Mr. Snowden said he feared that if returned to the United States he could face torture or the death penalty, according to a Russian lawyer who helped prepare the documents. Though he has not been accused of a capital crime and does not face the death penalty, experts here said that his fears, whatever their merit, could support his bid.
At the same time, by seeking temporary — not political — asylum, Mr. Snowden is pursuing the easiest path possible under Russian law, technically requiring only an administrative decision by the Russian Federal Migration Service rather than Mr. Putin’s personal approval.
There is little doubt, however, that Mr. Putin controls all decisions on Mr. Snowden — just as the Kremlin has permitted, if not orchestrated, his stay in the transit zone of Sheremetyevo airport since his arrival from Hong Kong on June 23. But the technicality provides some insulation for Mr. Putin from political pressure by the United States.
The president’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, quickly said that the decision was out of Mr. Putin’s hands.
“If we are talking about temporary asylum, this is an issue not for the president but for the Federal Migration service,” Mr. Peskov told reporters in the Siberian city of Chita, according to Russian news agencies.
If the Migration Service grants his request, Mr. Snowden will be able to live and work in Russia for one year, with the possibility of renewing his status for another year. And just by his applying, it seems likely that his stay in the airport transit zone is nearing an end. Officials said that as an asylum applicant, Mr. Snowden could now be moved from the airport to a shelter for refugees while awaiting a decision, which could come in days.
Mr. Putin has said that Mr. Snowden could potentially stay in Russia, provided he “cease his work aimed at inflicting damage on our American partners,” and he reiterated that offer on Monday. Mr. Snowden has said he does not believe his leaks have harmed American interests.
In a meeting at the airport on Friday with lawyers and rights advocates that the Russian government helped organize, Mr. Snowden said that he would apply for shelter in Russia because the United States was blocking him from traveling to Latin America, where three countries say they will accept him.
Anatoly Kucherena, a lawyer and rights advocate who has worked closely with the Kremlin and who attended the meeting, said that he had helped Mr. Snowden prepare the application and showed a copy of the handwritten document during an appearance on television.
“As for his reasons, he wrote that the government of the U.S. is chasing him, that he is afraid for his life and fears that it may end in torture or the death penalty,” Mr. Kucherena said in an interview on the Rossiya 24 channel.
The White House on Tuesday repeated its demand for Mr. Snowden’s extradition. “He should return here to face trial,” the White House spokesman, Jay Carney, said. “Our interest has always been in seeing him expelled from Russia and returned to the United States,” he said, adding: “He is not a human rights activist. He is not a dissident.”
Federal prosecutors in Virginia have charged Mr. Snowden with two counts of violating the Espionage Act and also with stealing government property — each charge punishable by up to 10 years in prison, for a total of 30 years.
But Mr. Snowden and his supporters in and outside Russia have cited the existence of the death penalty in the United States as a reason he should not be extradited, noting that American officials have said he could face additional charges.