The stage for the biggest spy exchange since the end of the Cold War was Vienna's Schwechat airport, where at around 11:20 a.m. Friday a Russian military plane and a small U.S. charter machine operated by Vision Airlines landed almost simultaneously, carrying 14 spies from east and west. Both planes came to a halt only a few yards apart, with Austrian news site oe24.at reporting that the exchange of 10 Russian spies for four Russians imprisoned for spying for the West took place via a black van. After they had completed the swap, both planes took off again.
The 10 Russian spies had been deported by U.S. authorities for spying, a charge they admitted to in court. To complete the prisoner swap, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had pardoned four Western prisoners Thursday.
The United States as well as Russia lauded the deal, with Moscow calling it a sign for improved U.S.-American ties. U.S. President Barack Obama has tried to improve ties with the Kremlin in a bid to get increased support from Russia, and recent diplomatic initiatives indicate that he has been successful.
U.S.-Russian relations suffered over the past years with differences ranging from human rights, the independence of the former Serbian province of Kosovo, NATO's eastward expansion, a U.S.-planned missile defense system in Eastern Europe and the 2008 Russian-Georgian war.
The latest spy affair carried the potential to once again disrupt U.S.-Russian relations. The story had it all -- fake passports, invisible ink, code words, cash in unmarked envelopes, encrypted radio.
The FBI last month uncovered the Russian spies, who had lived under false names in U.S. suburbia, leading seemingly normal lives. They include Richard and Cynthia Murphy, a couple from New Jersey, who revealed in court that their real names were Vladimir and Lydia Guryev. Then there was Andrey Bezrukov, who had lived in the United States as Donald Heathfield -- the identity of a deceased Canadian boy. His wife Tracey Foley admitted her real name was Elena Vavilova. A more high-profile spy was Anna Chapman, called "00sex" by the yellow press for her attempts to lure into her bedroom Americans she deemed to know state secrets. Chapman has become somewhat of a tabloid celebrity after newspapers printed compromising photographs of the 28-year-old. But that seemed to be her only success. U.S. officials said the spies had not managed to get their hands on classified material, despite the fact that their work with Russia dated back to the 1990s.
The prisoners released by Russia are Alexander Zaporozhsky, Gennady Vasilenko, Sergei Skripal and Igor Sutyagin. The latter, a Russian arms-control expert, jailed for 14 years for diverting military secrets to a British company that Russian authorities said was a front for Western espionage agencies, was flown to Vienna Thursday as a first step to get the swap going. He has always denied being a spy.