The planes met. They swapped passengers. The spy deal was done

The espionage saga that gripped the world has been concluded in classic Cold War style. One question remains: who won?

The spy saga that has gripped the world for the past fortnight was brought to a dramatic conclusion yesterday as the 10 suspected "deep cover" agents returned to Moscow in a carefully choreographed swap reminiscent of the exchanges of the Cold War.

Even as analysts in Russia and the US argued over which side had benefited most from the deal, an American plane was touching down at Vienna airport with the 10 on board and stood for 90 minutes on the tarmac, nose-to-tail with a jet from Moscow bearing four Russians. Until earlier this week, all four had been serving long sentences for spying for Western intelligence agencies.

When the planes took off again, the Russian jet was headed for Domodedovo Airport in Moscow, touching down just before six in the evening. The 10 were whisked away in a convoy of SUVs and small buses. Their destination remained unclear. It was reported last night that their children were leaving the US to join them.

The American plane flew to Brize Norton airbase in Oxfordshire with the four Russians on board. It was reported in the US that at least one of those released in Moscow, Sergei Skripal, is expected to stay in Britain. Mr Skripal was jailed in 2004 as an agent of MI6. The aircraft later took off again and was believed to be headed for the US.

The spy scandal broke on 27 June when the FBI arrested the 10 suspects and accused them of being agents working for Russia's SVR intelligence agency. On Thursday, all 10 pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as unregistered agents of a foreign government.

A long drawn-out trial was not favoured by either side, and yesterday details were emerging of how the most senior spies on either side negotiated the swap. US officials quoted by the Associated Press credited the "sound relationship" between Leon Panetta, director of the CIA, and his counterpart at Russia's SVR, Mikhail Fradkov, as the reason for the speed with which the negotiations were concluded. The official added that the CIA made the arrests because it was clear that the 10 would be more valuable in a trade.

Now that the deal has taken place, commentators on both sides will debate whether or not it was fair. In the US, there was some criticism of the exchange. "One thing that makes it harder to recruit people for work like this is the prospect you're going to be in a world of hurt if you get caught," the Council of Foreign Relations' Stephen Sestanovich told The Washington Post. "If the worst you have to worry about is the American government's catch-and-release policy, what kind of deterrent is that?"

There may also be political fallout for Barack Obama. The biggest danger for Mr Obama is that he will be accused of being too soft on Moscow. But US officials said that the four released from Moscow were of greater importance than any of the 10 busted on US soil. Moreover, they argued, the whole episode will signal to incarcerated spies that they will not be abandoned – and discourage Russia from sending more operatives to the US.

"With the arrests and guilty pleas it would appear that the Russian Federation is unlikely to engage in this methodology in the future," the US prosecutor Preet Bharara said. "These arrests and prosecution send a message to every other intelligence agency that, if you come to America and spy on Americans, you will be arrested."

Although neither side had anything to gain from a prolonged trial, it is arguably Moscow that comes out looking worse, with so many of its operatives unmasked. But the scandal has been played down on Russian state-controlled television, with little airtime and constant hints that it may all have been an American provocation.

The majority of Russians get their news from the television and the coverage seems to have worked – a poll for the independent Levada Centre, released yesterday, suggested that just one in 10 Russians believed that the US had arrested real spies. More than half believed that the arrests were "a provocation by American special services aimed at undermining relations between the US and Russia."

Many Russian newspapers, which are somewhat more free of governmental control, took a more aggressive stance. Komsomolskaya Pravda suggested that, even though Russia was getting 10 spies in exchange for four, it was a bad deal. Those handed over by Russia, said the newspaper, were real spies who had been convicted of passing on state secrets, while they had received in return 10 "comically inept" amateurs.

The newspaper mentioned the former CIA analyst Aldrich Ames, who passed on information about CIA agents to the Soviet Union and Russia and has been jailed in the US since a 1994 conviction. The paper said he was far more deserving of being transferred to Russia than Anna Chapman, the femme fatale of the spy ring.

Details of the lives that the 10 suspects led in the US are still sketchy, but friends and neighbours have expressed surprise that people they knew as normal suburban couples turned out to be working for Moscow.

One businessman in Moscow told The Independent that he had met Mikhail Semenko, who was living under his own name in the US, on more than one occasion. Mr Semenko was working for a Russian travel agency in Arlington, Virginia. "He came across as a really smart guy. He spoke excellent English, although he couldn't have passed as an American," said the businessman.

Mr Semenko, along with the other nine defendants, have now returned to a much brighter future than life in an American cell. But not every loose end has been tied up. The 11th suspect, known as Christopher Metsos, jumped bail in Cyprus last week. His whereabouts remain a mystery.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
The guide, since withdrawn, used illustrations and text to help people understand the court process (Getty)
newsMinistry of Justice gets law 'terribly wrong' in its guide to courts
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown with her mother Whitney Houston in 2011
people
News
Starting the day with a three-egg omelette could make people more charitable, according to new research
scienceFeed someone a big omelette, and they may give twice as much, thanks to a compound in the eggs
News
Top Gun actor Val Kilmer lost his small claims court battle in Van Nuys with the landlord of his Malibu mansion to get back his deposit after wallpapering over the kitchen cabinets
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
newsPatrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
News
Robert Fraser, aka Groovy Bob
peopleA new show honours Robert Fraser, one of the era's forgotten players
Life and Style
Torsten Sherwood's Noook is a simple construction toy for creating mini-architecture
tech
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links