Russia-US spy swap defuses tensions

Both countries exchange 14 secret agents, quickly ending a lurid spy scandal that had threatened the warming relations.

MOSCOW // In a dramatic deal harkening back to Cold War cloak-and-dagger games, Russia and the United States yesterday exchanged 14 secret agents, quickly ending a lurid spy scandal that had threatened warming relations between Moscow and Washington. US authorities handed over 10 convicted Russian sleeper agents on the tarmac of Vienna International Airport yesterday afternoon, less than 24 hours after they pleaded guilty in a federal court in New York of secretly working as Russian operatives in the United States. The FBI alleged that the Russia agents, most of whom lived for years in the United States under assumed identities, were part of a spy ring targeting US policymaking circles.

In exchange, Russia released into US custody four Russian men, including three former intelligence officers, convicted or previously suspected of spying for the West. One of the men released by Moscow, arms researcher Igor Sutyagin, was convicted in 2004 of selling state secrets to a British company believed by Russia to be a CIA front. Mr Sutyagin, whose prosecution became a cause célèbre for Russian and international rights activists, maintains the information he sold was in the public domain and denies the espionage allegations.

Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, pardoned the men in preparation for the exchange, but only after they signed confessions of their crimes, the Kremlin said. In addition to Sutyagin, Russia handed over Alexander Zaporozhsky, a Russian foreign intelligence officer convicted in 2003 of selling state secrets to the CIA; Sergei Skripal, a Russia military intelligence colonel convicted in 2006 of spying for Britain's MI6; and Gennady Vasilenko, a former KGB officer jailed by the Soviets as an alleged spy in 1988 and convicted of illegal weapons possession four years ago.

The two planes carrying the people in this exchange from Moscow and New York, respectively, landed in Vienna within minutes of each other yesterday, touching ground at around noon, according to news reports from the Austrian capital. The two aircraft lined up nose to tail near an unfinished terminal on a distant section of the tarmac, the Associated Press reported. The media gathered at the airport were unable to glimpse the spies, but after the apparent swap had taken place, the planes took off in the space of just a few minutes, AP reported.

Russia began downplaying the alleged spy ring almost immediately after US authorities arrested the 10 Russian sleeper agents on June 28, acknowledging their Russian citizenship but declaring that they had not harmed US interests. Moscow said it hoped the arrests would not damage US-Russian ties, which have seen a thaw under the administration of Barack Obama, the US president. The FBI announced it had cracked the purported spy ring just days after Mr Medvedev visited the United States and met with his American counterpart.

In a loftily worded statement yesterday, Moscow stressed that warming ties between the two countries had made the spy swap possible. "This action was carried out in the general context of improved Russian-US relations and the infusion of a new dynamic in the spirit of principled agreements at the highest level between Moscow and Washington about the strategic nature of the Russian-US partnership," Russia's foreign ministry said in the statement.

Mark Toner, US state department spokesman, said in a statement on Thursday that the United States struck the deal because no "significant national security benefit would be gained from the prolonged incarceration in the United States" of the Russian sleeper agents and, in part, because of the "poor health" of several of the incarcerated men handed over by Russia. Of the 10 convicted Russian agents, just three operated under their true names, including Peruvian-American journalist Vicky Pelaez, a fierce critics of the US government who wrote for the Spanish-language newspaper El Diaro. The husband of Pelaez, a Russian national living under the name "Juan Lazaro", was also among the convicted Russian operatives. Pelaez alone among the convicted agents is a US citizen. Speaking through an interpreter in court on Thursday, she described some of her tradecraft, saying she "brought a letter with invisible ink" to her contact," AFP reported. She has been promised free housing in Russia, a US$2,000 (Dh7,350) monthly stipend "for life," and visas for her children to visit, the court heard, AFP reported.

Alexander Golts, a Moscow-based independent military and security analyst, said the undercover agents were unlikely to be redeployed in similar operations abroad after returning to Moscow. "They may take desk jobs as analysts or teach prospective operatives, though it's a bit funny to have failed agents teaching the next generation," Mr Golts said. Outside the New York courthouse on Thursday, a lawyer for convicted agent Anna Chapman, who runs a New York real estate company, said his client was "glad to be released from jail" but "unhappy that it has probably destroyed her business and that she has to return to Moscow", AFP reported. Ms Chapman, 28, who worked under her real name, has become a media lightning rod in the case, due in no small part to her appearance and tell-all interviews given by her former husband and suitors.

While the case had many of the trappings of a Cold War spy tale, it differed significantly from the era when the United States and the Soviet Union were vying for global supremacy, Mr Golts said. The Russian agents convicted on Thursday ran a shoddy, frivolous operation compared with their Soviet predecessors, he said. "It all looks like a giant parody," Mr Golts said. "During the Cold War, the stakes were serious."