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.
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.
Francis Gary Powers was a CIA U-2 spy plane pilot shot down over Sverdlosk on May 1, 1960. He was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment, including three years of hard labor, within months of his capture.
On Feb. 10, 1962, Powers and an American student named Frederic Pryor were swapped for Rudolph Abel at the Glienicke Bridge.
Marion Zacharski. Marion Zacharski was a Polish intelligence officer arrested in 1981 and convicted of spying on the United States. He had lived in America since 1977, allegedly working as the representative of a Polish machinery firm. His real work was bribing an employee of Hughes Aircraft to provide him with secret documents about US radar and weapons systems.
On June 12, 1985, Zacharski and three other agents were swapped at the Glienicke Bridge for a team of 23 American agents held in Eastern Europe. The US identified these agents only as “persons of interest.” This is thought to have been the largest spy exchange ever in Europe.
Natan Sharansky. On Feb. 11, 1986, the famous Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky and three other Soviet prisoners were freed at the Glienicke Bridge in exchange for the husband-and-wife Czech espionage team of Karl and Hana Koecher and three convicted spies held by the West.
Sharansky himself had been convicted of spying for the US in 1978, but maintained he had been targeted by the Kremlin due to his outspokenness about human rights violations. He was greeted at the Berlin side of the bridge by, among others, US Ambassador to West Germany Richard Burt.
The article includes material from the Associated Press.