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Russia-US spy swap in the works? Three famous swaps

Russia and the US reportedly are working out a deal to swap spies, according to the brother of a nuclear researcher convicted of spying in Russia. It's a tactic honed during the cold war.

By Staff writer / July 7, 2010

Anna Stavitskaya (r.) , a lawyer acting for Russian nuclear weapons expert Igor Sutyagin, Sutyagin's mother Svetlana (c.) and brother Dmitry (l.) attend a news conference in Moscow July 7. Russia wants to swap a scientist jailed on charges of spying for the West for one of the suspected Russian agents detained in the United States last month, a lawyer for the scientist told Reuters.

Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters



At least some of the Russians recently arrested in the United States on espionage charges may be swapped for a nuclear researcher convicted of spying in Russia, according to the researcher's brother.

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If that turns out to be the case, it means the US and Russia are resorting to a tactic honed during the cold war that often served as a means to ease tensions raised by high-profile espionage cases.

The exchange of spy prisoners allowed both sides to save face while admitting very little about what espionage activities may, or may not, have taken place. It preserved the lives and freedom of valuable intelligence assets. Such swaps also added to the sense that cold-war spying was a game – a game with high stakes, carried out with few rules, but a game nonetheless.

IN PICTURES: Top notorious spies

On Wednesday, Russian citizen Dmitry Sutyagin said that his brother Igor, who is serving a 14-year sentence after being convicted in 2004 of spying for the US, has been moved from a prison in Russia’s northwest to Moscow. Igor Sutyagin has been forced to sign a confession but has been told he will be set free in exchange for at least some of the Russians now in US custody, according to his brother.

Igor Sutyagin has also been shown a list of 11 other people in Russian jails who may be part of the exchange.

In Alexandria, Va., a scheduled court hearing for three of the Russian spy suspects was abruptly cancelled. US officials declined comment, but the public schedule of Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns listed a meeting with the Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislak.

Spy swaps were such a staple of the Soviet-era that they even had a favored backdrop, the so-called bridge of spies. This was the atmospheric Glienicke Bridge, which spans the Havel River, connecting Berlin to the former East German city of Potsdam.

Here are three of the most famous of the Glienicke exchanges:

Abel/Powers. Col. Rudolph Abel (a pseudonym; his real name may have been Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher) was a Soviet spymaster who entered the US via Canada in 1947. He set himself up in Brooklyn as a photofinisher and artist. He is believed to have assumed command of a preexisting ring of spies that helped pass nuclear secrets back to the USSR. Abel was arrested in New York in 1957 after being betrayed by his former assistant.