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.Reuse content