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The Meaning of the Russia- U.S. Spy Swap

The breaking news is all over. The United States and Russia are about to set up a Cold War-era type spy swap -- exchanging some or all of the ten accused Russian spies held in the United States with Russians accused by the Putin government of spying for the West. The New York Times reports that one man in particular, Igor Sutyagin, was moved to Moscow from a hard labor Siberian prison to be prepared to be flown to Britain.

Sutyagin was arrested back in 1999 and accused of giving missile and nuclear sub secrets to a firm that was a CIA front. He pleaded innocent and has, for eleven years, refused to sign a confession of guilt -- despite the conditions in which he was being held.  To gain release, he now signed a confession. As the report explains:

He was told that if any prisoners on the list declined, the entire agreement would be voided, she said. “It was either this way, or they would create a life like hell for him,” she said. “He was thinking of his relatives, of his children; he has two daughters. And that is why he accepted the offer.”

She said Mr. Sutyagin had asked her to inform the media of the swap, to clarify that he had been compelled to sign the confession, as he did not want to be seen as a spy being traded for spies. “He wants to tell everybody that he never admitted his guilt, that he doesn’t consider his conviction legal, and he can unequivocally say that he was never a spy,” she said.

For years, human rights groups monitoring Moscow have included Sutyagin in a list of those who were persecuted by the Russian government and intelligent services and who never had anything approximating a genuine trial. The Russian government, at the time of the arrests, was upset that many scientists, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, found work with foreign companies. Arresting many of them on grounds that they were spies was a good way to frighten off those who hadn't yet signed on with Western firms.