Moscow/Vienna: The biggest spy swap since the end of the Cold War was underway on Friday as Russia and the United States prepared to exchange 14 agents, defusing an espionage scandal that threatened improving relations.
The dramatic conclusion to the espionage scandal which has gripped America came after spymasters brokered a deal for 10 Russian spies to be deported from the US, in return for four agents being released from jail in Russia.
In the first step of the carefully choreographed swap, the 10 Russian agents pleaded guilty on Thursday in a New York court to charges against them and were immediately deported.
Then, around midnight local time, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree pardoning four spies serving jail terms in Russia on charges of spying for the West.
Some of those accused in the US boarded a plane in New York on Thursday night and the same Vision Airlines jet landed in Vienna on Friday, a Reuters witness said.
Some people were seen boarding a separate Russian aircraft at the airport and then others boarded the Vision Airlines jet. It was not immediately clear who the people were.
“The United States has agreed to transfer these individuals to the custody of the Russian Federation,” the United States Justice Department said.
“In exchange, the Russian Federation has agreed to release four individuals who are incarcerated in Russia for alleged contact with Western intelligence agencies,” it said.
The spy scandal broke at an awkward time for US-Russia ties, just days after Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev met for a friendly Washington summit last month.
The US and Russian legislatures are also considering ratification of a key treaty cutting nuclear weapons, something neither side wants to jeopardise.
Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement that the spy swap “gives reason to expect that the course agreed on by the leaders of Russia and the US will be consistently implemented in practice and that attempts to knock the parties off this course will not succeed”.
But the swap itself — which one Russian internet site quipped was “Russia 10: USA 4” — may add fuel to Republican accusations that President Barack Obama is being too soft on Moscow.
Relatives of spies on both sides of the swap waited anxiously in Russia — all bar one of the 14 agents are Russian citizens -- for news of the swap. Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) declined all comment on details of the affair.
Moscow has always prided itself on bringing trusted agents back home and Washington has agreed to swaps before, though rarely on this scale.
The largest known Cold War spy swap was in 1985 when more than 20 spies were exchanged between East and West on the Glienicke Bridge in the then divided city of Berlin.
Spymasters on both sides say that despite generally warmer relations, the two former Cold War foes still fund generous intelligence operations against each other.
The current scandal broke when the United States said on 28 June it has uncovered a ring of suspected Russian secret agents who were using false identities to try to gather sensitive intelligence on the United States.
FBI counter-intelligence agents explained that the Russian had communicated with Moscow by concealing invisible text messages in photographs posted on public internet sites and some had met Russian diplomats from the US mission in New York.
Russian diplomats said the timing of the announcement, just days after Obama and Medvedev’s 24 June summit in Washington, could be an attempt by US hardliners to torpedo the so-called reset in ties that Obama has championed.
A Kremlin source said Medvedev and Obama’s warm relations had allowed the swap deal to be reached so swiftly.
“This was due to the new spirit set in Russian-American relations and the high level of mutual understanding and trust between the Russian and American presidents that no one will be able to shake,” the source said.