A Yakovlev Yak-42 aircraft (background, C) of Russian Emergencies Ministry, carrying Russian agents deported from the United States, is seen after landing at Domodedovo airport outside Moscow, July 9, 2010.
Russia and the United States conducted the biggest spy swap since the Cold War on Friday, trading agents on the Vienna airport tarmac in an evocative climax to an espionage drama that had threatened improving ties.
Two aircraft — one Russian, one American — parked side by side for about 90 minutes. The agents changed places under the cover of gangways as waves of heat rose from the tarmac.
The Russian plane then took off, followed by the U.S. jet in an echo of Soviet-era spy trades across the Iron Curtain in Central Europe. Officials in Vienna, once a center of Cold War intrigue, maintained a news blackout.
The U.S. Justice Department said shortly after the takeoff that the exchange of 10 agents released by Washington and four freed by Moscow had been successfully completed.
The plane landed at Domodedovo airport outside Moscow a few hours later. Shielded from cameras, the Russians stepped off and were driven away in a convoy of SUVs, sedans and buses.
Later, a plane believed to be carrying Russians freed in the swap landed at Dulles airport outside Washington, CNN said. It was unclear how many of the four were on board.
The conclusion to the espionage drama was played out after spymasters brokered the deal on the instructions of presidents keen not to derail breakthroughs in Russian-U.S. relations.
In the first step of the carefully choreographed swap, the 10 Russian agents pleaded guilty on Thursday in a New York court to charges against them and were immediately deported.
Around midnight in Moscow, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree pardoning four Russians serving long prison terms in their homeland on charges of spying for the West. The Kremlin said he also pardoned 16 other convicts.
The spy scandal broke at an awkward time for U.S.-Russian ties, just days after U.S. President Barack Obama and Medvedev met in Washington last month.
U.S. and Russian lawmakers are considering ratification of a nuclear arms reduction treaty signed by the presidents in April, and Russia is counting on U.S. support for its bid to join the World Trade Organization — sensitive cooperation neither side wants to jeopardize.
Medvedev is trying to present a warmer face to Western governments and investors concerned about problems with corruption, property rights, the rule of law and treatment of Kremlin critics in Russia.
Obama wants Russia on his side for efforts to rein in Iran‘s nuclear program, keep supply lines open to forces in Afghanistan and advance his goal of further nuclear arms cuts.
Shortly after taking office in January 2009, he initiated a “reset” in ties with the Kremlin, strained to breaking point by Russia‘s war with Georgia in 2008 after deteriorating during the administrations of George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, now Russia’s powerful prime minister.
Russia‘s Foreign Ministry said the swap “gives reason to expect that the course agreed on by the leaders of Russia and the U.S. will be consistently implemented in practice and that attempts to knock the parties off this course will not succeed.”
But the exchange may add fuel to U.S. Republican accusations that Obama is too soft on Moscow. An 11th suspect disappeared after being granted bail following his arrest in Cyprus.
Relatives of the jailed Russians on both sides of the swap had waited anxiously in Russia for news of the exchange. All bar one of the 14 involved are Russian citizens.
Irina Kushchenko, the mother of one of those arrested in the United States, Anna Chapman, left her apartment building in southwestern Moscow. By Friday night, neither mother nor daughter had returned to the apartment.