In Vienna, U.S. and Russia Exchange Prisoners
By PETER BAKER, ELLEN BARRY and BENJAMIN WEISER
Published: July 9, 2010
WASHINGTON — In a seeming flashback to the cold war, Russian and American officials traded prisoners in the bright sunlight on the tarmac of a Vienna airport on Friday, bringing to a quick end an episode that had threatened to disrupt relations between the two countries.
Planes carrying 10 convicted Russian sleeper agents and 4 men accused by Moscow of spying for the West swooped into Vienna, once a hub of clandestine East-West maneuvering, and the men and women were transferred, according to an American official. The planes soon took off again, presumably heading back to Russia and the United States in a coda fitting of an espionage novel.
Live television from Vienna showed an American Vision Airlines jet believed to be carrying the Russian agents deported from the United States parked only a matter of yards from the Russian plane, identified by The Associated Press as belonging to Moscow’s Emergencies Ministry. Then, more than an hour later, the Russian-flagged plane took off into clear blue skies, and the American airplane departed shortly after.
The swap was among the biggest since the Soviet dissident Anatoly Shcharansky — who as Natan Sharansky became a political figure in Israel — was released along with eight imprisoned spies in a classic cold war exchange in Berlin in 1986.
The swift conclusion to the case just 11 days after the arrest of the Russian agents evoked memories of that time, but it also underscored the new-era relationship between Washington and Moscow. President Obama has made the “reset” of Russian-American relations a top foreign policy priority, and the quiet collaboration over the spy scandal indicates that the Kremlin likewise values the warmer ties.
The 10 sleeper agents had pleaded guilty to conspiracy before a federal judge in Manhattan after revealing their true identities. All 10 were sentenced to time served and ordered deported.
A lawyer for one of four prisoners freed by the Russian government called it “a historic moment” and said she believed her client, a former Russian intelligence agent named Aleksandr Zaporozhsky, would be reunited with members of his family, who live in the United States.
“The agreement we reached today provides a successful resolution for the United States and its interests,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement.
Within hours of the New York court hearing, the Kremlin announced that President Dmitri A. Medvedev had signed pardons for the four men Russia considered spies after each of them signed statements admitting guilt.
The Kremlin identified them as Igor V. Sutyagin, an arms control researcher held for 11 years; Sergei Skripal, a colonel in Russia’s military intelligence service sentenced in 2006 to 13 years for spying for Britain; Mr. Zaporozhsky, a former agent with Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service who has served 7 years of an 18-year sentence; and Gennadi Vasilenko, a former K.G.B. major who was arrested in 1998 for contacts with a C.I.A. officer but eventually released only to be arrested again in 2005 and later convicted on illegal weapons charges.
In a statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry attributed the agreement to the warming trend between Washington and Moscow.
“This action was carried out in the overall context of improved Russian-American relations,” the statement said. “This agreement gives reason to hope that the course agreed upon by Russia and the United States will be accordingly realized in practice and that attempts to derail the course will not succeed.”
A White House spokesman, Ben Rhodes, said the episode would not affect the reset and that the two sides would cooperate when possible “even as we will defend our interests when we differ.” Rahm Emanuel, the chief of staff, said the president was fully briefed on the decision. Mr. Emanuel said the case showed that the United States was still watchful even as relations improved.
“It sends a clear signal to not only Russia but other countries that will attempt this that we are on to them,” he told the PBS program “NewsHour.”
The sensational case straight out of a spy novel — complete with invisible ink, buried cash and a red-haired beauty whose romantic exploits have been excavated in the tabloids — came to a dramatic denouement in court.
The 10 defendants sat in the jury box, while their lawyers and prosecutors filled the well of the packed courtroom. Some of the Russian agents wore jail garb over orange T-shirts, while others wore civilian clothes. Natalia Pereverzeva, for example, known as Patricia Mills, sat in jeans with a dark sweater.
Few of the defendants conversed with one another. Some looked grim. One, Vicky Peláez, appeared to be weeping as she gestured to her sons at the close of the hearing.
At one point, Judge Kimba M. Wood asked the 10 to disclose their true names.
The first to rise was the man known as Richard Murphy, who lived with his wife and two children in Montclair, N.J. He said his name was Vladimir Guryev.
Then his wife rose. “My true name is Lydia Guryev,” she said.
All but three — Anna Chapman, Mikhail Semenko and Ms. Peláez — had assumed false names in the United States.
The 10 each pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government without properly registering; the government said it would drop the more serious count of conspiracy to launder money, which eight of the defendants also faced. They had not been charged with espionage, apparently because they did not obtain classified information.
All of them agreed never to return to the United States without permission from the attorney general. They also agreed to turn over any money made from publication of their stories as agents, according to their plea agreements with the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan. Several also agreed to forfeit assets, including real estate, in the United States.
At one point, the prosecutor, Michael Farbiarz, told the judge that although Russian officials had met with the defendants, they had done nothing to force them to plead guilty or entice them into doing so. Defense lawyers concurred.
One lawyer, though, John M. Rodriguez, said Russian officials had made promises to his client, Ms. Peláez, but he assured the judge that they were not inducements to make her plead guilty. He said Ms. Peláez was told that upon her arrival in Russia, she could go to Peru or anywhere else; she was promised free housing in Russia and a monthly stipend of $2,000 for life and visas for her two children.
Ms. Peláez was not formally trained as a spy, her lawyer has said. He has also said that she had no desire to go to Russia as part of a swap. “I know we were the last to sign” a plea agreement, Mr. Rodriguez said after the hearing on Thursday.
The defendants included several married couples with children. American officials said after the court hearing that the children would be free to leave the United States with their parents.
Perhaps the most recognizable of the agents was Ms. Chapman, who ran her own real estate firm and who had attained a degree of notoriety after tabloid newspapers worldwide chronicled her sex life and reprinted photographs of her in skimpy attire.
Administration officials who insisted on the condition of anonymity to discuss the delicate decision would not say who initially proposed a swap but added that they considered it a fruitful idea because they saw “no significant national security benefits from their continued incarceration,” as one put it. Some of the four Russians to be freed are in ill health, the official added.
Another American official, who was not authorized to speak about the case, said officials of the intelligence agencies were the channel for most of the negotiations, particularly Leon E. Panetta, the director of the C.I.A., and Mikhail Y. Fradkov, director of the S.V.R., Russia’s foreign intelligence agency.
The official said the American side decided “we could trade these agents — who really had nothing to tell us that we didn’t already know — for people who had never stopped fighting for their freedom in Russia.”
The spy ring case further fueled debate in Washington about Mr. Obama’s outreach to Russia even as he tries to persuade the Senate to ratify the New Start arms control pact he signed this spring with Mr. Medvedev.
“The lesson here is this administration may be trying to reset the relationship, but I don’t have any confidence that the Russians are,” said Representative Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee. “They got caught.”
David J. Kramer, a former assistant secretary of state under former President George W. Bush, wondered whether the administration could have gotten a better deal.
“The White House risks appearing overeager to sweep problems under the rug,” he said.
But supporters of the administration said the spy case should not undermine the relationship or support for the treaty. Richard R. Burt, a former arms control negotiator who now heads a pro-disarmament group called Global Zero, pointed out that the United States ratified treaties during the cold war when there was an active espionage campaign waged between the two powers. “No arms treaty, including the New Start agreement, is based on trust,” Mr. Burt said.
Ellen Barry reported from Moscow, Peter Baker from Washington, and Benjamin Weiser from New York. Reporting was contributed by Alan Cowell from Paris, Scott Shane and Charlie Savage from Washington, and Colin Moynihan from New York.