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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 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 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.
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 arrests would undermine recent 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 sttaion.
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, where a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said two of the four Russians were dropped off 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 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.