Washington: With the conclusion of the biggest spy swap since the Cold War, the US has defused a thorny diplomatic problem quickly and cleanly — and avoided damaging recent efforts to improve relations with Russia. And Moscow has escaped further embarrassment over a group of spies that over the years apparently had little if any success in ferreting out any useful secrets.
The 10 sleeper agents, who blended into American communities before being arrested two weeks ago, were back on Russian soil on Saturday, a day after they were exchanged on the tarmac of the Vienna airport for four prisoners the Russians had accused of spying for the West.
Two of the prisoners were flown to England and the other two landed aboard a chartered jetliner at Dulles International Airport outside Washington late Friday.
The whirlwind exchange, which brought back memories of the Cold War years, was the culmination of an idea hatched more than a month ago within the White House, weeks before the 10 Russian sleeper agents were arrested June 27 after it was learned several of them were preparing to leave the country.
What was known as "the illegals program" had been first brought to the White House`s attention in February, triggering weeks of meetings about how and when to proceed and what to do with the spies once they were apprehended, according to two White House officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the White House.
On a Friday afternoon, June 11, President Barack Obama was briefed in a meeting in the Oval Office. Among the issues discussed was how the matter could be brought to a swift conclusion so as not to complicate the president`s efforts to "reset" improved relations with Russia. The possibility of a spy swap was raised during the meeting, said one of the officials.
While the arrests were not planned to facilitate such a trade, a swap appeared to have the most benefit to the United States. Little could be gained from locking up the Russian agents for years since they long had been under surveillance and appeared never to have obtained any US secrets.
The President approved the swap. Still, the matter was never brought up when Obama hosted Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the White House on June 24, three days before the Russian agents were arrested.
Soon thereafter, CIA Director Leon Panetta provided Russia`s spy chief, Mikhail Fradkov, the names of four prisoners being held in Russia that the US wanted to free, the officials said. A few days and three phone conversations later, Panetta and Fradkov agreed to the deal, the US officials said.
There was a flurry of bureaucratic wrangling, but the swap would rapidly move forward.
One US condition was that the deal not be accompanied by any retaliatory steps against Americans.
Both sets of prisoners would begin radically different lives.
The 10 Russian agents and their families traded ordinary but fictional American lives for the realities of modern Russia. They were flown to Moscow with no hero`s welcome.
Sasha Ivanov, a businessman walking by a Moscow train station, had this assessment: "They obviously were very bad spies if they got caught. They got caught, so they should be tried."
The four Russians accused of spying for the West were sprung from dismal Russian prisons. It was unclear where any of them planned to settle.
Igor Sutyagin, a 45-year-old arms researcher was convicted of spying for the United States via an alleged CIA front in Britain, although he maintained he provided nothing that wasn`t available through open sources. Sergei Skripal, a former colonel in the Russian military intelligence, was found guilty of passing state secrets to Britain and had been sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2006.
Both men got off the chartered Boeing 762-200 at an airport in southern England before the jet continued on to the United States with the other two former Russian prisoners.
Alexander Zaporozhsky, a former colonel in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, and Gennady Vasilenko, a former KGB officer, flew to the United States. Zaporozhsky had faced an 18-year prison sentence for espionage on behalf of the United States. Vasilenko was sentenced to three years in prison for illegal weapons possession and resistance to authority.
All four signed confessions as a condition of their release, although the United States has not acknowledged the espionage charges.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the speed of the swap agreement reflects an improvement of US-Russia relations. "It was done a lot more quickly than ever before," he said, alluding to Cold War-era spy swaps.