MOSCOW – The U.S. and Russia orchestrated the largest spy swap since the Cold War, exchanging 10 spies arrested in the U.S. for four convicted in Russia in an elaborately 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 U.S. 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.
The talks leading to the spy swap began when CIA director Leon Panetta approached Mikhail Fradkov, the head of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, with a proposed deal, a U.S. official said Friday. Following the FBI arrests of the Russians, the U.S. intelligence agency reached out, making it possible for Panetta to suggest the exchange, the official said on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence matters.
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 distinctive 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 U.S.-Soviet tensions during the Cold War.
After not commenting for days, the U.S. 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 June 27 arrests would undermine efforts to improve relations with Washington.
Ordinary Russians took little satisfaction from the agents' undercover exploits.
"They obviously were very bad spies if they got caught. They got caught, so they should be tried," said Sasha Ivanov, a businessman walking by a Moscow train station.
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. Neither the U.S. or Russia have commented on his whereabouts.
To start the whirlwind exchange, two planes — one from New York's La Guardia airport and another from Moscow — arrived Friday in Vienna within minutes of each other. They parked nose-to-tail at a remote section on the tarmac, exchanged spies using a small bus, then departed just as quickly. In all, it took less than an hour and a half.
The Russian Emergencies Ministry Yak-42 then left for Moscow carrying the 10 people deported from the U.S., and a maroon-and-white Boeing 767-200 that brought those agents in from New York whisked away four Russians who had confessed to spying for the West.
The U.S. charter landed briefly at RAF Brize Norton air base in southern England. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said two of the four Russians were dropped off there before the plane headed back across the Atlantic.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had signed a decree pardoning the four 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 official confirmation he was left in the U.K.
Both the U.S and Russia won admissions of crimes from the subjects of the exchange — guilty pleas in the U.S. and signed confessions in Russia.
In exchange for the 10 Russian agents, the U.S. 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.
U.S. officials said some of those freed by Russia were ailing, and cited humanitarian concerns for arranging the swap in such a hurry. They said no substantial benefit to U.S. national security was seen from keeping the captured low-level agents in U.S. prisons 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 U.S. had tried to blend into American suburbia but been under watch by the FBI. Their access to top U.S. national security secrets appeared spotty at best, although the extent of what they passed on is not publicly known.
The lawyer for one of them, Vicky Pelaez, said the Russian government had offered her $2,000 a month for life, housing and help with her children — rather than the years behind bars she could have faced in the U.S. if she had not agreed to the deal.
Zaporozhsky, a former colonel in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, sentenced in 2003 to 18 years in prison for espionage on behalf of the United States, passing secret information about undercover Russian agents working in the United States and about Americans 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 asserts his innocence despite the forced confession. He worked with the U.S.A. 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 illegal weapons possession and resistance to authorities. It was not exactly clear why he was involved in the spy swap.
The U.S. 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.
Several of the agents had children, both minors and adults, and it was not clear yet exactly where the children would end up.
Chapman, 28, whose active social life was splashed all over the tabloids, was accused of using a special laptop to transmit messages to another computer of an unnamed Russian official. Chapman is her married name, her maiden name was Kushchenko.
Chapman spent several years in London, was married to a British man and then divorced, and is believed to be a dual British-Russian national. The British government said Friday it was considering stripping her of her U.K. citizenship.
"This case is under urgent consideration," a Home Office spokeswoman said on condition of anonymity, in line with government policy.
Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley were the aliases for Andrey Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova, who lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and had two sons, 20 and 16. She posed as a real estate agent around Boston, he worked as a sales consultant at Global Partners Inc., a Cambridge-based international management consulting firm and also had his own consulting company.
Another convicted couple, Mikhail Kutsik and Natalia Pereverzeva, had been living in Seattle and Arlington, Virginia, under the aliases Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills. They had two children, ages 1 and 3, and before the plea bargain were already planning to send the children to live with relatives in Russia.
Vladimir and Lydia Guryev, had been living in Montclair, New Jersey, under the names Richard and Cynthia Murphy. While he stayed at home with their two daughters aged 7 and 11, she had a well-paying job as a tax consultant in New York City. It was not clear where the girls, who had always lived in the United States, would live now.
Lazaro, 66, whose real name is Mikhail Vasenkov, brought his wife, Vicky Pelaez, into the conspiracy by having her pass letters to the Russian intelligence service on his behalf. She was a journalist for a Spanish newspaper in New York. Pelaez is her real name. She has two sons, 38-year-old and a 17-year-old, and her lawyer said the youth might remain in the United States living with his half brother. The lawyer also said Pelaez wanted to go home to her native Peru.
Semenko of Arlington, Virginia, worked at the Travel All Russia agency.
The fugitive who jumped bail in Cyprus after being arrested on an Interpol warrant is the suspected paymaster for the U.S. spy ring. Canadian authorities say he was traveling as Christopher Metsos, a 54-year-old tourist on a Canadian passport that stole the identity of a dead child. Authorities have not released any other identity for him.