Russia spies case rushes to a close. Why the hurry?

Quick resolution of the Russia spies case indicates that US-Russia negotiations over the matter have been fairly amicable. During the cold war, spy swaps occurred only after convictions and prison time.

Dana Verkouteren/AP Photo/File
In this July 1 file artist rendering, three northern Virginia residents, accused spies for Russia, from left, Patricia Mills, Michael Zottoli, and Mikhail Semenko, standing, appear in federal court in Alexandria, Va.

The Russian spy ring drama appears to be ending in a rush. On Thursday an intricate Russia-US swap of prisoners appeared to be under way – one that would send Anna Chapman and other accused spies in US hands back to their apparent motherland.

In return, the US appears to have won the freedom of Igor Sutyagin, a Russian arms-control analyst serving a 14-year sentence for spying for the US. In the past, Mr. Sutyagin has proclaimed his innocence, and family members say he signed a confession and agreed to the swap only as a means to escape imprisonment.

It was not immediately apparent how many other Russian convicts might be freed along with Sutyagin in the swap. One other name mentioned in Russian media is Sergei Skripal, a Russian colonel in military intelligence sentenced in 2006 to 16 years imprisonment on charges of spying for Britain.

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Sutyagin reportedly was seen walking off an airplane in Vienna on Thursday. Meanwhile, the 10 alleged spies in US hands were scheduled to appear at a midafternoon federal court hearing in New York.

The quick end to the spy case raises a number of interesting questions.

What does this say about US-Russia relations? The ease with which the swap appears to have been arranged appears to indicate that negotiations were relatively amicable. During the cold war, swaps generally did not take place until all the people involved had been convicted and incarcerated for some length of time.

US officials insisted all along that the case would not derail their attempt to reset relations with a nation that is no longer a direct adversary.

It is possible that political opponents will accuse the Obama administration of having caved in too soon, or gotten too little in return for the spectacular arrests. The FBI followed the suspects for a decade, after all, and now they may be gone within days, or hours.

The forum for such criticism is likely to be Senate debate of the new START arms control treaty struck in April by Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. Some Republicans, such as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, have charged that this deal will prevent the US from erecting missile defenses against such rogues as North Korea, among other things.

What will happen to Anna Chapman? This is easy: Ms. Chapman is likely to be as big a celebrity in Russia as she has become in the US. More generally, all the Russian suspects are likely to be lionized back home, at least for a while. Spies under deep cover – “illegals” – have long been promoted as heroes in Russian and Soviet culture. They occupy roughly the same role in movies and television shows as James Bond and other suave agents do in the West.

Some ex-illegals eventually tire of the adulation, points out Washington Post espionage expert Jeff Stein on his SpyTalk blog. But in the short run, it is likely that the 10 may even be honored on Russian stamps.

Are there more Russian spies out there? Did the FBI get all the illegals serving Russia remaining in the United States? That will be an open question even after the current spy ring case has been closed.

The 10 accused spies in US custody are not a “ring,” in a classic espionage sense, after all. They are mostly husband-and-wife pairs who were not aware of their fellows. That suggests that they were turned in by a turncoat or mole within the Russian intelligence agency, or some piece of information produced at a relatively high level. Perhaps the FBI indeed has rounded up all the Russian illegals in the US.

But don’t bet on it. Compartmentalization is second nature to intelligence agencies. It is possible that there is a whole other population of deep cover agents still out there, unknown to or unmentioned by the FBI’s original source of information.

Some of them might even be as glamorous as Ms. Chapman.

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