MOSCOW>> The largest Russia-U.S. spy swap since the Cold War appeared to be in motion today, with a Russian convicted of spying for the United States reportedly plucked from a Moscow prison and flown to Vienna. Defense lawyers in New York say they expect an immediate resolution for their 10 clients charged with spying in the United States.
A swap would have significant consequences for efforts between Washington and Moscow to repair ties chilled by a deepening atmosphere of suspicion.
Ten people accused of spying for Russia were set to go before a New York judge later today at a hearing in federal court. An 11th person charged in the case is a fugitive after jumping bail in Cyprus.
Igor Sutyagin, a Russian arms control analyst serving a 14-year sentenced for spying for the United States, had told his relatives he was going to be one of 11 convicted spies in Russia who would be freed in exchange for 11 people charged in the United States with being Russian agents. They said he was going to be sent to Vienna, then London.
In Moscow, his lawyer, Anna Stavitskaya, said a journalist called Igor Sutyagin’s family to inform them that Sutyagin was seen walking off a plane in Vienna on Thursday. However, she told The Associated Press she couldn’t get confirmation of that claim from Russian authorities.
Russian and U.S. officials have refused to comment on any possible swap.
Special riot police had beefed up security around Moscow’s Lefortovo prison early today and a gaggle of TV cameras and photographers jostled for the best position to see what was going on. A convoy of armored vehicles arrived at the prison, thought to be the central gathering point for people convicted of spying for the West, including Sutyagin.
Police cars and prison trucks left the prison all morning but it was unclear if they carried any passengers.
“A swap seems very much on the cards. There is political will on both sides, and actually by even moving it as far as they have, Moscow has de facto acknowledged that these guys were spies,” intelligence analyst Pavel Felgenhauer said Thursday.
Five suspects charged with spying in the U.S. were hurriedly ordered to New York yesterday, joining five others already behind bars there, after Sutyagin was transferred from a forlorn penal colony near the Arctic Circle and spilled the news of the swap.
Dmitry Sutyagin said his brother remembered only one other person on the Russian list of spies to be exchanged — Sergei Skripal, a colonel in Russian military intelligence who in 2006 was sentenced to 13 years on charges of spying for Britain.
A spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron would not confirm or deny a possible London tie to the spy swap. “This is primarily an issue for the U.S. authorities,” spokesman Steve Field said.
But defense lawyers in Moscow and New York have expressed confidence that their clients’ fates would be settled very soon.
In a federal indictment unsealed Wednesday, the ten suspects in New York and an 11th person, who was released on bail by a court in Cyprus and is now a fugitive, were formally charged.
The indictment charged all with conspiring to act as secret agents and charged nine of them with conspiracy to commit money laundering. It demanded that those accused of money laundering return any assets used in the offense.
Attorney Robert Baum, who represents defendant Anna Chapman, said the case might be settled when she and the other nine people arrested in the United States appear Thursday for arraignment on the indictment, raising the possibility of guilty pleas to the lowest charges and deportation from the U.S..
“Of certain events tomorrow that might occur, the fact the indictment is minimal makes perfect sense. This is a crazy situation,” said Robert J. Krakow, an attorney for defendant Juan Lazaro.
Prosecutors released a copy of the indictment as federal judges in Boston and Alexandria, Virginia, signed orders directing that five defendants arrested in Massachusetts and Virginia be transferred to New York. All were charged in Manhattan.
The defendants were accused of living seemingly ordinary lives in America while they acted as unregistered agents for the Russian government, sending secret messages and carrying out orders they received from their Russian contacts.
All are in U.S. custody except for a man identified as Christopher R. Metsos, who is charged with being the spy ring’s paymaster. Metsos, traveling on a forged Canadian passport, jumped bail last week after being arrested in Cyprus.
Sutyagin, who worked as an arms control and military analyst at the Moscow-based U.S.A. and Canada Institute, a think tank, was arrested in 1999 and convicted in 2004 on charges of passing information on nuclear submarines and other weapons to a British company that investigators claimed was a CIA cover. Sutyagin has all along denied that he was spying, saying the information he provided was available from open sources.
His case was one of several incidents of Russian academics and scientists being targeted by Russia’s Federal Security Service and accused of misusing classified information, revealing state secrets or, in some cases, espionage.
AP writers Misha Japaridze, Vladimir Isachenkov, Jim Heintz and Khristina Narizhnaya in Moscow, Calvin Woodward, Pete Yost and Matt Lee in Washington, Matt Barakat in Alexandria, Va., Denise Lavoie in Boston, Larry Neumeister and Tom Hays in New York, and David Stringer in London contributed to this report.