The US and Russia orchestrated the largest spy swap since the Cold War, exchanging 10 spies arrested in the US for four convicted in Russia in a tightly choreographed diplomatic dance Friday at Vienna’s airport.
The exchange was a clear demonstration of President Barack Obama’s “reset” ties between Moscow and Washington, enabling the US to retrieve four Russians, some of whom were suffering through long prison terms.
At least one of the four — 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 U.S.
Moscow avoided having 10 spy trials in the United States that would have spilled embarrassing details of how its agents, posing as ordinary citizens, apparently uncovered little of value but managed to be watched by the FBI for years.
The handover allowed Vienna to add yet another distintive event to its long history as a key site for diplomacy, the capital of neutral Austria being the preferred place to work on treaties and agreements to reduce US-Soviet tensions during the Cold War.
After not commenting for days, the US Justice Department finally announced a successful completion to the spy swap after the two planes involved touched down in Moscow and London.
The Russian Foreign Ministry also confirmed the swap, but said only that those involved had been “accused” or “convicted” of unspecified offenses — a statement that underlined Russia’s apparent discomfort with the scandal that erupted nearly two weeks ago. The Kremlin has clearly been worried the arrests would undermine recent efforts to improve relations with Washington.
One alleged Russian spy wanted in the United States — the paymaster for the whole spy ring — was still a fugitive after jumping bail in Cyprus.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had signed a decree pardoning the four on Thursday after officials forced them to sign confessions. The Kremlin identified them as Zaporozhsky, Igor Sutyagin, Gennady Vasilenko and Sergei Skripal.
Sutyagin, an arms researcher convicted of spying for the United States, had told relatives earlier he was being sent to Britain. Skripal was convicted of spying for Britain, but there was no confirmation he was left in the UK.
Both the US and Russia 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.
The 10 Russian agents arrested in the US had tried to blend into American suburbia but been under watch by the FBI.
The US deported agents using the names Anna Chapman, Tracey Lee Ann Foley, Donald Howard Heathfield, Juan Lazaro, Patricia Mills, Richard and Cynthia Murphy, Vicky Pelaez, Mikhail Semenko and Michael Zottoli. All pleaded guilty on Thursday to conspiring to act as unregistered foreign agents.