The biggest spy swap in Russian history appeared to be set in motion Thursday when a defense analyst convicted of espionage reportedly landed in Vienna amid a leak to the Russian media that Anna Chapman, the most famous of the 10 Russian spy suspects jailed in New York, would be delivered to Moscow overnight.
Igor Sutyagin, sentenced in 2004 to 15 years in prison on charges of passing classified information to a CIA front company, arrived in Vienna on Thursday afternoon en route to London, where he will be set free, his lawyer Anna Stavitskaya and family friend Ernst Chyorny told reporters.
But Sutyagin's brother said later in the day that the family had yet to hear from him.
If freed, Sutyagin could be the first of several Russians traded for the 10 suspects arrested in the United States on June 27 on charges of working "deep cover" for Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR.
A New York court convened a hearing Thursday at which each suspect pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as an unregistered foreign agent, a plea bargain that perhaps will allow them to leave the country quickly.
Sutyagin was unexpectedly transferred from a prison colony near the Arctic Circle to Moscow on Monday, and he told his mother and brother about the proposed swap during a meeting at Lefortovo prison on Wednesday.
Sutyagin told them that a Russian and a U.S. official had visited his cell at Moscow's Lefortovo prison and showed him a list of 11 Russian candidates, including Sergei Skripal, sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2006 for spying for Britain. He said the swap would take place Thursday.
Speculation was rife Thursday about who else might be on the list. Kommersant, citing sources in the Russian special services, reported that former SVR official Alexander Zaporozhsky, sentenced to 18 years for espionage in 2003, and Alexander Sypachyov, a suspected CIA operative sentenced to eight years in 2002, might be on the list.
Chapman, the 28-year-old real estate web site owner whose glamorous Facebook photos and romantic life have captured the world's attention, is to be flown to Moscow overnight, the Gazeta.ru news portal reported, citing unidentified diplomatic sources.
Chapman, who said through her U.S. lawyer earlier that she wanted to stay in the United States, was expected to be among the defendants to plead guilty Thursday.
Late Thursday, Sutyagin’s brother Dmitry told Ekho Moskvy radio that a prison vehicle used to transport inmates was seen near anplane that departed for Vienna from Sheremetyevo Airport at 10:10 a.m.
“Whether it has any relation to Igor, I don’t know. We don’t expect any news from him until he is in Vienna or London,” he said.
Russian and U.S. officials remained tight-lipped about the possible spy swap. But U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Thursday that Sutyagin wasn’t a spy.
“We deny that he’s a spy,” Toner told reporters in Washington, Bloomberg reported.
A swap is widely seen as a face-saving effort to save a “reset” in relations between Washington and Moscow initiated by U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration last year. The suspected ring of Russian agents was busted three days after Obama played host to President Dmitry Medvedev in Washington, in what several political analysts have described as an attack on Obama by hawkish elements in the U.S. establishment who do not want warmer ties with the former Cold War adversary.
In a sign that a swap was being discussed, five of the spy suspects were abruptly transferred to New York on Wednesday as a top U.S. diplomat, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia William Burns, met with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak in Washington for secretive talks that the State Department later said had included the spy affair.
An 11th suspect believed to be part of the ring of Russian spies remains a fugitive after disappearing following his release on bail in Cyprus last week.