is between lifelong silence in Moscow, a fugitive’s life somewhere in Central America and a negotiated return to the US with his day in court, this last might be the best of several bad outcomes.