The U.S.-Russian espionage scandal that culminated in a Cold War-style spy exchange was an attempt by “hawks” in America to weaken President Barack Obama, the former head of Russia’s domestic security agency said.
“It was an attempt to interfere in Obama’s reset” of relations with Russia, “and to compromise Obama himself,” Nikolai Kovalyov said in an interview in Moscow today. “This was an attempt by the hawks to influence policy toward Russia,” said Kovalyov, who headed the Federal Security Service, the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB, from 1996 to 1998.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry and the U.S. State Department hailed the swift resolution of the spy situation as evidence of improved ties between the two countries under Obama. Russia’s Foreign Ministry said today the exchange of four convicted spies for 10 Russian citizens should help to deter “attempts to divert the two sides from this course.”
Russian state television reported that the spy exchange took place at Vienna airport today. The Rossiya 24 channel showed a Russian Emergency Situations Ministry plane parked next to a jet from the U.S. and two groups of people walking in turn from one plane to the other. The ministry plane landed at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport at 5:50 p.m., RIA Novosti reported from the airport.
Veronika Smolskaya, a ministry spokeswoman, declined to comment when contacted by Bloomberg News. The Foreign Intelligence Service and the Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the plane’s destination in Russia or the time of its arrival.
The accused Russian agents admitted carrying money or coded messages, secretly communicating with Russian officials and instructing others on how to find information useful to Russia. Their objective was to infiltrate U.S. policy-making circles after constructing false American identities in suburbs and cities along the East Coast, prosecutors said.
U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood in Manhattan sentenced them to time served and ordered the accused deported.
Kovalyov said the U.S. was “wise” to drop espionage accusations against the 10 Russians and allow them to plead guilty to a lesser charge, “because there was no evidence whatsoever” that they were spies.
“As the diplomats say, it’s very important to find a way out of any scandal without losing face,” Kovalyov said. “Both sides managed to do this.”
Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, said the prosecution and investigation of the Russian “deep-cover” agents “sends a message to every other intelligence-gathering agency that if you come over here to spy, you will be exposed and arrested. Bharara said the timing of the arrests wasn’t designed to obtain a “bargaining chip” to trade for Russian prisoners.
Fifty-three percent of Russians think the U.S. security services created the spy scandal as a “provocation” intended to undermine relations with Russia, according to a poll published yesterday.
Ten percent of respondents to the Levada Center poll said the U.S. had uncovered real spies, while 37 percent had no opinion. The poll of 1,600 people was conducted July 2-5, and had a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.
Three of the U.S. defendants operated without an alias, including Anna Chapman, whose lawyer identified her as the owner of a Manhattan online real-estate business worth $2 million.
The Life News website in Russia today cited Irina Kushchenko, whom it identified as Chapman’s mother, as saying the family expects her home soon. Kushchenko said Chapman “didn’t do anything terrible,” and the family supports her “entirely,” according to Life News.
The four men released by Russia had all been convicted of espionage. President Dmitry Medvedev pardoned the four -- Igor Sutyagin, Sergei Skripal, Gennady Vasilenko and Alexander Zaporozhsky -- before the exchange, his spokeswoman Natalya Timakova said today.
Sutyagin, an arms expert at the Moscow-based U.S.A.-Canada Institute, was convicted of spying for the U.K. and the U.S. in 2004 and sentenced to 15 years in jail.
Sutyagin’s mother, Svetlana, said today that she hadn’t heard from her son in several days. “The only reliable information for us is a call from him to someone in the family,” she said by telephone. “He hasn’t called.”
Skripal, a colonel in military intelligence, was convicted of spying for the U.K. in 2006 and given a 13-year sentence. Vasilenko is a former KGB major, was convicted in 2006 for illegal possession of arms, according to Interfax. Zaporozhsky, a former foreign intelligence colonel, got 18 years in 2003 for spying on behalf of the U.S.