Researcher Igor Sutyagin listening as a Moscow court jails him on spy charges in 2004. His lawyer said Wednesday that he might be part of a spy swap.
The spy scandal between Russia and the United States took an unexpected turn Wednesday when friends and family of Igor Sutyagin, a former military analyst jailed for spying for the CIA, announced that the two countries were gearing up for the biggest spy swap in recent history.
Sutyagin, who was moved this week to Moscow's Lefortovo jail from an Archangelsk prison, will be among 10 convicted foreign agents who will leave the country Thursday, said Ernst Chyorny, a close friend of the Sutyagin family.
In exchange, Washington will hand over 10 suspected Russian "deep cover" spies, part of an 11-member ring broken up by the FBI last week, Chyorny told The Moscow Times.
Sutyagin has signed a statement admitting his guilt for the first time with the understanding that President Dmitry Medvedev would offer him a pardon, Chyorny said, adding that Sutyagin would be flown to Vienna on Thursday and on to London on Friday.
"Britain has agreed to take him," he said, citing conversations he had with Sutyagin's mother and brother, who were allowed to visit Sutyagin in Lefortovo on Wednesday.
Government officials refused to confirm or deny a spy swap. A Kremlin source told The Moscow Times that Medvedev, who has yet to directly comment about the spy affair, would maintain his silence "out of principle."
Officials from both the U.S. and British embassies also declined to comment.
In the United States, courts in Boston and Virginia on Wednesday canceled scheduled bail hearings for five spy suspects, ordering that the defendants instead be transferred to New York.
At the same time, U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns, a former ambassador to Moscow, was scheduled to meet with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak in Washington. No official reason for the meeting was given, The Associated Press reported.
Sutyagin, an arms control analyst at the USA and Canada Institute, was arrested in 1999 and sentenced to 15 years in prison for espionage in 2004. He was found guilty of selling a research paper on Russian nuclear submarines and missile warning systems to a British company that the Federal Security Service linked to the CIA.
In May, he was denied parole by an Arkhangelsk court because of reprimands from prison officials, which included one for crumbs on his bedside table.
He was abruptly transferred to Lefortovo on Monday. "He was told that he should be heard as a witness," said Chyorny, secretary of the Public Committee for the Protection of Scientists, a human rights organization.
But on Tuesday he was visited by a general with the Foreign Intelligence Service and a U.S. official who offered him a deal, his brother Dmitry said at a news conference Wednesday. His lawyer Anna Stavitskaya, speaking at the same news conference, suggested that Sutyagin had been pressured into signing the admission of his guilt and stressed that he continued to see himself as innocent.
"He got an offer that he could not refuse," Stavitskaya said.
She added that if he had refused, "all of his life would have been crossed out and his and his relatives' fates would have been thrown in doubt," according to the BBC Russian news service.
Stavitskaya was unavailable for further comment Wednesday. Chyorny said she had not spoken personally with Sutyagin, who was only allowed to meet with his brother and mother.
It was unclear who else might be swapped from Russia.
Chyorny said Sutyagin had seen his name on a list of candidates, apparently prepared by Washington. "When the list was shown to him in prison, the only other person he recognized was Sergei Skripal," he said.
Skripal, a retired intelligence agency colonel, was convicted of spying for Britain in 2006 and sentenced to 13 years in prison.
Dmitry Sutyagin said every candidate on the list would be allowed to resettle in the West and take one family member along, but that his brother had decided to go alone, the Grani.ru news site reported.
Chyorny said the list contained 11 names but only 10 would be swapped because the United States had only apprehended 10 suspected Russian spies.
The 11th suspect, identified as Christopher Metsos, disappeared last week after being released on bail by a court on Cyprus.
Alexander Nikitin, an environmental activist and former Navy officer arrested on espionage charges in 1996, said he could not recall a case of so many spies being swapped at once, even during the Cold War.
"This is absolutely unprecedented," he told The Moscow Times.
The U.S. bust of the purported ring of Russian spies, who lived unassuming suburban lives without any diplomatic cover, has baffled experts, who, among other things, questioned the timing amid a "reset" of U.S.-Russian relations that saw Medvedev visit the White House just days before the arrests.
Moscow has acknowledged that all of the suspects are Russian citizens.
No such claim has been made by either the United States or Britain with regard to Sutyagin and Skripal, who clearly fall short of the reciprocity usually strictly observed in such cases.
Chyorny said any legal issues had been addressed by the security services, who gave Sutyagin a passport Tuesday.
No visa issues should hinder the process, he said. "As I understand it, they used the whole day to talk it through and offered assurances that there would be no problems."
Chyorny also said the Federal Security Service had assured Sutyagin that he could return. "The FSB has promised him not to hinder any short-term return to Russia," he said.
Another question is what the United States or Britain would gain by assisting a convicted spy who denies wrongdoing like Sutyagin.
Alexei Malashenko, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, said the contradictions merely showed how keen Washington and Moscow were to not let the affair spoil the reset.
"If [the swap] goes through, both sides can carry on with the reset and all should be happy," he said.