US authorities are organising a spy-exchange deal to return 10 alleged "deep-cover" Russian agents to Moscow, according to reports yesterday.
The lawyer and family members of Igor Sutyagin, a Russian jailed in 2004 on charges of spying for the West, claimed that the former nuclear analyst was being readied for a transfer to either Britain or the US. Mr Sutyagin, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison, has signed a confession and has been transferred from a prison in the far north of Russia to Moscow in preparation for the swap, his brother Dmitry said.
His brother added that Igor maintained his innocence and wanted to stay in Russia, but was forced to sign the confession at a meeting with Russian intelligence officials and unspecified Americans. He claimed the Russian officials had shown his brother a list of 11 people to be included in the swap. He said Mr Sutyagin remembered only one name from the list – Sergei Skripal, a Russian army colonel who was jailed for 13 years in 2006 on charges of spying for Britain.
Mr Sutyagin's mother, Svetlana, said her son had told her he would be transferred to Britain today. Other reports suggested that Russia would transfer only three people convicted of spying for foreign states in exchange for the ten held in America, and that the swap would be carried out in Vienna.
Official confirmation of the spy swap from either Moscow or Washington was not forthcoming yesterday, and a spokesman for the British Embassy in Moscow said he had no comment on the supposed deal.
Nikolai Kovalev, a former head of Russia's FSB security agency, said he doubted that such a swap deal would take place. "A person whom everyone has forgotten is just reminding people about himself," said Mr Kovalev of Mr Sutyagin.
Other events, however, appeared to support the theory that a deal may be in the offing. A court hearing for three of the suspects in Alexandria, Virginia, that was scheduled for yesterday morning was postponed for unclear reasons. There were also reports that the US Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs, William Burns, who was formerly the American ambassador to Moscow, had a meeting scheduled in Washington today with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak. Officials declined to comment on the reason for the meeting. Top Russian scientists said they had received information that Mr Sutyagin had indeed been transferred from the prison where he was being held in Arkhangelsk, in the far north of Russia, to Lefortovo prison in Moscow.
The ten suspects are being held in the US on suspicion of being "illegals" – part of a secret operation set up by the SVR, Russia's foreign intelligence service, to infiltrate US political and policy circles. Searches of the suspects' houses and a number of safe deposit boxes by US law-enforcement bodies have allegedly turned up $80,000 (£53,000) in cash, a specially configured laptop, code books and radio equipment.
The ten were arrested on 27 June in an FBI swoop, after an operation where one of the suspects allegedly admitted to working for the SVR to an undercover FBI official posing as a Russian agent. An eleventh suspect, known as Christopher Metsos and travelling on a Canadian passport that is believed to be fake, is alleged to have been the paymaster of the ring. He was arrested in Cyprus shortly after the US arrests, while he was attempting to board a plane for Budapest. He was released on bail and has subsequently disappeared.
The dramatic events, which seem more at home on the pages of a cheap spy novel than a reflection of modern espionage, unfolded just three days after a summit in Washington between Barack Obama and the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. When news of the spy scandal broke, the reaction among Moscow analysts was mainly one of surprise and disbelief, with many suggesting that the Russian "spying ring" had been manufactured by hardliners in Washington keen to discredit Mr Obama's "reset" in relations between the US and Russia. However, in recent days there has been a tacit admission in Moscow that the ten were indeed working for Russian intelligence.
Much of the media attention has focused on Anna Chapman, who has been portrayed as the femme fatale in the ring. She was married to a British citizen Alex Chapman, who has gone public with a number of raunchy photos of his former wife and claimed that her father, a Russian diplomat, was in fact working for the Russian security services.
Yesterday, the mother of Anna Chapman released a video on a Russian website, in which she stated that her daughter was "no Mata Hari". She threatened to sue newspapers which published Facebook pictures that showed her daughter semi-naked – they had been meant only for friends, Irina Kushchenko, 50, said. She added her daughter had always been an "independent and honest person".
Igor Sutyagin is one of a number of Russian citizens who has been jailed in recent years on charges of spying for foreign powers, but he has always maintained his innocence.
He was a researcher at the well-respected USA and Canada Institute in Russia, and had supplied information to a British company called Alternative Futures, which Russian intelligence believed was a front for the CIA.
Mr Sutyagin said he had used only open-source information and did not have access to any state secrets. "I am only guilty in so far as I had contact with foreigners," he said at the time. "In fact, only newspapers, magazines and books, most of which were published abroad, were the source of my work."
Mr Sutyagin was arrested in 1999, and in 2004 was convicted of passing on information on nuclear submarines and missile-warning systems to the British company.
He was sentenced to 14 years in prison. Amnesty International has described him as a political prisoner and has on several occasions called for his release.
In 2007, he appealed to the then president, Vladimir Putin, to pardon him, but without success, and earlier this year, prison authorities denied him early release.