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U.S., Russia Complete Spy Swap on Vienna Tarmac

July 9, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The Justice Department formally announced completion today of the largest exchange of spies since the end of the Cold War. It unfolded at sites across Europe.

Two planes, one from Russia, the other from the U.S., arrived within minutes of each other today in Vienna, Austria. They lined up on the hot tarmac waiting for the swap. Then a procession of convicted sleeper agents flown from New York climbed the steps to the Russian plane. Some had their children with them.

Meanwhile, on the American charter, four Russians convicted of spying for the West awaited their flight to freedom. Two were dropped off later at a military base in England before the plane headed back across the Atlantic. All had been required to sign confessions.

The key to the swap came yesterday at a federal courthouse in New York, when nine Russians and one Peruvian arrested in the U.S. entered guilty pleas. The judge sentenced them to time already served, 11 days, and then ordered them out of the country.

PREET BHARARA, U.S. attorney: A number of people pled guilty to being undisclosed agents of the Russian Federation. It sends a message to that agency that they will likely not be in a position to do this again for a long while. And it sends a message to every other intelligence agency in every other country that, if you come to America to spy on Americans in America, you will be exposed and arrested.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But analyst David Kramer says the swap undercuts that message. He’s a senior transatlantic fellow with the German Marshal Fund in Washington, D.C.

DAVID KRAMER, The German Marshall Fund of the United States: It’s one thing to say that the arrests of Russian agents sends a message to future Russian agents or other Russian agents that are still in the United States or agents from any other country that may be involved in activities that are in violation of U.S. law.

I don’t see how the swap sends a similar message. The swap, in fact, sends a message that, if you engage in this kind of activity, we will arrest you, we will put you before a court of law, and then we will send you back to your home country. That doesn’t strike me as a serious deterrent for this kind of activity in the future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The prisoners released by Moscow included the former Russian Colonel Alexander Zaporozhsky. He may have helped expose Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames, two of the most damaging spies ever caught in the U.S.

Another freed Russian, arms control researcher Igor Sutyagin, maintained his innocence, despite the confession. He had served 10 years for espionage in a prison camp near the Arctic Circle. And former Russian Colonel Sergei Skripal was arrested in 2004 and convicted of spying for Britain. He is apparently in poor health.

White House officials said today they considered a swap even before the 10 sleeper agents were arrested. After the arrests, CIA Director Leon Panetta reportedly approached his Russian counterpart with the swap proposal.

Georgetown University Professor Charles Kupchan said today he thinks, ultimately, the deal was good for the U.S.-Russia relationship.

CHARLES KUPCHAN, professor, Georgetown University: I think that the reset have to proceed with eyes wide open. Russia may go back to being an aggressor stat. But this — at this point, the trend lines are still positive ones. The stakes are so high that I think the Obama administration is doing the right thing by trying to move as quickly as possible to contain the spy scandal and prevent it from getting in the way of improving cooperation between the U.S. and Russia.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Kramer had a different perspective on how all of this affects U.S.-Russia relations.

DAVID KRAMER: Shipping them off back to Russia so quickly after this, less than two weeks after the arrests were made, and securing the release of four Russians in exchange doesn’t seem to me to be an equitable deal for the United States.

And I think it shows an over-eagerness on the part of the administration to return to the track that they saw unfolding with Russia, that they see a successful track.

JUDY WOODRUFF: News accounts today said President Obama and Russian President Medvedev didn’t discuss the spy issue when they met last month, before the scandal went public. It’s unclear if they have spoken about it since then.

And, later today, there was a further development. The plane believed to be carrying Russians freed in the swap landed at Dulles International Airport outside Washington. There was no immediate word on how many were on board.