Igor Sutyagin: A very different Russian 'spy'

Saturday, July 10, 2010

THE EXCHANGE of prisoners between Russia and the United States on an airport tarmac in Vienna on Friday was widely, and loosely, labeled a "spy swap." So it's worth pointing out that at least one of the four people Moscow freed strongly denies that he engaged in espionage. He has been described as a political prisoner by Amnesty International and the State Department.

The case of Igor Sutyagin in no way resembles that of the 10 Russian agents the FBI arrested, who worked for the SVR intelligence service. Most lived under false identities and reported secretly to "Moscow Center," the spy service's headquarters. Mr. Sutyagin, also a Russian citizen, was a defense analyst working for the Russian government's USA Canada Institute. He and his supervisors say he had no access to classified information. However, using open sources, he prepared reports on Russian weapons systems, one of which he sold to a Western company.

In October 1999, Mr. Sutyagin was arrested by the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB. Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent and FSB director, was seeking to consolidate power as prime minister; the FSB brought a series of highly questionable espionage cases, including several against academics. In 2001 a regional court ruled that the evidence against Mr. Sutyagin was insufficient and dismissed the case. The regime responded by taking its charges to a more pliant judge in Moscow. In 2004 Mr. Sutyagin was handed a 15-year prison sentence after a trial that human rights groups both in and outside of Russia called unfair. For much of the time since then the researcher, now 45, has been held in a Stalinist-era prison camp.

Mr. Putin's propagandists are claiming that Mr. Sutyagin's inclusion in the swap proves he was a spy. Administration officials say they don't concede that any of the four people Moscow released is guilty of espionage. Certainly, there is precedent for swaps of Russian spies for political prisoners -- refusenik Natan Sharansky, for example, was released by the KGB in exchange for eight captured spies. The Obama administration was clearly eager to quickly dispose of this spy case and preserve its "reset" of relations with Russia. It should be commended for obtaining Mr. Sutyagin's freedom.

Still, it's worth noting the difference in the treatment accorded the Russians in the United States and those in Moscow. Though no one disputes that those captured here were intelligence agents, they were held only briefly; on their return to Russia they will likely be feted as heroes. Mr. Sutyagin, in contrast, has been subjected to 11 years of harsh punishment, even though it has never been proved that he committed a crime. Russians who are recruited for spying missions in the United States are unlikely to be deterred. Those contemplating collaboration with Western think tanks and companies know they risk Mr. Sutyagin's fate.

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