MOSCOW/VIENNA (Reuters) - Russia and the United States conducted the biggest spy swap since the Cold War on Friday, trading agents on the Vienna airport tarmac in an evocative climax to an espionage drama that had threatened improving ties.
Two aircraft — one Russian, one American — parked side by side for about 90 minutes. The agents changed places under the cover of gangways as waves of heat rose from the tarmac.
The Russian plane then took off, followed by the U.S. jet in an echo of Soviet-era spy trades across the Iron Curtain in Central Europe. Officials in Vienna, once a center of Cold War intrigue, maintained a news blackout.
The U.S. Justice Department said shortly after the takeoff that the exchange of 10 agents released by Washington and four freed by Moscow had been successfully completed.
The plane landed at Domodedovo airport outside Moscow a few hours later. Shielded from cameras, the Russians stepped off and were driven away in a convoy of SUVs, sedans and buses.
Later, a plane believed to be carrying Russians freed in the swap landed at Dulles airport outside Washington, CNN said. It was unclear how many of the four were on board.
The conclusion to the espionage drama was played out after spymasters brokered the deal on the instructions of presidents keen not to derail breakthroughs in Russian-U.S. relations.
In the first step of the carefully choreographed swap, the 10 Russian agents pleaded guilty on Thursday in a New York court to charges against them and were immediately deported.
Around midnight in Moscow, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree pardoning four Russians serving long prison terms in their homeland on charges of spying for the West. The Kremlin said he also pardoned 16 other convicts.
The spy scandal broke at an awkward time for U.S.-Russian ties, just days after U.S. President Barack Obama and Medvedev met in Washington last month.
U.S. and Russian lawmakers are considering ratification of a nuclear arms reduction treaty signed by the presidents in April, and Russia is counting on U.S. support for its bid to join the World Trade Organization — sensitive cooperation neither side wants to jeopardize.
Medvedev is trying to present a warmer face to Western governments and investors concerned about problems with corruption, property rights, the rule of law and treatment of Kremlin critics in Russia.
Obama wants Russia on his side for efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear program, keep supply lines open to forces in Afghanistan and advance his goal of further nuclear arms cuts.
Shortly after taking office in January 2009, he initiated a “reset” in ties with the Kremlin, strained to breaking point by Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008 after deteriorating during the administrations of George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, now Russia’s powerful prime minister.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said the swap “gives reason to expect that the course agreed on by the leaders of Russia and the U.S. will be consistently implemented in practice and that attempts to knock the parties off this course will not succeed.”
But the exchange may add fuel to U.S. Republican accusations that Obama is too soft on Moscow. An 11th suspect disappeared after being granted bail following his arrest in Cyprus.
Relatives of the jailed Russians on both sides of the swap had waited anxiously in Russia for news of the exchange. All bar one of the 14 involved are Russian citizens.
Irina Kushchenko, the mother of one of those arrested in the United States, Anna Chapman, left her apartment building in southwestern Moscow. By Friday night, neither mother nor daughter had returned to the apartment.
Chapman was the star of the spy scandal, labeled a party-going “sexy redhead” by newspapers worldwide that splashed her picture across their pages.
Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service declined comment on details of the affair.
Moscow has always prided itself on bringing agents back home and Washington has agreed to swaps before.
The largest known Cold War spy swap was in 1985 when more than 20 spies were exchanged between East and West on the Glienicke Bridge in the then-divided city of Berlin.
Spymasters on both sides say that despite generally warmer relations, the two former Cold War foes still fund generous intelligence operations against each other.
The scandal broke when the United States said on June 28 it had uncovered a ring of suspected Russian agents who used false identities to gather intelligence on the United States.
FBI agents said the Russians had communicated with Moscow by concealing invisible text messages in photographs posted on public Internet sites. Some had met Russian diplomats from the U.S. mission in New York.
Russian diplomats said the timing of the announcement, just days after Obama and Medvedev’s June 24 summit in Washington, could be an attempt by U.S. hard-liners to torpedo the so-called reset in ties that Obama has championed.
Igor Sutyagin, one of the four Russians sent westward on Friday, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2004 for passing information to a British firm prosecutors said was a CIA front. Supporters saw him as a political prisoner.
Sutyagin said the information was available from open sources and Kremlin critics said his conviction — which cast a chill on Russian scientists — was part of a crackdown on scholars with Western ties under Putin, president at the time.
Sutyagin’s brother, Dmitry, told Reuters late on Friday that relatives had not heard from Sutyagin and did not know where he was. He said Sutyagin had been told as the swap was planned that he would be sent to London via Vienna.
Additional reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman, Alexei Anishchuk, Heleen Van Geest, Sylvia Westall and Timothy Gardner; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Steve Gutterman; Editing by Ralph Boulton and Peter Cooney