WASHINGTON – The sun was up on Friday when two airplanes, one coming in from the west, the other from the east, touched ground and circled toward one another at Vienna International Airport. What happened next was a scene unlike any other in the history of U.S.-Russia spydom.
The Vision Airlines jet from the United States carried 10 freshly convicted Russian spies. It taxied slowly and parked just yards from its counterpart from Moscow’s Emergencies Ministry with four men accused of spying for the West on board. In the next 60 minutes or less, figures slowly emerged from each plane. They climbed into a black van that ferried them to the other jet. Door hatches were locked, engines fired up and the planes took off.
The Russian Yak-42 aircraft lifted off first. The maroon-and-white Boeing 767-200 bound for the United States followed 10 minutes later, banking west. The transfer was complete.
In the U.S., Peter Earnest, a longtime CIA operative who founded the International Spy Museum in Washington, recalled that in the “old days of the Cold War” such a handoff would take place on a bridge somewhere, with each side advancing nervously toward the other. But today, meeting under open skies near an airport runway is “new age spy swap.”
“It is clear both governments want to get this behind them,” he said. “So what happened in Vienna is an example of mutual trust. They are meeting out there and saying, ‘Here’s our 10, give us your four.’ ”
Later Friday, a plane believed to be carrying two of the Russians involved in the spy swap landed at Dulles Airport outside Washington.
What is left now is one final after-action report: Who were these 14 prisoners, why did both countries agree so quickly to the transfer, and which country flew home the stronger?
The 10 captured in the United States were seemingly low-level operatives, more “spotters” than cloak-and-dagger types. In the U.S. for a long time, none apparently had government-secured positions or connections to top classified information. Late Thursday afternoon, all 10 pleaded guilty in federal court in Lower Manhattan to failing to register as foreign agents.
With Russian officials already in the courthouse, the 10 were escorted to the U.S. marshal’s office on the fourth floor and recovered their belongings. From there it was a bus ride to a nearby airport for the late-night flight to Central Europe.
The Moscow drama was more complex. All four of those prisoners, convicted years ago and some in ailing health, were taken to the Russian capital and told if they signed confessions, they would be set free. Then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev set his hand to a decree pardoning them all.
In the world of spies, these four seem the real thing. Igor Sutyagin was a physicist who spent 11 years behind bars for allegedly selling submarine and missile data to a British firm the Russians unmasked as a CIA front.
The other three were Russian Special Services officers. Sergei Skripal was a former Russian intelligence colonel jailed for four years for spying for the British back in the 1990s. Alexander Zaporozhsky, another intelligence colonel, was arrested in 2001 on state treason charges for spying for the U.S. And Gennady Vasilenko, a former KGB agent, had been held since 1988, though never formally prosecuted for espionage.
Sutyagin and Skripal reportedly were dropped off in England, while the remaining pair flew back to the U.S. All four were given medical attention.
Zaporozhsky may head to Cockeysville, Md., outside Baltimore, where he moved with his wife, Galina, and their two sons in 1999. Galina, known for baking Russian cookies for the neighbors at Christmas, will not be there to greet him – she died last fall.
But Max, one of his two sons, still lives there with his wife, according to a neighbor. “He’s done so much for this country,” said next-door neighbor Colleen Cavanaugh. “I hope he can come here and live a nice life.”
It is not clear where Vasilenko might settle.
The 10 who arrived in Moscow left behind homes and families and jobs in New York, New Jersey and Virginia. It remained unclear what might happen to some young children whose parents were involved in the case.
Vicky Pelaez, a Peruvian by birth who worked as a Spanish-language journalist, was assured by the Russians that her two sons – an adult and a teenager – would be permitted visas to visit her in Russia, at Russian expense, and reportedly promised $2,000 a month for life.
An officer with the Russian Security Service said the 10 spies brought to Moscow “will not be received here as heroes because they don’t deserve it. On the other hand, we don’t want to portray them as clowns or idiots. I think we need to just leave them in peace and make everybody forget about them as soon as possible.”