Into the cold: Swapped spies face uncertain lives

Russian ring members face future in country that views them as failures; 4 released to West must leave homeland

Published July 9, 2010 7:30PM (EDT)

They are abruptly entering radically different lives -- 10 spies for Russia who hid in suburban America bartered for four agents imprisoned by Moscow in the biggest spy swap since the Cold War.

Family dramas unfolded behind the scenes Friday as the fiction of ordinary American life was replaced by the realities of modern Russia -- and early indications were that the spy ring did not get a hero's welcome.

"They obviously were very bad spies if they got caught. They got caught, so they should be tried," said Sasha Ivanov, a businessman walking by a Moscow train station.

The four Russians who spied for the West were sprung from dismal Russian prisons and flown to Britain and the U.S; it was unclear where they planned to live.

A White House official said Friday the Obama administration began thinking about a possible spy swap as early as June 11, well ahead of the arrests of the 10 suspects on June 27.

White House officials were first briefed on the Russians' covert activities in February and President Barack Obama was made aware of the case on June 11, the official said. It was then that the idea of a spy swap was raised.

CIA director Leon Panetta approached the head of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, with a proposed deal, a U.S. official said. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the intelligence matters.

Ordinary Russians were little impressed Friday with the derring-do of the 10 swapped by the U.S. and taciturn official statements indicated the Kremlin aims to play down the scandal, fearing it could undermine improving relations with Washington.

The diplomatic maneuverings and soundless drama of the swap -- seen only at a distance through cameras' lenses -- was classic high-level intrigue. But whether the intelligence provided was equally dramatic is mostly in doubt.

One of the four sent out of Russia -- ex-colonel Alexander Zaporozhsky -- 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. But another, Igor Sutyagin, says he didn't pass along any information that wasn't available through open sources.

The others were Sergei Skripal, a former colonel in the Russian military intelligence, who was found guilty of passing state secrets to Britain and sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2006, and Gennady Vasilenko, a former KGB officer. The latter was sentenced in 2006 to three years in prison for illegal weapons possession and resistance to authorities.

The 10 deported from the United States apparently uncovered little of value and were watched by the FBI for years.

"It all looks like a bit of a farce, an imitation of the times of serious confrontation between the superpowers," journalist and rights activist Alexander Podrabinek wrote Friday in the online newspaper Ezhedyevny Zhurnal.

After not commenting for days, the Justice Department in Washington finally announced the spy swap had been completed after the two planes touched down in Moscow and London.

The Russian Foreign Ministry also confirmed the swap, but said only that those involved had been "accused" or "convicted" of unspecified offenses.

Since the Obama administration began assiduously pursuing a "reset" of relations with Russia, which had deteriorated sharply during George W. Bush's presidency, Russia has been eager to portray itself as a cooperative partner -- though not a pushover.

Russian politicians widely claimed the June 27 arrests were a rearguard action by unspecified reactionary American elements to wreck the effort to improve relations. Some 53 percent of Russians agree with that position, according to an opinion survey released Friday by the respected pollster Levada Center.

"The fact that this whole affair was resolved very quickly is proof that neither side wants to stir up conflict and wants to minimize consequences," said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the magazine Russia in Global Affairs.

Some touchy elements remain unresolved. The alleged paymaster for the U.S. spy ring was still a fugitive after jumping bail in Cyprus. Neither the U.S. or Russia have commented on his whereabouts.

The four men expelled by Russia also face separation from their loved ones and homeland -- although the fact that President Dmitry Medvedev issued them pardons raises the possibility they could return.

To start the whirlwind exchange, two planes -- one from New York and another from Moscow -- arrived Friday in Vienna within minutes of each other. They parked nose-to-tail at a remote section on the tarmac, exchanged spies using a small bus, then quickly departed. In all, it took less than an hour and a half.

The Russian Emergencies Ministry Yak-42 then flew to Moscow carrying the 10 people deported from the U.S., and the maroon-and-white Boeing 767-200 that had brought them from New York whisked away the four Russians.

The U.S. charter landed briefly at RAF Brize Norton air base in southern England, where a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said two of the four Russians were dropped off before the plane headed back across the Atlantic with the others.

Sutyagin, an arms researcher convicted of spying for the United States via an alleged CIA front in Britain, had told relatives earlier that he was loath to leave his homeland. He said he signed a confession and agreed to be part of the swap for fear of ruining everyone else's chances -- and for fear of abuse and misery in the three years remaining in his prison term.

Those arrested in the U.S. pleaded guilty to acting as foreign agents, a lesser charge than espionage that raised questions about whether they had gathered much information.

U.S. officials said some of those freed by Russia were ailing, and cited humanitarian concerns for arranging the swap. They said no substantial benefit to U.S. national security would have been gained from keeping the captured low-level agents in U.S. prisons for years.

"This sends a powerful signal to people who cooperate with us that we will stay loyal to you," said former CIA officer Peter Earnest. "Even if you have been in jail for years, we will not forget you."

The lawyer for one of the 10 arrested in the U.S., Vicky Pelaez, said the Russian government had offered her $2,000 a month for life, housing and help with her children. However, she has said she wants to return to her native Peru.

Pelaez and two of the other swapped spies, Mikhail Semenko and Anna Chapman, used their real names in the U.S. The others used the names Tracey Lee Ann Foley, Donald Howard Heathfield, Juan Lazaro, Patricia Mills, Richard and Cynthia Murphy and Michael Zottoli.

To some Russians, the 10 had dream lives in the U.S.

"The guys were unlucky. They had a good life, made good money," said Artem Ivanov, a businessman. "It is hard to call these people heroes."


Associated Press Writers Veronika Oleskyn, Vanessa Gera and George Jahn in Vienna; Khristina Narizhnaya and David Nowak in Moscow; Danica Kirka and Jill Lawless in London; and Matt Lee and Calvin Woodward in Washington contributed to this report.

By Jim Heintz

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