Washington U.S. and Russian officials met secretively on two continents Wednesday in a likely prelude to one of the largest swaps of accused spies in decades, a Cold War remix showing the high-stakes race for covert intelligence between East and West endures in the new century.
Five suspects charged with spying in the U.S. were hurriedly ordered to New York, joining five others already behind bars there, after a Russian arms-control researcher convicted of spying for the West came out of the cold of his forlorn penal colony by the Arctic Circle and was transferred to Moscow.
Researcher Igor Sutyagin signed a confession even while continuing to assert his innocence, his brother said, describing that event as one in a series laying the groundwork for Russia to release him and others accused of espionage in exchange for members of an alleged spy ring broken in the U.S.
Officials in neither country would confirm a swap was in the works. But the machinations — including a meeting in Washington between U.S. officials and the Russian ambassador — had all the hallmarks as the two former Cold War antagonists moved to tamp down tensions stirred by the U.S. arrests.
The trade could be the largest since 25 prisoners in Poland and East Germany and four in the United States were exchanged in 1985, the convicted or accused spies leaving their captors on the Glienecke Bridge between East Germany and West Berlin in the waning years of the Soviet bloc.
In one of the most famous swaps, downed U.S. U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers was exchanged for accused KGB spy Col. Rudolph Abel in 1962.
In Russia, Dmitry Sutyagin said his brother, serving a 14-year prison term, was told he was among convicted spies who were to be exchanged for Russians arrested by the FBI. He said his brother could be taken to Vienna, then London, for his freedom as early as today.
The imprisoned Sutyagin said Russian officials had shown him a list of 11 people who could be included in the swap. His brother said Sutyagin remembered only one other person on the list — Sergei Skripal, a colonel in Russian military intelligence who in 2006 was sentenced to 13 years on charges of spying for Britain.
Sutyagin said he had been forced to sign a confession, although he maintains his innocence and does not want to leave Russia, his homeland, his brother said.