Igor Sutyagin, a former arms control researcher with the Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2004, accused of spying for the West. He has always maintained his innocence, and many of his former colleagues have campaigned for his release through the long years of his imprisonment.
On Thursday, Russian news agencies reported that Mr. Sutyagin had been flown to Vienna, in the first stage of what could become a complicated swap for 10 Russians arrested in the US late last month and charged with being Russian agents. Sutyagin was hastily transported to Moscow on Wednesday from the Arctic labor camp where he has resided since his sentencing, allowed to briefly meet close family members, and told that if he signed a confession he would be pardoned by President Dmitry Medvedev and allowed to go into exile in Britain.
"My brother was told that 11 [Russian prisoners] were to be exchanged for 11 people being held in the US," says his brother, Dmitri Sutyagin. "He was very depressed about being required to sign the document recognizing his guilt. But he had no choice about that, and this morning [Thursday], when I saw him, he felt much better about things."
Experts say the impending exchange is being rapidly facilitated in both Washington and Moscow as a means of putting a full stop to the spy scandal that broke out immediately following a successful US visit by Mr. Mevedev.
"The idea of a quick swap is designed to prevent a setback to improving Russian-US relations, something both sides very much want," says Dmitry Suslov, an expert with the Council for Foreign and Defence Policies, a leading Moscow think tank. "This will prevent lengthy court hearings in the US, which would be used by conservatives to ramp up resentment against Russia. If there are no spies, there will be no scandal. A fast swap is a win-win solution for both sides."
According to anonymous security sources cited by a Russia online newspaper, Gazeta.ru, Sutyagin was to be traded later today for Anna Chapman, the most notorious of the 10 alleged Russian agents being held in the US. The Moscow daily Kommersant reported Thursday that other prisoners being held in Russian jails who might be exchanged include:
"This is a well-known scheme, and everything goes according to precedent," says Vitaly Shlykov, a former Soviet GRU official, who knew cold war spying operations first hand. "What is different today is that there is a clear political decision, and both sides want to solve the situation quickly. In the past, intelligence services would struggle hard to save their people, but sometimes the process would take years. Now it's going so fast, it's like both sides are running against the clock or something."
Sutyagin, a nuclear weapons specialist, was arrested a decade ago after participating in a survey sponsored by the Canadian Defense Department on civil-military relations that used only public sources. Many of his colleagues cried foul at the time, and some have continued to campaign for his release. Human rights groups, including Amnesty International and the New York-based Human Rights Watch, have listed him as a political prisoner falsely accused of espionage.
"The case against Igor was fabricated in a very rough way," says Ernst Chyorny, secretary of the Committee to Protect Scientists, a Moscow-based public organization. "He was told (yesterday) that he could go abroad if he signs something admitting his guilt. And he did sign it. He has always maintained his innocence, and he's now spent almost 11 years in prison. It's an absurd case."
Though both sides may benefit from a swift end to the scandal, Russia has the most to gain, say experts.
"For the Russian side, it's good to get these [alleged agents] back here without additional noise," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "It's certainly a very strange story, from start to finish, but it looks like these people arrested in the US have some connection with Russian secret services. The longer they stay in the US, the more damage their story can do. But Russia will also get rid of these people that it has imprisoned, some of whom, like Sutyagin, continue to be an irritant in [East-West relations]. So it's a 2-in-1 fix for Russia.”