It’s a sensational claim: unnamed US intelligence sources have told NBC News that Russia may extradite Edward Snowden to “curry favour” with US President Donald Trump.

The leak comes in the week that Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was forced to resign over links with Russia.

Snowden, who has been living in exile in Moscow since 2013, thinks the revelation vindicates him. “Finally: irrefutable evidence that I never co-operated with Russian intel. No country trades away spies, as the rest would fear they’re next,” he said on Twitter.

Loved and hated in equal measure, the former National Security Agency contractor in 2013 published explosive details about US intelligence activities.

The intelligence community sees him as a traitor, but others cite his role in blowing the lid on the US’s overreaching surveillance programme as heroic. Last year a campaign to lobby for Snowden’s pardon delivered 1m signatures to former president Barack Obama.

Snowden’s lawyer told the news agency that he had no knowledge of the plan and a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin denied the report.

But Putin, who continues to outfox his successive US counterparts, is the obvious benefactor of the claims. After shielding Snowden from the Obama administration, handing him over now nurtures what The Economist calls a “smouldering bromance” with Trump.

When an interviewer on Fox News recently told Trump that Putin was “a killer”, he retorted: “There are a lot of killers. What, you think our country’s so innocent?”

Unwittingly, the US president has become a gift to Russian propagandists who are far more aware that their interests make them unlikely allies with the Americans.

“I think this is one of those rare cases where the stakes are so high, the diplomatic implications so deep, that anything can happen,” former US deputy national security adviser Juan Zarate told NBC News. “At the end of the day, Moscow holds the cards here.”

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