The take from Russia: Two or three spies and a dissident

Much has been said about the 11 Russian sleeper agents outed by the FBI, 10 of whom were swapped at Vienna airport (above) this morning and returned to Moscow. But what about the four Russians who were spirited in this direction? Did Washington get a good deal on the trade? The sweep of the Russian ...

DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images
DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images
DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images

Much has been said about the 11 Russian sleeper agents outed by the FBI, 10 of whom were swapped at Vienna airport (above) this morning and returned to Moscow. But what about the four Russians who were spirited in this direction? Did Washington get a good deal on the trade?

The sweep of the Russian agents left the Obama administration in a jam -- how to dispose of the cases while preserving its much-cherished reset policy with Moscow? Hence Central Intelligence Director Leon Panetta was dispatched to find a trade that worked. He got together with Washington's main ally, Britain, and composed a joint list of prisoners they wished to spring from the Russians.

Washington got two prisoners (the last two on the list below), and London two. The message for current and future spies for the West is that, if you are caught, possibly -- possibly -- you will be sprung. The Washington Post's Karen DeYoung and Walter Pincus -- among the few to write exclusively about the foursome -- note that the four have deep, varied backgrounds. After the jump, thumbnail sketches of each:

Much has been said about the 11 Russian sleeper agents outed by the FBI, 10 of whom were swapped at Vienna airport (above) this morning and returned to Moscow. But what about the four Russians who were spirited in this direction? Did Washington get a good deal on the trade?

The sweep of the Russian agents left the Obama administration in a jam — how to dispose of the cases while preserving its much-cherished reset policy with Moscow? Hence Central Intelligence Director Leon Panetta was dispatched to find a trade that worked. He got together with Washington’s main ally, Britain, and composed a joint list of prisoners they wished to spring from the Russians.

Washington got two prisoners (the last two on the list below), and London two. The message for current and future spies for the West is that, if you are caught, possibly — possibly — you will be sprung. The Washington Post‘s Karen DeYoung and Walter Pincus — among the few to write exclusively about the foursome — note that the four have deep, varied backgrounds. After the jump, thumbnail sketches of each:

Sergei Skripal is a former Russian military colonel who in 2006 was sentenced to 13 years in prison for spying for Britain, and revealing the identities of Russian agents working undercover in the West. Prosecutors said that over a nine-year period, Skripal was paid about $100,000 by MI-6, the British intelligence agency.

Igor Sutyagin is a nuclear weapons specialist who passed on information about Russian nuclear submarines to a London-based outfit called Alternative Futures. Prosecutors said the data was classified and that Alternative Futures was a front for the CIA. In 2004, Sutyagin was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He denied the charges, and said all the information was from open sources.

Gennady Vasilenko was a KGB recruiter who worked in Washington in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1988 he was arrested in Havana and brought back for trial on treason charges in Moscow. It’s not clear, however, that Vasilenko was ever actually a spy — in fact, he appears to have been fingered by Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent sentenced to life in prison for spying for the Soviets and Russia.

Alexander Zaporozhsky was a former colonel in the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service, who may have tipped off the CIA to major Russian spies in their midst — Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames. He was serving an 18-year prison sentence.

I asked Mark Galeotti, a Russia expert at New York University, why the U.S. and Britain picked these four. He replied:

To an extent, it’s not so much a case as whether they topped a list so much as that there was a dearth of credible candidates of analogous value for the swap not to look ridiculous. As is, Washington is giving up the opportunity to beat the Russians about the head for a while on this case in the name of the bigger picture ‘re-set’ of diplomatic relations, so it needed at least to seem to be making at least a reasonably good deal. Zaporozhsky and Skripal do look like good candidates — if nothing else, they seem to have been rather more successful than the Russians’ agents- – while it’s not so easy to see if Vasilenko really was a spy in any case. As for Sutyagin, springing him is more of a moral position from the West’s point of view: While it allows Moscow to reiterate its claim that he was a spy, frankly this is just a case of swallowing that in order to spring someone who fell foul of the Kremlin’s institutional paranoia.

In short, then, the swap was really driven by Moscow and Washington’s desire not to let the case derail the ‘re-set’ and so the choice of whom to release was dictated by the need to avoid the impression that the U.S. was giving away the store. They got 10 professional (if not terribly effective) agents; the U.S. got 2-3 agents and a dissident. Close enough to call it fair…

The experts whom I’ve asked agree that sleeper agents remain in our midst, and it’s just a matter of time before illegals are in the spotlight again. Emil Draitser, a professor of Russian at Hunter College and the author of Stalin’s Romeo Spy, sent along the following:

Americans should not be surprised waking up again one day to the news about another bunch of Russian illegals caught red-handed. One of the reasons why the Soviet Union collapsed to begin with was the inability of the Soviet system of highly centralized economy to compete with the free market economies of the West. As a result of the rigid, bureaucracy-run, overly-controlled state machinery, Soviet technology grew backward, its science lagged. A shortcut for catching up with the West, a proclaimed goal of Soviet rulers since Nikita Khrushchev, has always been the theft of Western technological knowhow. This had been done by the Soviets for many years and quite successfully.

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>

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