The largest Russia-US spy swap since the Cold War appeared to be in motion today, with up to 10 guilty pleas planned in New York by defendants accused of spying for Russia in exchange for the release of convicted Russian spies.
A Russian convicted of spying for the United States was reportedly plucked from a Moscow prison and flown to the Austrian capital, Vienna.
A swap would have significant consequences for efforts between Washington and Moscow to repair ties chilled by a deepening atmosphere of suspicion.
The 10 defendants who entered a New York courtroom for a hearing today wanted to enter guilty pleas, prosecutor Michael Farbiarz said at the start of the proceeding before Judge Kimba Wood. An 11th person charged in the case is a fugitive after jumping bail in Cyprus.
“It’s a resolution that will put this thing behind him as quickly as we can arrange it,” said Peter Krupp, a lawyer for Donald Heathfield, before the hearing. He would not say whether the plea involves a swap.
One person familiar with the plea negotiations told The Associated Press that most of the defendants expected to be going home to Russia later today.
Igor Sutyagin, a Russian arms control analyst serving a 14-year sentence for spying for the United States, told his relatives he was going to be one of 11 convicted spies in Russia who would be freed in exchange for 11 people charged in the US with being Russian agents.
They said he was going to be sent to Vienna, then London.
In Moscow, his lawyer, Anna Stavitskaya, said a journalist called Sutyagin’s family to inform them that he was seen walking off a plane in Vienna today. However, she told the AP she could not get confirmation of that claim from Russian authorities.
Russian and US officials have refused to comment on any possible swap.
US Attorney Preet Bharara would only say that prosecutors strive in all cases “to make sure that justice is served if consistent with the needs of national security, and the way we deal with national security is to make sure that is done in a way that is consistent with justice”.
“Whatever the disposition is in this case, I think people should be confident it was done in the interest of national security and justice.”
Special riot police had beefed up security around Moscow’s Lefortovo prison early today, and a gaggle of TV cameras and photographers jostled for the best position to see what was going on. A convoy of armoured vehicles arrived at the prison, thought to be the gathering point for people convicted of spying for the West, including Sutyagin.