Is a Russia-U.S. Spy Swap in the Works?

Russian weapons specialist Igor Sutyagin, who was sentenced in 2004 to 15 years in prison for spying, seen behind bars in Moscow City Court on April 7, 2004. AFP-Getty Images

Echoes of the Cold War continue to reverberate from last week’s FBI roundup of 10 suspected Russian deep-cover spies. Now news reports from Moscow suggest that a Cold War–style spy swap could be in the works to send the alleged Russian agents home—and there’s substance to those reports, some officials in Washington acknowledge. According to The Wall Street Journal, the mother of Igor Sutyagin, a Russian disarmament researcher found guilty on spy charges six years ago, says Russian authorities have unexpectedly transferred her son from a remote prison in northern Russia to a special jail in Moscow in anticipation of his possible release. And Russian officials have informed Sutyagin that he’s one of a group of 11 convicted spies who are to be exchanged for the FBI’s arrested spy suspects, his brother Dmitry told the Associated Press. U.S. officials were in the room when Russian officials met with Igor before his transfer, Dmitry said.

According to a Human Rights Watch summary of the Russian researcher’s case, he was arrested in 1999 and convicted in 2004 for allegedly passing defense information to a British firm suspected by Russian officials of being a CIA front. Although he signed a confession under duress, he insists he is innocent and doesn't want to leave Russia, Dmitry Sutyagin told the AP.
A Justice Department spokesman has declined to comment on the spy-swap reports, although Declassified began hearing whispers of such a deal soon after news of the arrests broke last week. A U.S. government official, asking for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, indicates that the idea of a deal is not absurd, adding that as the Americans see it, it would have to involve the release of more Russian prisoners than just Sutyagin.

An old-fashioned spy swap would be only the latest anachronism in a case that has many eerie Cold War echoes, ranging from the femme fatale antics of one of the alleged spy ring's younger members (topless photos of Anna Chapman surfaced in a London tabloid over the weekend) to the use of seemingly antique "tradecraft" like messages written in invisible ink and bales of cash buried under broken beer bottles in remote rural fields. On the other hand, the accused Russian agents also used modern high-tech methods like two-way laptop wireless hookups and the transmission of secret messages to Moscow Center via "steganography"—an advanced technique in which texts are fiendishly encoded by computer and then embedded in pictures posted publicly on the Internet.

Given that the alleged Russian spy ring’s members appear never to have gotten near any real secrets—they are charged not with actual espionage but only with conspiring to violate U.S. laws that bar money laundering and require foreign agents to register with the U.S. government—a spy swap might arguably be an elegant way to resolve the case and encourage what U.S. and Russian officials have described as a recent warming trend between the two governments.