As of the writing of this question (6/25/13), Edward Snowden is presumed to be at SVO, but there is a disconnect between Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama about what that means. From the perspective of the United States, a wanted fugitive is in Russia, and in good faith Russia should return him. The Russian position, on the other hand, is that Snowden has not yet entered Russia, and therefore is protected.

My question is, what laws govern such spaces? Are transit areas normally subject to the laws of the country in which they are situated, or are they more akin to the extraterritoriality afforded to embassies on foreign soil?

Put another way, if a petty crime is committed in such an area, is that person subject to law in that country? If, say, a non-Muslim was caught proseltyzing in the transit area, or if an underage person was caught drinking, would the laws of the country apply, or would it be the laws of the country of which the person is a citizen?

Finally, if, as Russia claims, Snowden has not yet entered Russia, would the United States be legally justified in sending a police officer to Russia on a regularly scheduled flight, arrest him, and bring him home?

  • the U.S. does not have any formal standing agreement with Russia in regards to extradition, though in good faith most requests are honored
    – Ryathal
    Jun 26, 2013 at 12:31
  • @Ryathal - I think the gist of the problem is that Russia is claiming specifically that they don't have jurisdiction over him.
    – user4012
    Jun 26, 2013 at 13:41
  • @DVK that's most likely true as well, and I think its a great question with a minor error that I expressed
    – Ryathal
    Jun 26, 2013 at 13:49
  • Eurostar is interesting here, because the border control is done before boarding. And that means there are French (and presumably Belgian) police and border guards in London. (I recall they once arrested a man who was wanted in France, and working in the railway station in London (I think that was back when the terminal was in Waterloo), but I can't find news reports of that now.)
    – TRiG
    Jun 26, 2013 at 14:10
  • I think a lot of this is going to depend on the country in question.
    – Joe W
    Oct 13, 2021 at 21:36

2 Answers 2


I can't speak for Russian laws on the matter. I can, however, speak about the legal situation in Germany which, I presume, is comparable.

One key phrase in a German legal text is § 26 of the Aufenthaltsverordnung (Residence Order; my translation).

(1) Ausländer, die sich im Bundesgebiet befinden, ohne im Sinne des § 13 Abs. 2 des Aufenthaltsgesetzes einzureisen, sind vom Erfordernis eines Aufenthaltstitels befreit.

My translation:

(1) Foreigners present on Federal territory without having crossed the border as per § 13 (2) of the Residence Act are not required to hold a residence permit.

The section has a part (2) which covers in long and convoluted sentences the fact that certain nationalities require an airport transit visa to transit through the international transit area of airports even when not entering Germany.

§ 13 of the Residence Act reads as follows (German original and official English translation):

(2) An einer zugelassenen Grenzübergangsstelle ist ein Ausländer erst eingereist, wenn er die Grenze überschritten und die Grenzübergangsstelle passiert hat. Lassen die mit der polizeilichen Kontrolle des grenzüberschreitenden Verkehrs beauftragten Behörden einen Ausländer vor der Entscheidung über die Zurückweisung (§ 15 dieses Gesetzes, §§ 18, 18a des Asylgesetzes) oder während der Vorbereitung, Sicherung oder Durchführung dieser Maßnahme die Grenzübergangsstelle zu einem bestimmten vorübergehenden Zweck passieren, so liegt keine Einreise im Sinne des Satzes 1 vor, solange ihnen eine Kontrolle des Aufenthalts des Ausländers möglich bleibt. Im Übrigen ist ein Ausländer eingereist, wenn er die Grenze überschritten hat.

(2) A foreigner is deemed to have entered the federal territory only after having crossed the border and passed through the border checkpoint. Should the authorities charged with policing cross-border traffic allow a foreigner to pass through the border checkpoint for a specific temporary purpose prior to a decision on the refusal of entry (section 15 of this Act, sections 18, 18a of the Asylum Act) or during preparation, safeguarding or implementation of this measure, this does not constitute entry as defined in sentence 1 as long as the said authorities remain able to monitor the foreigner’s stay. In all other cases, a foreigner is deemed to have entered the federal territory when crossing the border.

Taking these two, it is very clear that German law:

  • considers the international transit area of airports to be part of German territory
  • does not (legal fiction, I guess?) consider people present in the international transit area to have passed a border crossing and thus legally entered the country
  • does consider German laws to apply to international transit areas except where the phrasing of the law explicitly excludes it.

This is corroborated by the fact that there are customs offices airside and I believe there should also be federal police reachable airside although I was unable to locate their offices on the maps of Munich and Frankfurt airports available online.

What does this mean for Russia, the US, Snowdon and Putin (or rather: did at the time of posting the question)? That opens another entire can of worms. For example, even though extradition treaties exist they do not mean that a country would be forced to extradite a foreigner present on their soil. German courts regularly reject extradition to countries where 'cruel or unjust punishment' would be expected for the crime a foreigner is accused of. I suspect the real answer here is: Russia did what it felt was most convenient and effective at advancing its interests.


this is Putin's opinion (question is whether it's legally correct) - original russian and my translation:

"Он приехал как транзитный пассажир — и ему не нужна ни виза, ни другие документы. Он как транзитный пассажир имеет право купить билет и лететь, куда он хочет, — подчеркнул российский лидер. — Он не пересекает государственной границы, поэтому ему виза не нужна", — рассказал Путин. (src: Interfax)

He came in as a transfer passenger - he does NOT need either a visa or any other documents. As a transfer passenger, he has a right to buy a ticket and fly wherever he wants. However, since he did not cross the border of the State of Russia, he does not need a visa.

Bolded text the most critical. Note the fancy quibble - he did not cross the border... yet, it does not say that he's not inside the borders.

... "Что касается возможной выдачи куда бы то ни было, то мы можем выдавать каких-то граждан иностранных государств только в государства, с которыми у нас есть соответствующие международные соглашения о выдаче преступников", — сказал российский лидер, добавив, что с США такого соглашения Россия не заключала.

"Regarding possible extradition to anywhere, we can only extradite people to states which we have corresponding international extradition agreements with", adding that Russian did NOT have such an agreement with USA.

So, to address the actual question:

Putin's statement implies that they CAN arrest and extradite Snowden if they wanted to. He merely says the won't do so in this specific case due to lack of extradition agreement, NOT ebcause they lack jurisdiction.

Other sources disagree. For example:

"A person may stay in a transit zone indefinitely. A state has no jurisdiction over that area," Eugeny Varshavsky, a former head of the Russian Federal Migration Service (FMS) Department for Legal Support, told Xinhua in an exclusive interview Tuesday.

"Anyone in a transit zone enjoys immunity like a foreign diplomat: He or she cannot be arrested, interrogated or otherwise be restricted in freedom," Varshavsky said.

"If the state believes a person violates this country's law or poses a security threat, deportation may be considered, but only to the country of his or her citizenship," he added.


The minister's remarks were correct because, technically, a transit zone's legal status was somewhat similar to the status of the open sea, Varshavsky said.

Such an area had a special legal regime governed by Geneva and the Hague conventions, as well as international transit regulations, he added.

Another wrinkle: Russia's rules seem to require holding a "transit visa" to STAY in transit zone. From http://www.russianembassy.org/page/transit-visa

Transit visa is required if the period of stay in Russia exceeds 24 hours or a traveler needs to change the airport.

But he may possibly have one

  • As a side note, Wikipedia seems singlularly unhelpful
    – user4012
    Jun 26, 2013 at 14:30
  • Ya ne znayal, shto te govaru po russkie! Jun 27, 2013 at 11:35
  • International Transit Areas are a sort of diplomatic enclave. Some are regulated (i.e. Schengen), some exist solely by convention. Snowden has already crossed Russia's borders twice: Once when he entered Russian airspace while in flight, and once when he entered the transit area (and exited Russia). Technically he's now outside Russia (broadly similarly to if he was in an embassy), and doesn't need to cross its borders again to fly away from it. That said, I don't think Putin would concern himself with such details if was actually interested in capturing Snowden (and... why would he be?)
    – yannis
    Jun 27, 2013 at 13:07
  • @AffableGeek - you gotta pay attention to questions you ask :)))
    – user4012
    Jun 27, 2013 at 14:49
  • 1
    @YannisRizos - there doesn't seem to be any formal proof of what the "diplomatic enclave" status of Sheremetevo is that I could find. No documents, just hearsay and opinions from sources of various officiality. Seems the whole "international zone" thing is just a mirage.
    – user4012
    Jun 27, 2013 at 14:50

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