U.S., Russia appear poised to swap accused spies
Mother of detained physicist says he’s part of secret negotiations
WASHINGTON — Across a vast global chessboard, the pieces were set in motion Wednesday.
In Moscow, Igor Sutyagin, an imprisoned physicist, was taken from a prison camp near the Arctic circle to the high-security Lefortovo prison and ushered into a room to meet with a general from the Russian security services and three U.S. diplomats.
On the other side of the world, five alleged Russian spies due in U.S. federal courts Wednesday in Boston and Virginia were instead transferred to New York to join five other suspected spies held there.
The moves appeared to foreshadow another twist in the already intrigue-laden case of the 10 accused deep cover agents for Russia: possibly the largest U.S.-Russia spy swap in 25 years.
The mother of Sutyagin, a Russian scientist convicted in 2004 of spying for the U.S., said that her son was hastily transported to Moscow from the Arkhangelsk prison camp and told that if he confessed to spying, he would be among 10 people exchanged “for the 10 Russians recently arrested in the United States.”
“He was told that he and nine other prisoners will be exchanged,” said Svetlana Sutyagina, noting that her son still insists he is innocent. “If he agreed, Igor was told he would have to sign a document, which among other things contained a paragraph where Igor was to confess of spying, which he never did before.”
“Under different circumstances, my son would have never done that,” she said. “But Igor was in such a state of shock that he signed the document.”
Sutyagina was allowed to meet with her son Wednesday morning, and he told her that authorities said he would be flown from Moscow to Vienna and then on to London. The spy exchange would take place there, he said.
In the U.S., lawyers for the accused would say only that talks with federal prosecutors were ongoing.
“We are in negotiations with the government, and they’re of a sensitive nature, and we’re not going to comment on them,” said Fiona Doherty, a lawyer representing Anna Chapman, the young Russian redhead who has been fodder for tabloid newspapers.
“I can’t say anything publicly about it right now,” said Charles Burnham, a lawyer for accused spy Patricia Mills.
The 10 spying suspects were officially charged in a federal indictment unsealed in New York on Wednesday of trying to secretly gather information for Russia. An 11th suspect, Christopher Metsos, was arrested in Cyprus last week but disappeared after being released on bail.
Arraignment for the 10 defendants in custody was scheduled for this afternoon in New York before U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood.
As rumors of a spy swap rippled Wednesday across Moscow and Washington, both governments clammed up. State Department spokesman Mark Toner would only confirm that a high-ranking U.S. diplomat, William Burns, had discussed the spy case with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. He referred further questions to the Justice Department, where spokesman Dean Boyd declined to comment.
“I have nothing for you on that,” Obama administration spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters at the White House.
The likely spy swap would be the largest since 1985, when the U.S. freed four Eastern Europeans charged with espionage in exchange for 25 Eastern Europeans held prisoner in East Germany and Poland.
In one of the most famous trades, downed American U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers was exchanged for KGB spy Col. Rudolph Abel in 1962.
Some commentators Wednesday hailed the reports of an impending spy swap as a sign of improvement in U.S.-Russian relations.
“On the one hand, if the deal is really in the works, that will be the Kremlin’s confirmation that these people were fulfilling some special tasks in the United States in favor of Russia,” said Andrei Kortunov, president of New Eurasia Foundation, a Moscow-based think tank.
“On the other hand, that means that both sides want to hush up the affair quickly and thus demonstrate that both Moscow and Washington are ready to leave the spy scandal behind them and continue to develop the positive trend in their relationship,” Kortunov said.
Russians walk Wednesday by Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, where Igor Sutyagin, convicted of spying for the West, awaited a swap of accused spies.