Washington — The U.S.-Russia spy swap, a retro espionage drama with no equal in the post-Soviet era, produced no obvious winner. But Moscow and Washington did manage to turn a mess into a message: Old-school intrigue aside, both countries can find ways to cooperate.
The matter was brought to a swift conclusion Friday before it could complicate President Barack Obama’s campaign to “reset” relations with Russia, and both sides expressed satisfaction. Still, the episode evoked images of deception and suspicion from a darker period.
The deal meant a fresh start and uncertain future in Russia for 10 deep-cover agents who were arrested June 27 and deported on Thursday after pleading guilty to conspiracy to act as unregistered foreign agents. They were not charged with spying, and it’s not clear that in a decade or so of burrowing into American society they actually compromised any U.S. secrets.
The four Russians — three former intelligence officers and one think tank arms expert — who were swapped for the 10 were sprung from jail and flown to the West on Friday. But their inclusion in the deal leaves the impression that they were American secret agents all along.
Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, said the U.S. does not acknowledge the espionage charges against the four Russians — each of whom signed a confession as a Russian condition for his release. And Toner asserted that the speed of the deal showed progress in U.S.-Russian relations.
“It was done a lot more quickly than ever before,” he said, alluding to Cold War-era spy swaps.
In assessing the outcome of this extraordinary episode, David Smith, a former U.S. arms control negotiator, said Friday, “The winners here are the guys we got out of the gulag” in Russia.
The four include Alexander Zaporozhsky, who may have exposed information leading to the capture of Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames, two of the most damaging spies ever caught in the U.S.
“Second prize goes to the gang who couldn’t shoot straight,” Smith said, referring to the 10 deep-cover agents who were equipped with invisible ink and other spy gadgetry in search of inside dope on U.S. foreign policy and other topics but apparently never managed to steal a single secret. Smith is a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.
Leon Aron, the top Russia policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank, sees it differently — a “morally messy” swap that tacitly validates Moscow’s case against the four.
“We exchanged inept or sleeper spies for what appear to be victims of (Russian) political repression,” Aron said. In his view, the exchange was a “face-saving device” for the U.S., which acknowledged that there was no national security benefit to keeping the 10 behind bars.
It could be argued that the arrangement favored Moscow, since it was spared further embarrassment over the exploits of the 10 while washing its hands of an inconvenient prisoner: Igor Sutyagin, an arms control researcher who in 2004 was jailed on charges of passing information to the CIA.
Jonathan Eyal, a Russia expert at London’s Royal United Services Institute, said Moscow was the loser.
The 10 individuals deported by the U.S. are espionage “nobodies,” and “retro-spy amateurs,” Eyal said. An 11th person charged in the case is a fugitive after jumping bail in Cyprus.