After more than a decade of furtively infiltrating America, members of a Russian spy ring busted by the FBI returned Friday to Moscow, following a swap on an Austrian tarmac for four Russian prisoners who were whisked to freedom in Britain or the United States.
The exchange took place on a remote part of the Vienna airport runway in brilliant sunshine. The transaction, the climax of a tightly choreographed operation, brought a swift end to a saga that gripped America with its cast of sleeper agents.
The swap reflected both governments' desire to keep the scandal from tarnishing their improving relations. The Obama administration did not want months of U.S. court hearings about the spies to cast a shadow over important bilateral business, including a new nuclear-arms treaty being considered by the Senate.
Moscow's agents — nine Russians and a Peruvian-born naturalized U.S. citizen — boarded a Russian government Yak-42 jet about noon in Vienna after disembarking from a U.S. charter plane that had carried them overnight from New York. They were traded for four Russians who were jailed for years because of their contacts with the West. Some were in poor health, U.S. officials said.
Two of the freed Russians arrived Friday evening at Dulles International Airport near Washington, according to a U.S. law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the case. One of them, Alexander Zaporozhsky, is a former KGB officer who helped U.S. agents crack the case of American spy Robert Hanssen, officials said.
The other two Russians had alighted from the chartered plane earlier during a stop at a British military base.
A senior U.S. official said Russia and the U.S. were eager to move "back to our larger agenda" of arms control, the war in Afghanistan, and other issues.
The Russian sleepers who were traded in Vienna arrived at Moscow's Domodedovo airport early Friday evening and were taken away in a convoy of vehicles.