Spy swap becomes surprise symbol of US-Russia reset
The startlingly rapid spy swap that drew the curtain on the US-Russia espionage scandal has shown the determination of their leaders to keep intact a much-vaunted reset of ties, analysts said.
The scandal that erupted almost two weeks ago with the detention of 10 Russian spies in an FBI swoop had prompted concerns the two sides were set for a Cold War-style diplomatic battle of tit-for-tat accusations.
But from the outset, both ex-foes took care not to provoke the situation, with Russia rapidly moderating an initially angry reaction and the White House taking pains to avoid accusing Moscow.
And while the cloak-and-dagger nature of swap of the ten Russian agents for four imprisoned Russians on the tarmac of Vienna airport may have recalled the Cold War, it was an elegant solution to a potentially damaging episode.
"The swift, unexpected decision shows above all that both sides do not want relations to be spoiled on account of the spy scandal," said Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the Politika foundation.
"This step emphasises the desire of the American administration to continue the reset," Nikovov, one of Russia's most prominent conservative analysts, told the Interfax news agency.
Russia wanted to "put a quick end to what I would consider an embarrassing moment for them," agreed Heather Conley, a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank.
"It was not serious and therefore could be dealt with, I think, in a way that ends up being a win-win for both," Conley said.
The reset is a phrase coined by both sides to describe a drive under President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev to improve ties that slumped to a post-Cold War low with the 2008 Georgia war.
The spy scandal could have proved particularly damaging as it broke just days after Medvedev and Obama enjoyed a chummy get-together that included a trip to a US burger bar.
Pro-Kremlin Russian analyst Sergei Markov praised Obama for showing his desire not to allow relations to be harmed by espionage, which he argued was still a common practice.
"We are becoming friends but we still spy. Russia is like a wife who checks the SMS messages of her husband on his mobile phone," he added.
The first deputy speaker of the Russian upper house, Alexander Torshin, said the manner in which the carefully orchestrated exchange took place spoke volumes for relations.
"The fact that the exchange took place without needless red tape and talks is serious evidence that our relations have genuinely improved," he told Interfax.
Although the swap operation appeared to proceed like clockwork, not all observers are impressed.
Rights activists such as Amnesty International have already expressed concern over how the four Russian prisoners in the swap, including convicted spy Igor Sutyagin, had to admit their guilt to earn their release.
Elements in the US Republican Party may also be unhappy that Russian agents who had operated in the United States for years were let go so easily.
"They are sending exactly the wrong signal in terms of counter-intelligence policy, which dictates that there will be a price for spying," said Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
The reset has been championed in Russia by President Dmitry Medvedev but it remains to be seen what his predecessor, ex-spy Prime Minister Vladimir Putin who is still seen as the true number one, makes of the scandal's denouement.
Putin had enigmatically commented when the scandal broke that the US law-enforcement authorities "let themselves go" in arresting the 10 agents.
Independent defence analyst Pavel Felgenhauer said he had heard from his sources that Putin truly believed Sutyagin was a traitor and was upset that Russia had to let him go.
"Putin was furious," he said. "They had to give away the real agents in exchange for some clowns."
© 2010 AFP