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Russia, US, Swap Prisoners in Spy Case

  • Gabe Joselow

Russia and the United States have conducted a spy exchange at an airport in Vienna, Austria. Russia swapped four prisoners for 10 members of an alleged Russian spy ring operating in the U.S.

The exchange of prisoners between the United States and Russia is expected to bring an end to a weeks-long espionage scandal that fascinated the media, but was downplayed by both governments.

Russia released four Russian citizens already serving prison sentences on charges of spying for the West. Their release was announced soon after the United States deported 10 suspected Russian agents detained last month and sentenced in a New York court.

Although the case is reminiscent of episodes from the Cold War, Russia hailed the exchange as a positive development. The foreign ministry said "the action was taken in the general context of improved Russian-U.S. relations."

Andrei Koztunof of the New Eurasia Foundation in Moscow says both countries essentially agreed not to make it a major issue.

"Absolutely I think that under different circumstances they could have turned it into a big issue in their relationship, and we could have seen mutual accusation and a lot of hysteria on both sides," says Koztunof. "But the current mode of handling the issue suggests that neither side is interested in starting a fight about this spy exchange."

One of the most high-profile prisoners involved in the exchange is Russian arms expert Igor Sutyagin. He was serving a 15 year prison sentence after being convicted of passing classified information to the United States.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev pardoned Sutyagin and three other convicted spies after they signed documents admitting their guilt.

But his lawyer Anna Stavitskaya tells VOA that her client had little choice but to sign the document, since fighting for his freedom in court did not work.

She says his case shows a lot of the problems with the Russian legal system. He had defended himself in court for years and had asked for a presidential pardon. "Suddenly this spy scandal happens, and everything is resolved in a day," she adds.

Russian media report the other prisoners being released by Moscow are Sergei Skripal; who worked for Russia's military intelligence service; Aleksandr Zaporozhsky, a former foreign intelligence agent; and Gennadi Vasilenko, a former K.G.B. officer.

The U.S. State Department says several of the prisoners were in poor health.

The case gained enormous media attention in the United States and Russia. But, despite the excitement about the case, members of the alleged Russian spy ring did not seem to have accomplished anything. They were charged only with conspiring to act as unregistered foreign agents.

Andrei Kutzonof of New Eurasia does not think they will receive too much publicity back in Russia.

"It's hard to believe that they will be treated like heroes. Indeed, it's not clear what they have accomplished, but I think that it would be fair to assume that they haven't accomplished a lot," Kutzonof adds. "And some of their statements might be an embarrassment to the Russian intelligence."

In accordance with their plea agreement, the suspects cannot return to the United States without special authorization. They also are barred from making any money in the United States by selling their stories of life undercover.

An eleventh member of the suspected Russian spy ring was detained in Cyprus, but disappeared after being released on bail.