Leading article: A Cold War replay that speaks of warmer East-West relations

Share
Related Topics

On one of the hottest days of the year, the scene at Vienna airport recalled some of the coldest days of the Cold War. Two planes, one flown in from New York, the other from Moscow, stood side by side on the tarmac. There was an exchange; the planes flew back with new passengers, and there was quiet satisfaction with a deal well done.

Those who negotiated the arrangements that resolved the case of the Russian "illegals" must have been either veterans of spy swaps past or well-schooled in Graham Greene, and with a sense of humour to boot. Although the charges brought by the US authorities had fallen short of espionage, all 10 individuals were required to admit their guilt. The same applied in Moscow. Admitted culpability and an official pardon completed the validation required for the exit ticket. The choice of Vienna, a city nestled right up against the Iron Curtain that positively seethed with foreign agents in its day, suggested something almost like nostalgia.

If the scene was vintage Cold War, however, the political atmosphere was not. From the day this bizarre story broke, with the arrest of 10 people living under assumed identities in the US, officials in Washington and Moscow seemed at pains to keep a distance. When anything was said publicly on either side, it was to insist that this episode should not be allowed to derail improving ties. The time that elapsed between the first revelations and this, the largest exchange of spies for almost half a century, broke all records for an exchange of secret agents. There had to be political will at the highest level on both sides to make it happen.

Yesterday's sunlit exchange was a world away from the pre-dawn gloom, armed guards and stony faces that were in evidence 24 years ago when Natan Sharansky walked across Berlin's Glienicke bridge in exchange for two Czech spies. In yesterday's swap it was almost possible to detect an air of cordiality; relief perhaps, too, that there are still people around who remember how such things are done.

This tale, of course, has a serious side. At least one of the 10 Russians appears to have no link beyond marriage with Russia; she may find herself marooned, perhaps for ever, in a foreign land. And what of the children, brought up to think of themselves as American? There are many lives here, including innocent ones, which have been turned upside down. It could also be objected that the deal was one-sided. But the US and Britain secured the freedom of four people who were serving long prison sentences in Russia and a bargain is about substance as well as numbers. As for the appearance of condoning spying, there are times, as there were during the Cold War, when pragmatism must be allowed to outweigh principle, for the greater good.

It would probably be too optimistic to see yesterday's denouement as equivalent to a piece of sympathetic magic that could serve to banish the Cold War for good. Espionage, one way or another, will remain a fact of international life. But the determination of both Moscow and Washington – and perhaps London, too – to settle this case without acrimony is the most persuasive sign so far that President Obama has pressed the reset button with Russia to positive effect.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

I’m not sure I fancy any meal that’s been cooked up by a computer

John Walsh
Labour leader Ed Miliband delivers a speech on his party's plans for the NHS, in Sale, on Tuesday  

Why is Miliband fixating on the NHS when he’d be better off focussing on the wealth gap?

Andreas Whittam Smith
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness