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
i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
News
Robert De Niro has walked off the set of Edge of Darkness
news The Godfather Part II actor has an estimated wealth of over $200m
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
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

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower