Talk grows of Russia, US 'spy exchange'
Expectations grew Thursday that Russia and the United States were on the verge of agreeing a dramatic spy swap reminiscent of the Cold War to end an espionage scandal that threatened to harm relations.
Online newspaper Gazeta.ru said Anna Chapman, one of 10 suspects arrested by the United States on suspicion of acting as Kremlin agents, would return incognito to Moscow overnight as part of a prisoner exchange.
US judges had ruled that all the suspected agents in the alleged spy ring were being transferred to New York, where they were all to appear in court later on Thursday.
That move came after the lawyer of client Igor Sutyagin, a Russian arms expert jailed in 2004 on charges of spying for the CIA, announced that her client had been informed he would be released as part of the swap.
Russian officials and the White House refused to confirm or deny the swap claims. "This is a law enforcement matter that is being handled that way," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.
The Kommersant newspaper also published three more names of Russians convicted for espionage whom it said would be swapped for the 10 suspected Russian agents detained in the United States.
"Espionage barter," headlined the Russian daily Vremya Novostei. "USSR tactics," added business daily Vedomosti.
Such a swap would allow Russia and the United States avoid potentially embarrassing and diplomatically damaging court battles over the scandal at a time when they are pursuing a much-vaunted reset of relations.
In a possibly significant encounter, a US State Department spokesman confirmed that William Burns, a former US ambassador to Moscow, met Wednesday with Russia's US Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, US officials said.
Exchanges of captured agents between Western and Eastern powers were a regular tactic in the Cold War, sometimes on the Glienicke Bridge between East and West Germany.
Lawyers for the accused said Washington and Moscow were discussing a prisoner swap that could come as early as Thursday, The New York Times reported.
"I feel our discussions will probably be resolved by tomorrow one way or another," Robert Baum, a lawyer for Anna Chapman, one of the suspects, told the daily.
The alleged Russian "deep cover" sleeper agents -- including Chapman whose femme fatale looks have become a tabloid obsession -- were arrested June 27 in an FBI swoop.
An 11th suspect, accused paymaster Christopher Metsos, remains at large.
With US officials formally charging the suspects Wednesday with acting as illegal foreign agents, judges ordered two of the suspects detained in Boston and three in the Washington area to be transferred to New York, where they will join five already in the city.
The suspects were to appear before a judge in federal court, the US prosecutor's office for Manhattan announced.
They are all accused of "conspiring to act as secret agents in the United States on behalf of the Russian Federation," the formal indictment said, adding that nine are also charged with "conspiracy to commit money laundering."
The charges carry maximum sentences of 20 years for money laundering and five for the secret agent allegations.
The deputy head of the Russian lower house of parliament's security committee, Gennady Gudkov, complained that the publicity surrounding the swap was "unnecessary".
"If you have negotiations, you have to make sure they are secret," he told Moscow Echo radio.
Sutyagin, a Russian arms expert, was convicted in 2004 of handing over classified information to the United States, via a British security company that Russia claimed was a CIA cover. He was sentenced to 15 years in jail.
Kommersant said the list of those to be exchanged included Sergei Skripal, a former colonel with Russian military intelligence who it said was sentenced in 2006 to 13 years jail on charges of spying for Britain.
The list also included a former employee of Russian Foreign Intelligence Service Alexander Zaporozhsky who was jailed for 18 years for espionage in 2003 and Alexander Sypachev, sentenced in 2002 to eight years in jail for spying for the CIA, it said.
© 2010 AFP