A Troubling “Spy” Swap

Why did the Obama administration send the Russian spies home with such haste -- and for so little in return?

Just recently, ten Russian spies caught in the US were exchanged for four Russian prisoners convicted for espionage: former army officers, Sergey Skripal, Alexander Zaporozhsky and Gennady Vasilenko and arms control researcher Igor Sutyagin.

Of those four, Sutyagin’s case is by far the best known in Russia -- precisely because Sutyagin was never a spy.

Sutyagin was a political prisoner, a victim of the spy-mania campaign. Unlike the other three Russian prisoners, he never even handled classified information. Nevertheless, in 2004 he was convicted for high treason and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment, merely for monitoring Russian newspapers and magazines and sharing publicly available information with foreign colleagues. It was in Sutyagin’s case that the Russian courts accepted the FSB’s magic formula: publicly available information, when put together, may constitute a Russian state secret. What followed was a campaign of prosecutions against Russian academics who dared any collaboration with foreign colleagues. Many of them, such as physicists Valentin Danilov and Igor Reshetin, are still serving their lengthy prison terms.

Sutyagin worked as a researcher for the U.S. and the Canada Institute in Moscow. While visiting London in late 1990s, he was approached by a British consultancy, Alternative Futures, and contracted to write reports on Russian nuclear submarines and missile warning systems.

According to Sutyagin's friends, he later got worried about his British job because, while the firm duly paid his money, he never saw his reports published as promised. He sensed a crime might be taking place and decided to share his suspicions with the FSB. Sutyagin was immediately arrested and spent about five years in jail awaiting trial.

The FSB prosecutors claimed that Alternative Futures was a CIA front company and that Sutyagin’s employers, Nadia Locke and Sean Kidd, were intelligence officers well-known to the FSB. The indictment accused Sutyagin of giving them information on such topics as "The structure of the space-based tier of missile warning," "The structure and deployment of level readiness forces," "The generalised structure of Soviet /Russian defence expenditure in 1989-1998," and "The condition of forces and facilities of Russian air defence." Sutyagin pleaded not guilty on the grounds that all the information in his reports had been publicly available anyway. He was only paid for monitoring open publications.

The “state secrets” Sutyagin had given away were taken from such sources as a Washington Post article, a British guidebook, "Military Balance," which contained data on the number of satellites in one of Russian space systems, and articles on Gepard nuclear submarine published in the official newspaper of the Russian army Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star). The prosecutors accepted that all those materials had been previously published, but they argued that Sutyagin brought different pieces of information together and thus created Russian state secrets, which he then sold to the West.

The metaphysics of secrecy dominated the whole trial. One prosecution expert stated:  “I am not familiar with the detailed data on the subject but I am convinced it is a state secret". He added that “the security of Russia will suffer significant damage” if that information -- unknown even to himself -- became available to the “Western professionals.”

An expert for defence, meanwhile, concluded that the information transferred by Sutyagin was well-known to Western professionals since Russia had officially disclosed it to the U.S .under the START-1 and START-2 treaties. However, the judge agreed with the prosecutors that the defence expert’s evidence was inadmissible and did not allow the expert to testify before the jury.

The jury itself was infamously replaced half-way during the trial, and it later emerged that two of the new jurors were FSB officers, who pressured other members to return a guilty verdict. So the new jury did that, unanimously, and eight out of 12 members decided against recommending him to mercy.

In a sense, Sutyagin seems a good exchange for any one of the ten Russian spies, who actually inflicted no harm to U.S. security and weren't even charged for espionage. All ten were so-called "sleepers" who lived in the United States under false identities for many years, with the task to Americanize, make networks of contacts in high places and establish communication channels with their controllers in Moscow. Their bosses from the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service were to "wake" them up on necessity - and it would be only at that stage that the spy-ring could do any real harm.

What is really interesting about this "spy swap" is the haste in which Moscow approached Washington offering a bargain. The Kremlin evidently wanted to get its agents back before they started talking. What was it trying to hide? The schemes of money laundering involving top Russian officials? The names of other "sleepers" still living in the West? This is something we shall hardly ever find out.

Why did the Obama administration act so quickly in returning the spies? It evidently was not under pressure and could have huckstered over the price. There are internationally recognised political prisoners in Russia and the United States could at least have demanded an exchange of one for one, not one for two and a half.

This was certainly a bad bargain for America.

Natalya Hmelik is a Russian journalist living in Israel.