There is word that a spy-trade deal is in the works with Moscow: The U.S. will give up the 10 Russian "illegals" who last week were accused of being unregistered espionage agents, and Moscow will free Igor Sutyagin (above), a Russian arms control specialist who was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2004 for passing nuclear and missile warning secrets to an alleged front for the Central Intelligence Agency.
The Wall Street Journal and New York Times both have the story this morning. Their mutual source is Sutyagin's mother, who says her son told her that he has been shifted from a penal colony to a cell in Moscow, perhaps in preparation for a prisoner swap.
The deal may be even: Sutyagin to this day maintains his innocence. He claims that, as a specialist at the Russian Academy of Sciences, he never had access to classified information. What he passed on to the alleged CIA front -- Alternative Futures -- was strictly from open sources, he said. As for the Russians in U.S. custody, prosecutors don't allege that they actually carried out any espionage, only that they didn't register as foreign agents.
Stephen Sestanovich, a Russia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, sees it differently. He perceives a mismatch. Here is an email from Steve:
It's a relief to have Igor Sutyagin out after what he's been through. But let's recognize there's been a terrible disproportion between the messages sent here: Get caught in a gray area of what's secret and what's not in Russia, and you do 15 years of hard time. Work for years in an elaborately constructed and bankrolled intelligence operation in the U.S. -- complete with assumed identities and constant covert monitoring from Moscow -- and you're handed a get-out-of-jail pass in ten days.
Yet, there has been much speculation as to why the 10 Russians were arrested before they actually carried out any spying. Such a trade would provide some payoff.
Steve LeVine is the author of The Oil and the Glory and a longtime foreign correspondent.