The US and Russia orchestrated the largest spy swap since the Cold War today in a tightly choreographed diplomatic dance.
Ten spies arrested in the US were exchanged for four convicted in Russia at Vienna’s airport.
Two planes – one from New York and the other from Moscow – arrived in Vienna within minutes of each other, parked nose-to-tail at a remote area, then spent about an hour and a half before departing just as quickly.
The swap completed, a Russian Emergencies Ministry Yakovlvev Yak-42 plane left carrying the 10 people deported from the US.
Shortly afterward, a Boeing 767 that brought the agents from New York took off, apparently with four Russians who had confessed to spying for the West.
The Russian flight was thought to be heading for Moscow, while the US charter was believed to be flying to London.
Igor Sutyagin, an arms control researcher convicted of spying for the United States, had told relatives of the spy swap while still in prison and said he was being sent to Vienna and then London.
Vienna has long been involved in such Cold War-like machinations, the capital of neutral Austria being a preferred place to work on treaties and agreements meant to reduce US-Soviet tensions.
Both countries won admissions of crimes from the subjects of the exchange - guilty pleas in the US and signed confessions in Russia.
In exchange for the 10 Russian agents, the US won freedom for and access to two former Russian intelligence colonels who had been convicted in their home country of compromising dozens of valuable Soviet-era and Russian agents operating in the West. Two others also convicted of betraying Moscow were wrapped into the deal.
One ex-colonel, Alexander Zaporozhsky, may have exposed information leading to the capture of Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames, two of the most damaging spies ever caught in the US.
US officials said some of those freed by Russia were ill, and cited humanitarian concerns in part for arranging the swap in such a hurry. They said no substantial benefit to national security was seen from keeping the captured agents in prison for years.
“This sends a powerful signal to people who cooperate with us that we will stay loyal to you,” said former CIA officer Peter Earnest. “Even if you have been in jail for years, we will not forget you.”
The 10 Russian agents arrested in the US had tried to blend into American suburbia but been under watch for up to a decade by the FBI. Their access to top US national security secrets appeared spotty at best, although the extent of what they knew and passed on is not publicly known.
The lawyer for one of them, Vicky Pelaez, said the Russian government offered her $2,000 (€1,400) a month for life, housing and help with her children – rather than the years behind bars she could have faced in the US if she had not agreed to the deal.
In an elaborate round of dealmaking, US officials met on Monday in Russia with the convicted spies and offered them a chance for freedom if they left their homeland. Russian officials in the US held similar meetings with the agents captured by the FBI.
Yesterday Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree pardoning the four after officials forced them to sign confessions.
The Kremlin identified the four as Zaporozhsky, Sutyagin, Gennady Vasilenko and Sergei Skripal.
Zaporozhsky, a former colonel in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, was sentenced in 2003 to 18 years in prison for espionage on behalf of the United States. He was convicted on charges of passing secret information about Russian agents working undercover in the United States and about American sources working for Russian intelligence.
Skripal, a former colonel in the Russian military intelligence, was found guilty of passing state secrets to Britain and sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2006. He was accused of revealing the names of several dozen Russian agents working in Europe.
Sutyagin, a military analyst, asserts his innocence despite the confession. He worked with the USA. and Canada Institute, a respected Moscow-based think-tank, before being sentenced to 15 years in 2004 on charges of passing information on nuclear submarines and other weapons to a British company that Russia claimed was a CIA cover. Sutyagin says the information he provided was available from open sources.
Gennady Vasilenko, a former KGB officer employed as a security officer by Russia’s NTV television, was sentenced in 2006 to three years in prison on murky charges of illegal weapons possession and resistance to authorities. It was not exactly clear why he was involved in the spy swap.