Russia-US swap brings spy scandal to a close


UPDATE: The spy scandal of a decade came to a swift close on Thursday, when the 10 suspects plead guilty in a U.S. court to working as undercover agents for Russia. The defendants sat in a packed courtroom and answered two hours worth of questions from judge Kimba Wood. All 10, some with heavy Russian accents, admitted to conspiring to act as agents for Russia. The five men and five women were sentenced to deportation following 10 days in jail, and will be exchanged for four people imprisoned in Russia for suspected contact with Western intelligence agencies.

NEW YORK — The spy scandal of the decade may soon come to a swift close, as Russian and U.S. officials negotiate a deal to swap the alleged Russian sleeper agents caught on American soil last month for a host of men jailed in Russia on charges of spying for the West.

Russian media reports said that Anna Chapman, the New York-based redhead who has come to symbolize the spy affair, would be traded for Igor Sutyagin, a Russian scientist convicted by a Moscow court in 2004 of passing nuclear secrets to the CIA.

The reports signal that several more swaps could be in the works.

Many comparisons will be made to the spy swaps of the Soviet-era — but, on the contrary, the case proves how much times have changed.

While U.S. media have fixated on tales of femme fatales, secret spy codes and the fate of children unaware of their parents’ real identities, the issue has been decidedly downplayed by U.S. and Russian officials alike.

U.S. President Barack Obama has worked hard to “reset” relations with Russia after years of tension under the Bush administration. He has backed down on building a missile defense system in Eastern Europe and cut back U.S. involvement in neighboring Ukraine and Georgia — moves that have been welcomed in a country keen to preserve influence in its backyard.

In response, Russia supported (admittedly watered-down) U.N. sanctions on Iran and appears to have backed down on calls to close a key U.S. military base in Kyrgyzstan. Both sides worked hard to renegotiate a successor treaty to START, which calls for bilateral cuts in nuclear warheads.

Now both Russia and the U.S. appear keen to sweep the spy issue under the rug as soon as possible.

Ten of the 11 suspects were due to appear in a U.S. federal court on Thursday to be arraigned for conspiring to act as spies. The 11th, and apparently most important, suspect, Christopher Robert Metsos, was arrested in Cyprus on June 29 and released on bail. Allegedly tasked with overseeing payment for the ring of U.S. sleeper agents, he has since fled the island, a favorite Russian offshore.

Chapman, a 28-year-old Russian whose private life (and private body parts) have been splashed across the tabloids thanks to a British ex-husband, was due to leave for Moscow after her court appearance, respected Russian news site Gazeta.ru reported.

It is believed she will be swapped for Sutyagin, who was arrested in 1999 and later sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of passing secrets to the CIA via a London office posing as a think tank.

The deal is said to have been struck Wednesday during a meeting between Sergei Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., and William Burns, the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to Russia.

Sutyagin was transferred from an Arctic prison to Moscow’s Lefortovo jail on Monday, and as riot police secured its grounds on Thursday morning, speculation mounted that the prisoner was being moved.

Reports say he has already landed in Vienna, en route to London. Ernst Chyorny, a member of the Committee for the Protection of Scientists who is close to Sutyagin and his family, said that the move has yet to be confirmed. “It hasn’t been confirmed, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true,” he said by telephone. “No one is sure of anything.”

Sutyagin has always maintained his innocence, but signed a confession in order to secure his release. Shortly after his imprisonment, Amnesty International declared him a political prisoner — a move Chyorny believes contributed to his being floated for the swap. Many other Russian scientists remained imprisoned, he noted.

“The case against [Sutyagin] was entirely fabricated,” Chyorny said. “There’s no guilt to recognize. But he knows — and we know — this is the only way for him to leave prison.”

Sutyagin told his family that he had seen a list comprising other Russian prisoners up for a swap, Chyorny said. Among those was Sergei Skripal, a military intelligence official jailed in 2006 on charges of passing information to British intelligence.

Other names being floated are Alexander Zaporozhsky and Alexander Sypachev, both jailed earlier this decade on charges of spying for the CIA.