Russia, U.S. swap 14 in Cold War-style spy exchange

Russia and the United States conducted the biggest spy swap since the Cold War on Friday, trading agents on Vienna airport tarmac in an evocative climax to an espionage drama that had threatened improving ties.

Two aircraft -- one Russian, one American -- parked side by side for around 90 minutes as vehicles shuttled between them. The agents changed places under the cover of gangways as waves of heat rose from the blistering blacktop.

The Russian plane then took off, followed by the U.S. jet in an echo of Soviet-era spy trades across the Iron Curtain in central Europe. Officials in Vienna, once a center of Cold War cloak-and-dagger intrigue, maintained a strict news blackout.

But the U.S. Justice Department announced shortly after the takeoff that the exchange of 10 agents released by Washington and four freed by Moscow had been successfully completed.

The jet landed at Domodedovo airport outside Moscow a few hours later. Shielded from cameras, the Russians stepped off the plane and were whisked away in a convoy of SUVs, sedans and small buses.

The dramatic conclusion to the espionage scandal which has gripped America came after spymasters brokered the deal on the instructions of presidents keen not to derail important diplomatic breakthroughs in Russian-U.S. relations.

In the first step of the carefully choreographed swap, the 10 Russian agents pleaded guilty on Thursday in a New York court to charges against them and were immediately deported.

Around midnight in Moscow, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree pardoning four Russians serving long prison terms in their homeland on charges of spying for the West. The Kremlin later said he had pardoned 16 other lesser-known convicts as well.

The spy scandal broke at an awkward time for U.S.-Russian ties, just days after President Barack Obama and Medvedev met for a friendly Washington summit last month.

The U.S. and Russian legislatures are considering ratification of a major nuclear arms reduction treaty signed by the presidents in April, and Russia is counting on U.S. support for its bid to join the World Trade Organization -- sensitive cooperation neither side wants to jeopardize.

Medvedev is trying to present a warmer face to Western governments and investors concerned about persistent problems with corruption, property rights, the rule of law and treatment of Kremlin critics in Russia.

Obama wants Russia on his side for efforts to rein in Iran's nuclear programme, keep supply lines open to forces in Afghanistan and advance his goal of further nuclear arms cuts.

Shortly after taking office he initiated a "reset" in ties with the Kremlin, strained to the breaking point by Moscow's war with Georgia in 2008 after deteriorating badly during the administrations of George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, now Russia's powerful prime minister.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the spy swap "gives reason to expect that the course agreed on by the leaders of Russia and the U.S. will be consistently implemented in practice and that attempts to knock the parties off this course will not succeed."

But the exchange -- which one Russian internet site quipped was "Russia 10: USA 4" -- may add fuel to Republican accusations that Obama is being too soft on Moscow. A key 11th suspect named by U.S. authorities disappeared after being granted bail following his arrest in Cyprus.

Spy Swap

Relatives of the jailed Russians on both sides of the swap had waited anxiously in Russia for news of the exchange. All bar one of the 14 involved are Russian citizens.

The mother of one of those arrested in the United States, Anna Chapman, left her apartment building in southwestern Moscow and hailed a car on a busy avenue after brushing off reporters.

"I don't want to say anything," Irina Kushchenko said.

Chapman was the star of the spy scandal, labeled a party-going "sexy redhead" by tabloids worldwide that splashed her picture across their pages.

Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) declined all comment on details of the affair.

Moscow has always prided itself on bringing trusted agents back home and Washington has agreed to swaps before, though rarely on this scale.

The largest known Cold War spy swap was in 1985 when more than 20 spies were exchanged between East and West on the Glienicke Bridge in the divided city of Berlin.

Spymasters on both sides say that despite generally warmer relations, the two former Cold War foes still fund generous intelligence operations against each other.

The scandal broke when the United States said on June 28 it had uncovered a ring of suspected Russian secret agents who were using false identities to try to gather sensitive intelligence on the United States.

FBI counter-intelligence agents explained that the Russians had communicated with Moscow by concealing invisible text messages in photographs posted on public internet sites and some had met Russian diplomats from the U.S. mission in New York.

Russian diplomats said the timing of the announcement, just days after Obama and Medvedev's June 24 summit in Washington, could be an attempt by U.S. hardliners to torpedo the so-called reset in ties that Obama has championed.

Cold War swaps usually involved jailed agents, but Friday's exchange also had an echo of the 1986 trade of Soviet dissident Anatoly Shcharansky -- now Natan Sharansky -- for Communist spies jailed in the West.

Igor Sutyagin, one of the four Russians sent westward on Friday, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2004 for passing information to a British firm prosecutors said was a CIA front, but supporters saw him as a political prisoner.

Sutyagin said the information was available from open sources, and Kremlin critics said his conviction -- which cast a chill on Russian scientists -- was part of a crackdown on scholars with Western ties under Putin, president at the time.

[Source: Reuters, 09Jul10]

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