Russia’s decision, which infuriated American officials, significantly alters the legal status of Mr. Snowden, the former intelligence analyst wanted by the United States for leaking details of the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs. Even as those leaks continued, Mr. Snowden now has legal permission to live — and conceivably even work — anywhere in Russia for as long as a year, safely out of the reach of American prosecutors.
Mr. Snowden, 30, departed Sheremetyevo Airport unexpectedly at 3:30 in the afternoon after his lawyer, Anatoly G. Kucherena, delivered to him a passport-like document issued by the Federal Migration Service on Wednesday and valid until July 31, 2014.
Mr. Kucherena said he would not disclose his whereabouts, though he expected Mr. Snowden could make a public appearance soon. “I cannot give out details,” he said.
Mr. Snowden left the airport’s transit zone alone, an airport official said, but WikiLeaks later announced that he had left accompanied by one of the organization’s representatives, Sarah Harrison, who apparently had remained with him since his flight began in Hong Kong in June.
“We are extremely disappointed that the Russian Federation would take this step,” the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, said in Washington. “Obviously, this is not a positive development.”
Mr. Carney said President Obama had not decided whether to cancel a planned a trip to Moscow in September but he strongly suggested he would. “We are evaluating the utility of a summit,” he said.
Mr. Snowden, the spokesman said, was not a “whistle-blower,” as his supporters contend but someone who has been indicted on felony charges of leaking classified information. Mr. Carney said the Russian decision “undermines a long history of law enforcement cooperation,” mostly recently on the Boston Marathon bombings.
American lawmakers have called for harsh retaliation against Russia, even a boycott of the Winter Olympic Games to be held in Sochi.
Although President Vladimir V. Putin and President Obama both sought to avoid a direct diplomatic clash over Mr. Snowden, Mr. Putin and other officials here made clear they would under no circumstance extradite him, despite direct appeals from Secretary of State John Kerry and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
As recently as this week, American officials remained hopeful that some sort of agreement to return Mr. Snowden to the United States could be reached, according to officials in Washington and Moscow.
One of Mr. Putin’s aides, Yuri V. Ushakov, said on Thursday that Mr. Snowden’s fate was of “insignificant character” and thus would not affect relations, according to the state news agency, RIA Novosti. He added that the Kremlin was aware that Mr. Obama might cancel his trip to Moscow but had received no official notification from officials in Washington.
Mr. Putin, who spent the day at his official residence on the outskirts of Moscow, meeting with the president of Tajikistan, learned of Mr. Snowden’s release on Thursday, the Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said. He added that the decision had been made by immigration officials and not by Mr. Putin, though it is widely assumed here that any decision with such potentially severe diplomatic consequences would require approval from within the Kremlin.
"It has nothing to do with the president or his administration," Mr. Peskov said in a telephone interview.
The Kremlin, he said, continued to assume Mr. Obama would visit Moscow to meet with Mr. Putin after attending the annual summit of the Group of 20 nations in St. Petersburg in early September. And while Mr. Peskov said that Russia believed in the importance of relations for regional and global security, he shifted the burden of sustaining the relationship onto the Obama administration. “You cannot dance tango alone,” he said.
Mr. Putin, for his part, has sent contradictory signals during the course of the Snowden saga, which began eight weeks ago when Mr. Snowden was hiding in Hong Kong and then flew to Moscow on June 23, one step ahead of an extradition request by the Justice Department.
The Russian leader suggested early on that Mr. Snowden should leave Russia quickly and later called him an “unwanted Christmas present,” though he blamed the Obama administration for stranding him in Moscow by revoking his passport and pressuring other countries to block any efforts by him to seek exile in Ecuador, Bolivia and other Latin American countries that have said they would consider accepting him.
Mr. Snowden could still decide to seek permanent asylum in another country. According to Mr. Kucherena, he has not officially applied for permanent political asylum in Russia and could simply remain until he is able to fly elsewhere.
Mr. Snowden’s departure from the Moscow airport on Thursday set off frenzied media speculation about his whereabouts — with one specious report that he was headed to a notorious expatriate bar known as the Hungry Duck that had in fact closed. Where he was or would stay remained unclear on Thursday evening.
His presence in Russia has been cheered by many here who, like those in the United States and other countries, have defended his decision to leak the secrets of American surveillance. Ivan I. Melnikov, a senior Communist Party member of Parliament and a candidate for mayor of Moscow in next month’s election, called him a hero.
“Frankly speaking,” Mr. Melnikov said, according to the Interfax news agency, “he is a also like a balm to the hearts of all Russian patriots.”
Pavel Durov, the founder of the most prominent Russian online social network, VKontakte, even invited Mr. Snowden to join his company and help to create new security measures. “Snowden might be interested in working to protect the personal data of millions of our users,” he wrote.
Ludmila Alekseyevna, the head of the Russian Helsinki Committee, told Russian news organizations that she welcomed the government’s decision to grant Mr. Snowden temporary refugee status. “I am satisfied that this happened and that Snowden received asylum in Russia,” Interfax quoted her as saying.
Beyond the temporary refugee certificate, it was unclear whether the Russian government would play any formal role in sheltering Mr. Snowden, like providing housing, which might be seen by American diplomats as a further affront to the United States.
Mr. Kucherena took pains to say that he had not helped Mr. Snowden with a place to stay outside the airport and suggested that Mr. Snowden had made his own arrangements. “Questions of his security and questions of his living arrangements, all of that is up to him,” Mr. Kucherena told the Interfax news agency. “He will take care of this himself.”
In a Twitter posting, WikiLeaks said: “We would like to thank the Russian people and all those others who have helped to protect Mr. Snowden. We have won the battle — now the war.”
WikiLeaks later quoted Mr. Snowden as thanking the Russians “for granting me asylum in accordance with its laws and international obligations.”
“Over the past eight weeks we have seen the Obama administration show no respect for international or domestic law,” the statement quoted him saying, “but in the end, the law is winning.”
For the Kremlin, the episode has offered an opportunity to take the moral high ground on an issue with global resonance, in addition to whatever intelligence benefits the security services might have gained.
Governments in Europe have also objected to the surveillance practices Mr. Snowden revealed, Robert Schlegel, a member of the committee on information policy in Parliament and a member of the pro-government United Russia political party, said in a telephone interview. “Will Obama cancel meetings with their leaders, too?” he said.
“The United States is a government that positions itself as favoring freedom of speech and democracy, and yet it keeps the rest of world under surveillance, and now the rest of the world knows,” Mr. Schlegel said.
“People in Russia sympathize with Snowden,” he went on. “He had the will and the bravery to go against the Matrix.”