The Speedy Spy Swap: Sign of Strong U.S.-Russia Relations

  • Share
  • Read Later

Russian arms-control researcher Igor Sutyagin stands behind bars April 7, 2004, as he is sentenced to 15 years in prison for spying. According to Interfax news agency, Sutyagin could be swapped in exchange for Russians who were arrested recently in the U.S. on charges of spying for Russia

In the past, spy scandals between Washington and Moscow never ended amicably. When the U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down over Russia and charged with spying in 1960, the Kremlin demanded an apology from the White House; when none came, a scheduled meeting of the superpowers in Paris was scrapped and the Cold War dragged on. So if the current spy caper reveals anything of substance, it is that times have truly changed. Quietly and without acrimony, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and U.S. President Barack Obama resolved the situation with almost miraculous speed and, on Thursday, the world learned that the 10 alleged Russian spies being held in the U.S. were being traded for four convicted agents of the West, who had been locked up for years in Russian prisons. For possibly the first time in history, there seems to be a friendly line of communication between the Kremlin and the White House who, together, are getting things done — and fast.

Few observers predicted this outcome when U.S. investigators announced last week that they had netted an apparent gang of Russian spies. The U.S. Justice Department seemed almost giddy to try the case, holding self-congratulatory press conferences and studding its affidavit with pulp-fiction references to "invisible ink" and code names like "Parrot." But soon the media had taken control of the show, with some ugly throwbacks to the Cold War filling up global headlines and, at one low point in coverage of the case, naked photos of one of the alleged Russian spooks, Anna Chapman, making the rounds on the Internet.

All of this left officials on both sides of the scandal red in the face. "Whether by accident or not, U.S. law enforcement put Obama in a very tough spot with this case. He had spent his whole time in office trying to put the Cold War's legacy to bed, and here it was boiling back up again," says Nikolai Zlobin, director of the Russia and Eurasia Project at the World Security Institute in Washington. "It had to be settled, and that would have been impossible without the two leaders getting personally involved."

Although it is still unclear who initiated it, the quick fix was already well in motion by July 5, a week after the arrests. That day, the prominent academic Igor Sutyagin was busy digging a ditch in the yard of a Russian prison camp near the Arctic Circle, where he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in 2004 for passing secrets to the CIA (among the charges he continued to fight even after sentencing). According to his mother Svetlana, who met with him on July 7, he was called into the warden's office and told he would be transferred to Moscow within hours. The following day, he found himself in a room with three U.S. officials and a general from the Russian foreign-intelligence service, who did most of the talking. "Nothing was put in the form of a question during that little discussion," his mother tells TIME. "He was quietly informed of the fact that he would be traded — like a toy."

Meanwhile, all 10 of the accused spies pleaded guilty in a New York court on Thursday, July 8, and the judge ordered them to be deported immediately. They were sentenced to time served — all of 11 days — even though the charges of acting as unregistered foreign agents carry up to five years in prison. Hours later in Moscow, Medvedev granted an official pardon to Sutyagin and three other Russians who had been serving time for espionage.

The negotiations for the spy swap, the only known one between Moscow and Washington in almost a quarter-century, took less than a week to work out, including getting all four detained in Russia to sign detailed confessions. But in their haste, the two sides have glossed over a few important factors — the issue of parity, for one. To many observers, 10 alleged Russian agents hardly seem a fair trade for four Western ones. There are scores of convicted spies in Russian prisons; as recently as May, a Moscow court convicted a man named Gennady Sipachyov of passing classified maps to the Pentagon. But that case, like most others involving state secrets and spies in Russia, was handled with near total secrecy. Neither the defendant's age nor his profession was revealed during the sentencing, and before May no news of the case had ever made it into the press. "That's the way it should be," says Oleg Nechiporenko, a retired KGB colonel who at the height of the Cold War was outed as a spy in Mexico and deported to Moscow. "The Americans may have accepted the lack of parity because of all the noise they made in the beginning, as a kind of apology ... or maybe just to speed things up."

Both sides also seem to have skirted the 11th alleged Russian spy named in the U.S. indictment. He disappeared last week in Cyprus after authorities there granted him bail, and no public mention of his fate has been made amid the swap negotiations. On Thursday, Gennady Gudkov, deputy chairman of the Russian parliament's security committee, said the most important part of the deal was damage control, not details. The media attention around the case had already revealed how "degraded" Russia's foreign-intelligence operations have become since the collapse of the Soviet Union, he told Ekho Moskvy radio, lamenting how the whole saga had forced Russia "to acknowledge not only the actions of the spies but their mistakes."

And those mistakes were pretty embarrassing — like speaking with a thick Russian accent while pretending to be Irish and accepting bags of money from undercover agents of the FBI, according to the affidavit. Many more of their gaffes would surely have been revealed if their case had gone to trial, and that is something Washington as well as Moscow seemed keen to avoid. "The fact that they were able to hush up a matter this noisy and complicated in a matter of hours ... It would have been impossible two years ago," says Zlobin of the World Security Institute. As it turns out, this latest spy story has not revealed the collapse in trust between the U.S. and Russia that so many pundits had predicted. Instead, it suggests how well the leaders on both sides can cooperate when they want to get things done. "This is a very good signal of how things could play out if they ever face a real crisis," says Zlobin, "instead of a bad Austin Powers comedy."