The scene was reminiscent of the Cold War.
On a runway in Vienna, Austria – a city once divided, like Berlin, between East and West — unknown officials from the United States and Russia choreographed the exchange of 10 Russian spies, who had pleaded guilty just hours before in a New York courtroom, for four spies from the West.
And with that, the biggest spy swap since the fall of the Soviet Union was done.
But a key question remains: Who won?
The calculus comes down to much more than the number of spies being exchanged by each side, analysts said Friday. The key variable is how much valuable information each was able to draw out of the spies in their custody and how much they’ll be able to be get from the returned spies.
The 10 Russian spies have been described as “sleeper” agents. They were unassuming next-door neighbors, and included couples, parents and young professionals. U.S. counterintelligence officials told NBC News the network was a rainy-day operation, not a sunny-day operation, meaning that if the need arose, the Russians might have taken on a more nefarious role. But for the most part, they seemed relatively harmless.
In return for sending them home, the U.S. got two former Russian intelligence officials; a specialist in U.S. and Russian nuclear arms; and a man who may have been a former KGB recruiter.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt — I think the U.S. won,” NBC National Security Producer Robert Windrem said Friday. “These guys, especially Sutyagin, are coming to the U.S. with real information and there’s no evidence the guys from the U.S. got anything.”
Igor Sutyagin, who has garnered more attention than the others who were in Russian custody, worked as an arms control and nuclear weapons specialist before he was sentenced to 15 years in a jail in one of Russia’s remote penal colonies for allegedly handing over classified information to a London firm called Alternative Futures.
Alexander Zaporozhsky and Sergei Skripal served as colonels in Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, SVR, and military intelligence, GRU, units, respectively, before they were both arrested in early to mid-2000 for allegedly sharing top secret information with U.S. authorities. The fourth, Gennady Vasilenko, could be one of two men. One Gennady Vasilenko was arrested by Soviet authorities in Havanah in 1988 for spying for the West while he worked as a KGB recruiter in Washington, D.C., in the 1970s and 1980s; another was jailed by Russian officials for illegal arms, planting explosives and resistance to arrest, but not espionage.
Senior law enforcement officials now believe the entire Russian operation in the U.S. has been rolled up, Windrem said. It seems likely that U.S. cells in Russia, however, are still active, U.S. officials told him. Both sides are still likely relying upon high-tech interception and deciphering, which Russia has used very successfully in the past.
Despite the impressive resumes of the spies being sent to the United States, Jack Rice, a former CIA officer, argues that Russia, not the United States, is walking away from this exchange with better intelligence information.
The 10 Russian agents spent less time in an American jail than a person convicted of drunk driving, so U.S. authorities would not have had enough time to fully question them, Rice said. Russian officials had access to the Western spies for years before they had to turn them back over to the United States.
“If we’re looking at an intelligence battle, the Russians won. But the Americans weren’t looking at it that way,” Rice said. “I think the White House wanted the case to go away because they were more concerned with big-picture issues, including Iran and nuclear proliferation, so for them the question was never about the intelligence battle, it was something else.”
But Rice cautioned that with these sorts of exchanges, there is rarely enough information to fully grasp what’s at stake.
“This is a perfect example of the gray in which the intelligence community works; sometimes it’s difficult to determine who wins and sometimes difficult to deter who loses, because most of the time you’re working in the shadows anyway,” Rice said.
With the exchange, the United States was able to push what could have been a sticky diplomatic issue out of the headlines, Rice said. Also, the U.S. intelligence community now has the ability to tell new recruits that they will do everything in their power to protect their agents if something should happen — a powerful marketing tool.
U.S. and Russian officials will debrief their returning agents “in every sense of the word,” Rice said.
Officials in the U.S. will ask the four spies returned into its custody about the information they gathered while overseas, but the real focus will be on how the U.S. agents were uncovered in the first place, how they were interrogated and what questions Russian intelligence officials asked them.
NBC’s Windrem said the spy case and resultant swap will lead both countries to revisit a relationship that still needs to mature.
“The bottom line here is that there is much more cooperation here in the most critical aspects of national security — terrorism — than there are problems,” he said, adding that Russian intelligence is no doubt embarrassed by the exposure of the sleeper cell.
The desire of both countries to move beyond the episode likely means that U.S. officials will not pursue the 11th Russian spy, who skipped bail after he was arrested by Cypriot officials last week.
“[U.S. officials] are probably not going to find him, and they have no interest in it. They don’t want to see it in the papers,” Rice said, adding that Russia and the U.S. already know that they have spied on each other and will continue to do so.
The end of the Cold War did not halt that practice.