The largest spy swap between the U.S. and Russia since the Cold War unfolded on Thursday as 10 people accused of spying in suburban America pleaded guilty to conspiracy and were ordered deported to Russia in exchange for the release of four spies arrested in Russia.
The defendants, pleaded guilty in a Manhattan courtroom, were immediately sentenced to time served and were ordered deported. U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood announced that the Russian government would release four people to the United States in exchange.
The swap carries significant consequences for efforts between Washington and Moscow to repair ties chilled by a deepening atmosphere of suspicion.
The defendants each announced their pleas to conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of a foreign country. Some spoke with heavy Russian accents, sometimes in broken English, despite having spent years living in the U.S. posing as American and Canadian citizens.
An 11th defendant was a fugitive after he fled authorities in Cyprus following his release on bail.
The defendants provided almost no information about what kind of spying they actually did for Russia. Asked to describe their crimes, each acknowledged having worked for Russia secretly, sometimes under an assumed identity, without registering as a foreign agent.
Defendant Anna Chapman mentioned she had communicated with a Russian official via a wireless signal, sent from her laptop. Asked by the judge whether she realised at the time that her actions were criminal, she said, “Yes I did, your honour.”
The arrests occurred more than a week ago, capping a decade-plus investigation. Authorities said the defendants were reporting what they learned in the U.S. to Russian officials.
Defendant Richard Murphy acknowledged that from the mid-1990s to the present day he lived in the U.S. under an assumed name and took directions from the Russian Federation.
Asked whether he knew his actions were a crime, he said,“I knew they were illegal, yes, your honour.”
One person familiar with the plea negotiations told the AP that most of the defendants expected to be going home to Russia later on Thursday. The person was not authorized to publicly discuss the matter in advance of the plea and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Igor Sutyagin, a Russian arms control analyst convicted of spying for the United States, was reportedly plucked from a Moscow prison and flown to Vienna earlier on Thursday.
Sutyagin, who was serving a 14-year sentence for spying for the United States, had told his relatives he was going to be among spies in Russia who would be freed in exchange for 11 people charged in the United States with being Russian agents. They said he was going to be sent to Vienna, then London.
In Moscow, his lawyer, Anna Stavitskaya, said a journalist called Igor Sutyagin’s family to inform them that Sutyagin was seen walking off a plane in Vienna on Thursday. However, she told the AP she couldn’t get confirmation of that claim from Russian authorities.