In a perfectly choreographed operation, Russia and the United States completed their biggest spy swap since the Cold War Friday, exchanging 10 agents deported by the US for four freed by Moscow.
As the cloak-and-dagger move successfully drew the curtain on what could have fuelled an embarrassing diplomatic spat between the two nations, more details began to emerge highlighting the high-stakes involved.
Special Russian and US flights carried the spies to Vienna early Friday, parked next to each other on the runway, then took off within 15 minutes of each other after the exchange, which was kept well hidden from banks of media.
A government jet carrying the 10 Russian spies, including the glamorous Anna Chapman, took them back to Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, officials said.
Pictures broadcast on Russian state television showed the agents being whisked away from the airport tarmac to an unknown location in two minivans.
The American plane, meanwhile, made a brief stop at the Brize Norton air base in central England, British media reported, before taking off again and landing around 2130 GMT at Dulles international airport outside Washington.
It was not immediately clear if all the four agents released by Russia were brought to the United States.
But the White House revealed President Barack Obama had been briefed about the “deep cover” Russian spy network as early as February, well before they were arrested in an FBI swoop on June 27 after a decade-long surveillance.
And it confirmed that CIA chief Leon Panetta had led negotiations with the Russians about how to resolve the crisis, which flared into the open just as the former Cold War foes are enjoying a thaw in relations.
Vienna, the Austrian capital near the old Iron Curtain frontier, has not seen such drama since the Cold War, when it was at the heart of the espionage struggle played out between the two superpowers.
“The United States government came up with the four individuals to be freed by the Russians based on humanitarian concerns, health concerns, and other reasons that we put forward to the Russians,” the White House said in a statement, revealing how the deal was hammered out.
The Russian foreign ministry said the swap involved the “return to Russia of 10 Russian citizens accused in the United States, along with the simultaneous transfer to the United States of four individuals previously condemned in Russia.”
Spies pleaded guilty
The United States sent back the 10 Kremlin agents late Thursday after they pleaded guilty in a New York court to acting as illegal agents for Moscow. They were immediately expelled.
The four released by Russia included Igor Sutyagin, convicted in 2004 of handing over classified information to a British company that Russia claimed was a CIA cover. He was serving a 15-year jail term.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev pardoned the four on Thursday after they signed documents admitting they had spied.
The Russian spies, included Chapman whose semi-nude pictures and racy romances made her a global tabloid sensation.
“I hope that I will soon be able to see and embrace my daughter,” Chapman’s mother, Irina Kushchenko, told the lifenews.ru news website.
Despite the diplomatic storm caused by the spy ring, the group appeared to have been amateurish and made little impact in the decade since being formed.
In court, several defendants acknowledged using fake names. The couple living as Richard and Cynthia Murphy were really Vladimir and Lydia Guryev, while Donald Heathfield’s true name was revealed to be Andrey Bezrukov.
Peruvian-American journalist Vicky Pelaez, a firebrand columnist with New York’s Spanish-language El Diario newspaper, told how she “brought a letter with invisible ink” to her contact.
Russia sent consular officials to the detained 10 to describe “the life these defendants might be returning to back in Russia,” a US prosecutor said.
Alongside Sutyagin, the four released by Russia included Sergei Skripal, a former colonel with Russian military intelligence; ex-Russian Foreign Intelligence agent Alexander Zaporozhsky; and Gennady Vasilenko about whom far less is known.
Britain’s interior ministry said Friday it was urgently considering whether to strip Chapman of her British passport.
Chapman spent several years living in London and was married to a British man. According to several media reports here, Chapman’s lawyer had indicated that she would like to return to Britain.