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

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

Read Next
 

Etch, a Sketch

Jane Merrick
 

Something wrong with the Conservative Party’s game plan

John Rentoul
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
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