VIENNA — The U.S. and Russia orchestrated the largest spy swap since the Cold War, exchanging 10 spies arrested in the U.S. for four convicted in Russia in a tightly choreographed diplomatic dance Friday at Vienna's airport.
Two planes — one from New York's La Guardia airport and another from Moscow — arrived in Vienna within minutes of each other, parked nose-to-tail at a remote section on the tarmac, then spent about an hour and a half before departing just as quickly. A small bus was seen driving between the two planes.
The swap completed, a Russian Emergencies Ministry Yakovlvev Yak-42 plane left Vienna reportedly carrying the 10 people deported from the U.S. Shortly afterward, a maroon-and-white Boeing 767-200 that brought those agents in from New York took off, apparently with four Russians who had confessed to spying for the West.
No information was immediately available as to the planes' destinations. But the Russian flight was thought to heading for Moscow, while the U.S. charter was likely flying to London.
Vienna has long been involved in such Cold War-like machinations, the capital of neutral Austria being a preferred place to work on treaties and agreements meant to reduce U.S.-Soviet tensions.
Both countries won admissions of crimes from the subjects of the exchange — guilty pleas in the U.S. and signed confessions in Russia. One alleged Russian spy wanted in the United States was still a fugitive after jumping bail in Cyprus.
In exchange for the 10 Russian agents, the U.S. won freedom for and access to two former Russian intelligence colonels who had been convicted in their home country of compromising dozens of valuable Soviet-era and Russian agents operating in the West. Two others also convicted of betraying Moscow were wrapped into the deal.
One 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.
U.S. officials said some of those freed by Russia were ailing, and cited humanitarian concerns in part for arranging the swap in such a hurry. They said no substantial benefit to U.S. national security was seen 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 10 Russian agents arrested in the U.S. had tried to blend into American suburbia but been under watch for up to a decade by the FBI. Their access to top U.S. national security secrets appeared spotty at best, although the extent of what they knew and passed on is not publicly known.
The lawyer for one of them, Vicky Pelaez, said the Russian government had offered her $2,000 a month for life, housing and help with her children — rather than the years behind bars she could have faced in the U.S. if she had not agreed to the deal.
In an elaborate round of dealmaking, U.S. officials met Monday in Russia with the convicted spies and offered them a chance for freedom if they left their homeland. Russian officials in the U.S. held similar meetings with the agents captured by the FBI.
On Thursday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree pardoning the four after officials forced them to sign confessions. The Kremlin identified them as Zaporozhsky, Igor Sutyagin, Gennady Vasilenko and Sergei Skripal.
Zaporozhsky, a former colonel in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, sentenced in 2003 to 18 years in prison for espionage on behalf of the United States. He was convicted on charges of passing secret information about Russian agents working undercover in the United States and about American sources working for Russian intelligence.
Skripal, a former colonel in the Russian military intelligence, was found guilty of passing state secrets to Britain and sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2006. He was accused of revealing the names of several dozen Russian agents working in Europe.