MOSCOW (Reuters) – In an espionage drama worthy of the Cold War, Russia wants a spy swap to return home its suspected agents arrested in the United States last month, a lawyer involved in the affair said on Wednesday.
The swap plans include exchanging a Russian nuclear expert jailed for passing secrets to the West. They add a new twist to a cloak-and-dagger saga that both Moscow and Washington hope will not undermine improving diplomatic relations.
Russia wants to swap its national Igor Sutyagin, who was sentenced to 15 years in jail in 2004 for passing classified military information to a British firm which prosecutors said was a front for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
"They want to exchange Sutyagin for one of those arrested in the United States for spying," Anna Stavitskaya, a lawyer acting for Sutyagin, told Reuters.
"It is a one-for-one exchange. So each of those detained in the United States will be swapped for one person from Russia."
U.S. counter-intelligence agents arrested 10 people last month on suspicion of being members of a Russian spy network that was trying to infiltrate policymaking circles in the United States.
In court documents that read like the spy novels of John le Carre, FBI counter-intelligence agents explained that many of the accused Russian agents were living under false identities and communicating with Moscow by concealing invisible text messages in photographs posted on public internet sites.
A spokeswoman for Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) declined to comment and no Russian official has yet confirmed that a swap could take place.
But Russia has always prided itself on bringing trusted agents back to Moscow at all costs and Washington has agreed to swaps before.
Despite steadily improving relations between the two former superpowers under Kremlin chief Dmitry Medvedev and U.S. President Barack Obama, diplomats say both sides continue to spy actively on each other for military and political secrets.
One of the most famous cases from the Cold War was in 1962 when the United States released Russian spy Rudolf Abel in exchange for Francis Gary Powers whose U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960.
And a swap could prevent a long drawn out trial of the Russian suspects and avoid a possible row that both the White House and the Kremlin say they are eager to avoid.
The New York Times reported on Wednesday that the U.S. government was discussing a "broad and rapid resolution to the case" with lawyers for the defendants which could allow them to return to Russia.
News of the possible swap emerged after Sutyagin was suddenly moved this week from a prison in Kholmogory, in Russia's northern region of Arkhangelsk, to Moscow's high-security Lefortovo prison and allowed to see his family.
Sutyagin told his family, including brother Dmitry, of the plans to exchange him for the accused in the United States in a swap that would involve travel to Vienna and London.
Dmitry said that Sutyagin had seen a list of names of other people who would be swapped. One name on the list was Skripal -- a likely reference to Sergei Skripal, a Russian officer who was convicted of spying for Britain in 2006.
"Sutyagin agreed to the swap offer as he had no other choice left. He knew that otherwise his whole life would be broken," said Stavitskaya. "But he still insists he is innocent."
(Editing by Dmitry Solovyov and Michael Stott)