Planes carrying 10 convicted Russian sleeper agents and four men accused by Moscow of spying for the West swooped into the Austrian capital, once a hub of clandestine East-West manoeuvring, and the men and women were transferred, the Justice Department said. The planes soon took off again in a coda fitting of an espionage novel.
The first sign that the exchange — one of the biggest in over two decades — was under way came as a Vision Airlines jet carrying the Russian agents deported from the United States touched down and taxied to park only a matter of yards from the Russian plane from Moscow’s Emergencies Ministry. For a while the only sign of movement was an unidentified emissary shuttling between the airplanes.
Quiet and swift
More than an hour later, with little fanfare and no formal announcement from either side, the Russian-flagged plane took off into clear blue skies — presumably for Russia — closely followed by the American airplane. News reports on Friday morning said the American plane had landed at a British military base in central England.
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 1986. But that exchange took place in a wintry Berlin across the snow-dusted Glienicke Bridge in Berlin at a time when the Iron Curtain cut Europe into rival ideological camps and this city provided one of few avowedly neutral havens.
The swift conclusion to the case just 12 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.
Rahm Emanuel, the chief of staff, said that the president was fully briefed on the decision and that the case showed that the US was still watchful even as relations improved. 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”.