U.S.-Russia spy swap is complete

The sun was up Friday when two airplanes, one coming in from the West, the other from the East, touched ground and circled toward each other on the tarmac of Vienna International Airport. What happened next was a scene unlike any other in the history of U.S.-Russia spydom.

The Vision Airlines jet from the United States carried 10 freshly convicted Russian agents. It taxied slowly and parked just yards from its counterpart from Moscow’s Emergencies Ministry, four men accused of spying for the West on board. In the next 60 minutes or less, figures slowly emerged from each plane. They climbed into a black van that ferried them to the other jet. Door hatches were locked, engines fired up and the planes took off.

The Russian Yak-42 aircraft lifted off first. The maroon and white Boeing 767-200 bound for Britain, then America, followed 10 minutes later, banking west. The transfer was complete.

Fritz Lang, who runs the Federal Criminal Office in Austria, a country for decades the scene of international treaties and international spies, said, curtly, that all was done “totally in accordance with the law.”


In the U.S., Peter Earnest, a longtime CIA operative who founded the International Spy Museum in Washington, recalled that in the “old days of the Cold War,” such a handoff would take place on a bridge somewhere, with each side advancing nervously toward the other. But today, meeting under open skies near an airport runway, is the “new-age spy swap.”

“It is clear both governments want to get this behind them,” Earnest said. “So what happened in Vienna is an example of mutual trust. They are meeting out there and saying, ‘Here’s our 10, give us your four.’ ”

Though the prisoner swap may have been an attempt to close an awkward chapter in U.S.-Russia relations, some people familiar with espionage said the speed with which it was done also raised suspicions.

“This speedy spy exchange also tells me that there may be something untold, something hidden among this soap opera, which we don’t know and which the Russian authorities want to remain hidden, whereas the Americans don’t give a damn,” said a former Russian foreign intelligence general who spoke on the condition that he not be named.

What is left now is one final after-action report: Who were these 14 prisoners; why did both countries agree so quickly to the transfer; and which country flew home the stronger?

The 10 captured in the United States were seemingly low-level operatives, more “spotters” than cloak-and-dagger types. In the country for a long time, none apparently had government-secured positions or connections to top classified information. Late Thursday afternoon, all 10 pleaded guilty in federal court in New York to failing to register as foreign agents.

With Russian officials already in the courthouse, the 10 were escorted to the U.S. marshal’s office on the fourth floor and retrieved their belongings. From there it was a bus ride to a nearby airport for the late-night flight to Central Europe.

The Moscow drama was more complex. A list of those considered for the exchange allegedly included 10 prisoners, but with strings attached. Ultimately, the four prisoners who were released, each convicted years ago and some in poor health, were taken to the Russian capital and told that if they signed confessions, they would be set free. Then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev set his hand to a decree pardoning them all.

In the world of spies, these four seem the real thing. Igor Sutyagin was a physicist who spent 11 years behind bars for allegedly selling submarine and missile data to a British firm the Russians unmasked as a CIA front.

The other three were Russian Special Services officers. Sergei Skripal was a former Russian military intelligence colonel jailed for four years for spying for the British back in the 1990s. Alexander Zaporozhsky, a counterintelligence officer, was arrested in 2001 on state treason charges for spying for the U.S. And Gennady Vasilenko, a former intelligence agent, had been held since 2005, though never formally prosecuted for espionage. Zaporozhsky and Vasilenko allegedly were involved in the actions that led to the arrest of mole FBI agent Robert Hanssen.

Sutyagin and Skripal reportedly were dropped off in Britain before the two others flew on to the U.S. All four were given medical attention. A plane believed to be carrying Russians involved in the spy swap later landed at Dulles airport outside Washington.

Zaporozhsky may head to Cockeysville, Md., outside Baltimore, where he moved with his wife, Galina, and their two sons in 1999. Galina, known for baking Russian cookies for the neighbors at Christmas, will not be there to greet him — she died last fall.

But one of his sons, Max, still lives there, according to a neighbor. “He’s done so much for this country,” next-door neighbor Colleen Cavanaugh said of Zaporozhsky. “I hope he can come here and live a nice life.”

It’s not clear where Vasilenko might settle. He was arrested initially for making contacts with a CIA officer in the 1990s, was released and then arrested again in 2005 and convicted on weapons charges.

The 10 who arrived in Moscow left behind homes, families and jobs in New York, New Jersey and Virginia. It remained unclear what might happen to some young children whose parents were involved in the case. Vicky Pelaez, a Peruvian by birth who worked as a Spanish-language journalist, was assured by the Russians that her two sons — an adult and a teenager — would be given visas to visit her in Russia, at Russian expense, and reportedly promised $2,000 a month for life.

Such details were largely left to work themselves out. With diplomats negotiating from both capitals, and prosecutors and defense lawyers squaring off in court, the first large post-Cold War spy swap — probably the largest ever — was stitched together.

The bigger issue, dear to both Washington and Moscow, was seeing that new, improved relations between the two countries were not hijacked by clandestine operations.

“This agreement,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement, “gives reason to hope that the course agreed upon by Russia and the United States will be accordingly realized in practice and that attempts to derail the course will not succeed.”

Andrei Piontkovsky, a senior researcher at the Moscow-based System Analysis Institute, said in an interview that “the spy scandal was throwing a huge shadow on the philosophy of the reset in U.S.-Russian relations and both sides badly wanted to finish it at all costs. Any deal would suit both the Kremlin and Washington.”

“The way the U.S. justice [system] operated, it was becoming increasingly clear that the longer time the so-called Russian spies would spend under investigation, the more they could sing and spill out,” retired Soviet counterintelligence Gen. Alexei Kondaurov said.

An officer with the Russian Federal Security Service, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the 10 agents brought to Moscow “will not be received here as heroes because they don’t deserve it. On the other hand, we don’t want to portray them as clowns or idiots. I think we need to just leave them in peace and make everybody forget about them as soon as possible.”

A White House official said Friday that senior administration officials were told in “broad contours” about the 10 agents in February because law enforcement authorities were getting close to making arrests. President Obama was briefed June 11 in the Oval Office, and a week later he chaired a meeting of the National Security Council to discuss the issue.

At that point, the White House official said, the idea for a swap came up even before the arrests were made.

“The United States government,” the official said, identified the four individuals it wanted freed, based on “humanitarian concerns, health concerns and other reasons that we put forward to the Russians.”

At the CIA, Director Leon Panetta led the conversations, and Washington soon heard back from Moscow. The deal was struck.

Serrano reported from Washington, Loiko from Moscow. Jean Marbella of The Baltimore Sun contributed to this report.