WASHINGTON - U.S. and Russian officials met secretively on two continents yesterday in a likely prelude to one of the largest swaps of accused spies in decades, a Cold War remix showing that the high-stakes race for covert intelligence between East and West endures in the new century.
Five suspects charged with spying in the United States were hurriedly ordered to New York to join five others already behind bars, after a Russian arms-control researcher convicted of spying for the West came out of the cold of his forlorn penal colony by the Arctic Circle and was transferred to Moscow.
Researcher Igor Sutyagin signed a confession even while continuing to assert his innocence, his brother said, describing that event as one in a series laying the groundwork for Russia to release him and others accused of espionage in exchange for members of an alleged spy ring broken in the United States.
Sutyagin learned Monday of a pending swap, his brother said, in a meeting with Russian officials attended by Americans. That was at his prison in Arkhangelsk, in northwestern Russia. He was taken to Moscow's Lefortovo prison, which is run by the main KGB successor agency.
Officials in neither country would confirm a swap was in the works. But the machinations, including a meeting in Washington between U.S. officials and the Russian ambassador, had all the hallmarks as the two former Cold War antagonists moved to tamp down tensions stirred by the U.S. arrests.
It could be the largest trade since 25 prisoners in Poland and East Germany and four in the United States were exchanged in 1985, the convicted or accused spies leaving their captors on the Glienecke Bridge between East Germany and West Berlin in the waning years of the Soviet bloc.
In one of the most famous swaps, downed U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers was exchanged in 1962 for accused KGB spy Col. Rudolph Abel.
In Russia, Dmitry Sutyagin said his brother, serving a 14-year prison term, was told he was among convicted spies who were to be exchanged for Russians arrested by the FBI. He said his brother could be taken to Vienna, then London, for his freedom as early as today.
The imprisoned Sutyagin said Russian officials had shown him a list of 11 people who could be included in the swap. His brother said Sutyagin remembered only one other person on the list: Sergei Skripal, a colonel in Russian military intelligence who in 2006 was sentenced to 13 years on charges of spying for Britain.
In Boston, U.S. Magistrate Judge Marianne Bowler presided over a hearing for two defendants that lasted barely a minute and was convened, the judge said, "on rather short notice." Their lawyers said they were eager to get to New York to face charges. In Virginia, where three accused spies were held, a hearing was canceled and they were dispatched to New York as well.
Sutyagin, who worked as an arms control and military analyst at the Moscow-based U.S.A. and Canada Institute, a think tank, was arrested in 1999 and convicted in 2004 on charges of passing information on nuclear submarines and other weapons to a British company that investigators claimed was a CIA cover.
The United States arrested 10 people June 27 and charged them with trying to obtain information about American business, scientific and political affairs. They have been charged with acting as unregistered foreign agents. All are still being detained, and the U.S. government has opposed granting them bail.