The largest Russia-US spy swap since the Cold War appeared to be underway today as a jailed Russian was freed from a Moscow prison and flown to Vienna.
Meanwhile lawyers for the 10 alleged Russian sleepers said in New York they expected an immediate resolution for their clients.
A swap would have significant consequences for efforts between Washington and Moscow to repair ties chilled by a deepening atmosphere of suspicion.
The 10 accused of spying for Russia were set to go before a New York judge today at a hearing in federal court.
Igor Sutyagin, a Russian arms control analyst serving a 14-year sentenced for spying for the United States, had told his relatives he was going to be one of 11 convicted spies in Russia who would be freed in exchange for people charged in the United States with being Russian agents. They said he was going to be sent to Vienna, then London.
In Moscow, his lawyer, Anna Stavitskaya, said Sutyagin was seen walking off a plane in Vienna.
Special riot police had beefed up security around Moscow’s Lefortovo prison earlier.
“A swap seems very much on the cards. There is political will on both sides, and actually by even moving it as far as they have, Moscow has de facto acknowledged that these guys were spies,” intelligence analyst Pavel Felgenhauer said.
Five suspects charged with spying in the US were hurriedly ordered to New York yesterday, joining five others already behind bars there, after Sutyagin was transferred from a forlorn penal colony near the Arctic Circle and spilled the news of the swap.
Dmitry Sutyagin said his brother remembered only one other person on the Russian list of spies to be exchanged – Sergei Skripal, a colonel in Russian military intelligence who in 2006 was sentenced to 13 years on charges of spying for Britain.
Defence lawyers in Moscow and New York have expressed confidence that their clients’ fates would be settled very soon.
In a federal indictment yesterday the ten suspects in New York and an 11th, who was released on bail by a court in Cyprus and is now a fugitive, were formally charged.
The indictment charged all with conspiring to act as secret agents and charged nine of them with conspiracy to commit money laundering. It demanded that those accused of money laundering return any assets used in the offence.
Robert Baum, who represents defendant Anna Chapman, said the case might be settled when she and the other nine people arrested in the United States appear today for arraignment on the indictment, raising the possibility of guilty pleas to the lowest charges and deportation from the US.
The defendants were accused of living seemingly ordinary lives in America while they acted as unregistered agents for the Russian government, sending secret messages and carrying out orders they received from their Russian contacts.
All have remained in custody except for a man identified as Christopher R. Metsos, the 11th suspect who is charged with being the spy ring’s paymaster. Metsos, travelling on a forged Canadian passport, jumped bail last week after being arrested in Cyprus.
Sutyagin, who worked as an arms control and military analyst at the Moscow-based USA and Canada Institute, a think tank, was arrested in 1999 and convicted in 2004 on charges of passing information on nuclear submarines and other weapons to a British company that investigators claimed was a CIA cover. Sutyagin has all along denied that he was spying, saying the information he provided was available from open sources.
His case was one of several incidents of Russian academics and scientists being targeted by Russia’s Federal Security Service and accused of misusing classified information, revealing state secrets or, in some cases, espionage.