Former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, wanted by the United States for leaking extensive secrets of its electronic surveillance programs, has been given a three-year residence permit by Russia, his Russian lawyer told reporters on Thursday.

The announcement comes at a time when Russia's relations with the West are at Cold War-era lows over Russia's actions in Ukraine. Russia responded to Western sanctions by banning certain food imports from the United States, the European Union, Australia, Canada and Norway on Thursday.

"The decision on the application has been taken and therefore starting Aug. 1 2014 Edward Snowden has received a three-year residential permit," Anatoly Kucherena said. "In the future, Edward himself will take a decision on whether to stay on (in Russia) on and get Russian citizenship or leave for the United States."

Kucherena said that while Snowden has been granted residency, he had not been granted political asylum. That status, which would allow him to stay in Russia permanently, must be decided by a separate procedure, his lawyer said. 

He said Snowden could apply for citizenship after living in Russia for five years, in 2018, but that he had not decided whether he wanted to stay or leave.

Kucherena said Snowden was studying Russian and had an IT-related job, but did not provide details.

"He is a high-class IT specialist", he said.

He said Snowden's security was being taken seriously and that he was using private security guards.

"He leads a rather modest lifestyle, but nevertheless we proceed from the tone of statements that come from the U.S. State Department and other political figures," he said. "The security issue should not be treated as a secondary one."

His lawyer has in the past expressed concerns that he could be at risk, given taken his intelligence background and the outrage over the leaks expressed by U.S. authorities.

Snowden lays low

Last year, Snowden was granted temporary asylum of one year in Russia, but that had run out on Aug. 1.

Snowden was stranded in a Moscow airport last year en route from Hong Kong to Cuba, shortly after he released extensive documentation about National Security Agency's surveillance programs. He reportedly spent a month in the airport before receiving the temporary asylum, but was seen only at one tightly restricted meeting with human rights representatives.

Snowden is believed to have taken 1.7 million digital documents with him. His leaks that the NSA's massive programs gathered information on hundreds of millions of Americans' emails, phone calls and Internet use.

He was charged last year in the United States with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defence information and wilful communication of classified intelligence to an unauthorized person.

The spokesman for the White House National Security Council, Ned Price, said Snowden needed to return to the United States to face charges related to the leaks.

"Mr. Snowden faces felony charges here in the United States. He should return to the U.S. as soon as possible, where he will be accorded full due process and protections," Price said.

Since receiving the temporary asylum, his whereabouts have not been made public.

"I don't think there's ever been any question that I'd like to go home," Snowden said in a television interview in May. "Now, whether amnesty or clemency ever becomes a possibility is not for me to say. That's a debate for the public and the government to decide. But, if I could go anywhere in the world, that place would be home."

With files from the Associated Press