Edward Snowden, who leaked documents about a vast U.S. electronic spying program, has officially entered Russian territory after weeks in the transport lounge of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, according to multiple reports.
Snowden has been granted refuge in Russia, according to a statement by WikiLeaks.
"Edward Snowden has successfully acquired refugee status in Russia and will shortly leave the airport," the anti-secrecy organization said on Twitter.
After receiving asylum from Russia, Snowden was quoted on Wikileaks website saying: "Over the past eight weeks we have seen the Obama administration show no respect for international or domestic law, but in the end the law is winning.”
He added: “I thank the Russian Federation for granting me asylum in accordance with its laws and international obligations."
Snowden's case has caused new strains in relations between Russia and the United States, which wants him extradited to face espionage charges.
High-level talks scheduled for next week between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and their Russian counterparts are now "up in the air," a U.S. official told Reuters Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Presidential Press Secretary Jay Carney said the White House is "extremely disappointed" Russia granted Snowden asylum. Carney added that the U.S. will reevaluate whether to proceed with Obama-Putin summit scheduled in the fall.
Senior Kremlin official Yuri Ushakov, however, told reporters that the Snowden's case is "too insignificant" to damage U.S.-Russia ties.
"Our president has ... expressed hope many times that this will not affect the character of our relations," Ushakov said.
Anatoly Kucherena, a Russian lawyer assisting Snowden, said the 30-year-old has been given temporary asylum status for a period of one year, RIA news agency reported.
Kucherena added that the whistle-blower, who leaked National Secrutiy Agency documents that show the U.S. has been collecting data on millions of Americans and foreign nationals through phone and Internet spying, is in a “safe place” and his location will not be disclosed.
"I have just seen him off. He has left for a secure location," the lawyer said.
Russia Today news agency tweeted a photo of what appears to be an asylum document bearing Snowden's picture.
Legally, asylum protects Snowden from any U.S. charge, American University law professor Steve Vladeck told Al Jazeera.
“The Russian government will have no obligation to return Snowden to the United States no matter the basis for an extradition request,” Vladeck said
Though the law is on Snowden’s side, Vladeck added he “will still need to have Russia’s diplomatic protection.”
Snowden has been living in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport since June 23, when he arrived from Hong Kong. He had hoped to fly on to Latin America, where three countries have offered to shelter him, but was concerned that the United States would prevent him reaching his destination.
The lawyer said that the latest NSA leak published in the Guardian Wednesday had been given to the news agency before Snowden agreed to stop leaking documents – a key condition of Russia's asylum offer.
Dozens of slides published by the paper divulge details about XKeyscore, an NSA program that, according to Snowden, gives the U.S. the ability to spy on "the vast majority of human communications" and covers “nearly everything a typical user does on the internet.”
Snowden ‘triggered’ important public debate
The release of documents highlighting NSA’s spy programs has forced the intelligence community to defend the legitimacy of monitoring millions of citizens’ privacy.
U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper released three declassified documents Wednesday related to the surveillance programs revealed by Snowden. In a statement, Clapper said the declassification was made in the "interest of increased transparency."
Congress continued to debate the U.S. spying program Wednesday during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that convened high-ranking intelligence officials to testify about the programs’ merits and procedures.
"We need straightforward answers, and I'm concerned we're not getting them," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and chairman of the committee, admonishing Clapper for misleading testimony he gave earlier this year.
Member of U.S. Homeland Security Advisory Council and former congressman Lee Hamilton said he is feeling a “real ambivalence” for Snowden.
“I cannot defend Snowden’s release and misuse of classified information, but at the same time, I think he has triggered a very important public debate on the relevant surveillance programs,” Hamilton told Al Jazeera.
“That debate would not have occurred at this time without his release of this information,” he added.
Al Jazeera and wire services