After discussion about what the agents had done, the conversation turned to the fallout: what to do after the arrests?
In that moment was born a back-to-the-future plan that would play out four weeks later, a prisoner exchange with surreal and even cinematic overtones as Russian and American airplanes met on a sunny tarmac in the heart of Europe on Friday to trade agents and spies much as had been done during a more hostile era. From the first time the president was told about the case on June 11 — 16 days before the Russian agents were actually arrested — a swap emerged as an option that could resolve a potentially volatile situation without undercutting Obama’s effort to rebuild Russian-American relations.
The Russian spy ring would be broken, the Americans would secure the release of four Russian prisoners and both sides could then put the episode behind them.Administration officials said on Friday the arrests were not made for the purpose of making a deal and that no decision about a swap was made till after the agents were in custody.
But they described a fast-moving sequence of events after the arrests in which both sides scrambled to reach an agreement, even to the point of Russian officials’ offering money and other benefits to encourage one of their sleeper agents to consider the deal.
The officials described the episode as perhaps the most serious test yet of the new relationship, as well as a sign of its enduring complexity. By Friday afternoon, the 10 Russian sleeper agents arrested in American cities and suburbs were flown back to Moscow, while four men released from Russian prisons were taken from the transfer point in Vienna to London.
Two of them, Igor V Sutyagin and Sergei Skripal, got off there, and the remaining two, Aleksandr Zaporozhsky and Gennadi Vasilenko, flew on to Dulles International Airport just outside Washington.
Before they moved on the arrests, though, they had to tell the president. Obama was preparing to host Russian president Dmitri A Medvedev at the White House on June 24, so any arrests were bound to be politically explosive.
The president’s homeland security and counterterrorism advisor John Brennan led the June 11 Oval Office briefing, at which officials described who the agents were and what would be in the complaint.
“There was a full discussion about what was going to happen on the day after,” said one senior White House official. Obama then had a meeting on the case with his National Security Council on June 18, just six days before Medvedev’s visit.
The New York Times