US and Russia swap 14 spies in Vienna

The biggest spy swap since the Cold War took place today when Russian and US planes flew into Vienna to exchange agents, defusing an espionage drama that had threatened improving relations.





Two planes involved in the swap - one Russian, one American - parked side by side on the tarmac at Vienna airport for around an hour and a half as vehicles shuttled between them. The Russian plane then took off, followed by the US jet.



Officials in Vienna, itself once a centre of Cold War intrigue, maintained a strict news blackout throughout. But an unidentified Russian security official confirmed the agents arrested in the United States had left Vienna on a plane bound for Russia, Russian news agencies reported.



Moscow and Washington had earlier agreed to swap 10 Russian agents held in the United States for four Russians jailed in Russia on charges of spying for the West.



The dramatic conclusion to the espionage scandal which has gripped America came after spymasters brokered the deal on the instructions of presidents keen not to derail a series of important diplomatic breakthroughs in Russian-US relations.



In the first step of the carefully choreographed swap, the 10 Russian agents pleaded guilty yesterday in a New York court to charges against them and were immediately deported.



Around midnight local time, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree pardoning four Russians serving long prison terms in their homeland on charges of spying for the West.



Some of those accused in the US boarded a plane in New York last night and the same Vision Airlines jet landed in Vienna today, a Reuters witness said.



As the planes stood parked in the bright sunshine, some people were seen boarding the Russian Emergency Ministry jet and others boarded the Vision Airlines airliner. The Russian aircraft then took off, followed about 10 minutes later by the US jet.



"The United States has agreed to transfer these individuals to the custody of the Russian Federation," the United States Justice Department said on Thursday.



"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-Russian ties, just days after President Barack Obama and Medvedev met for a friendly Washington summit last month.



The US and Russian legislatures are considering ratification of major nuclear arms reduction treaty signed by the presidents in April, and Russia is counting on US support for its bid to join the World Trade Organisation - sensitive cooperation neither side wants to jeopardise.



Medvedev is trying to present a warmer face to Western governments and investors concerned about persistent problems with corruption, property rights and the rule of law in Russia.



Obama wants Russia on his side for efforts to rein in Iran's nuclear programme, keep supply lines open to forces in Afghanistan and advance his goal of further nuclear arms cuts.



Shortly after taking office he initiated a "reset" in ties with the kremlin, strained to the breaking point by Moscow's war with Georgia in 2008 after deteriorating badly during the administrations of George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, now Russia's powerful prime minister.



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 exchange - which one Russian internet site quipped was "Russia 10: USA 4" - may add fuel to Republican accusations that Obama is being too soft on Moscow. A key 11th suspect name by US authorities disappeared after being granted bail following his arrest in Cyprus.







Relatives of the jailed Russians on both sides of the swap had waited anxiously in Russia for news of the exchange. All bar one of the 14 involved are Russian citizens.



The mother of one of those arrested in the United States, Anna Chapman, left her apartment building in southwestern Moscow and hailed a car on a busy avenue after brushing off reporters.



"I don't want to say anything," Irina Kushchenko said.



Chapman was the star of the spy scandal, labelled a party-hoppping "sexy redhead" by tabloids worldwide that splashed her picture across their pages.



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 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 scandal broke when the United States said on June 28 it had 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 Russians 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 June 24 summit in Washington, could be an attempt by US hardliners to torpedo the so-called reset in ties that Obama has championed.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
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: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower