By Mary Beth Sheridan and Andrew Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 10, 2010; A05
After more than a decade of furtively infiltrating America, members of a Russian spy ring busted by the FBI returned Friday to their masters in Moscow, following a swap on an Austrian tarmac for four Russian prisoners, who were whisked to freedom in Britain or the United States.
The exchange took place on a remote part of the Vienna airport runway in brilliant sunshine. The transaction, the climax of a tightly choreographed operation, brought a swift end to a saga that gripped America, with its cast of "sleeper" agents including a sultry Russian redhead.
The swap reflected both governments' desire to keep the scandal from tarnishing their improving relations. The Obama administration did not want months of U.S. court hearings about the spies to cast a shadow over important bilateral business, including a new nuclear-arms treaty being considered by the Senate.
Moscow's agents -- nine Russians and a Peruvian-born naturalized U.S. citizen -- boarded a Russian government Yak-42 jet in Vienna at about noon after disembarking from a U.S. charter plane that had carried them overnight from New York. They were traded for four Russians who were jailed for years because of their contacts with the West. Some were in poor health, U.S. officials said.
Two of the freed Russians arrived Friday evening at Dulles International Airport, according to a U.S. law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the case. One of them, Alexander Zaporozhsky, is a former KGB officer who helped U.S. agents crack the case of American spy Robert P. Hanssen, officials said.
Zaporozhsky had lived in Cockeysville, Md., in the late 1990s before being lured back to Moscow and arrested. He and Gennady Vasilenko, also a former KGB officer, were met at Dulles by a line of SUVs that sped them to an unknown destination, according to the Associated Press.
The other Russians had alighted from the chartered plane earlier during a stop at a British military base. U.S. officials identified them as Sergei Skripal, a KGB colonel charged with spying for Britain, and Igor Sutyagin, an arms control researcher.
For all the Cold-War-style intrigue, the Vienna handover was a far cry from the last major U.S.-Russia spy swap, which took place in 1986 at Berlin's Glienicke Bridge, an Iron Curtain crossing that at the time was floodlit and guarded by heavily armed soldiers with dogs. Such deals used to involve months of testy, secret negotiations, in contrast to the quick turnover this time.
"This is a very modern kind of spy exchange," said Peter Earnest, a 36-year CIA veteran.
He noted that the swap was also free of the propaganda blasts so common in the past. "If you look at the noises coming from both governments, they're trying to get this behind them," said Earnest, nowdirector of the International Spy Museum.
A senior U.S. official said the two countries were eager to move "back to our larger agenda" of arms control, the war in Afghanistan, and other issues.
"The fact we were able to resolve this quickly and pragmatically shows that both sides see some value to the relationship," said the official, who was not authorized to speak on the record.
The Russian "sleepers" who were traded in Vienna arrived at Moscow's Domodedovo airport early Friday evening and were whisked away in a convoy of vehicles, including a big, dark blue minivan. Anna Chapman, the redhead whose role in the spy scandal has carried her to celebrity status, called her sister from the runway, saying, "Everything's fine, we've landed," the Russian Web site LifeNews.ru reported.
The 10, arrested on June 27, were expelled after pleading guilty to serving as unregistered foreign agents for Russia. An 11th suspect disappeared after being released on bail in Cyprus.
The U.S. official said that most of the underage children of the "sleeper" agents had been sent to Russia ahead of their parents. "Everyone feels for them. The last thing you want to do is march them out on the tarmac with their parents" in front of TV cameras, he said.
Russia's two main state-run television channels led their evening news programs with brief items about the arrival of the 10 agents. Both channels stressed that the affair is over; neither gave details of where the returned spies had been taken.
The espionage affair has exposed Russia's foreign intelligence service, known as the SVR, to widespread ridicule at home. While investing years and large amounts of money to groom and plant the agents -- seven of whom adopted bogus identities -- the SVR obtained no classified information, U.S. officials said.
The four Russian citizens flown to Britain and the United States were set free under a pardon signed Thursday night by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
Sutyagin, the best known of the quartet, was detained by Russian authorities in 1999 while he was working at the USA Canada Institute, a Moscow think tank. He was convicted in 2004 of passing classified information about submarines to a British company, which Moscow alleged was a front for Western intelligence agencies. Sutyagin has always denied being a spy.
Zaporozhsky reportedly retired from the KGB in 1997 after two decades with the service. A year later, he appeared in Washington with his wife and two sons. Russian news reports said he had defected. He returned to Russia in 2001 for what he thought was a KGB reunion and was arrested at the airport.
Zaporozhsky's children still live in the D.C. area.