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Russia-US swap brings spy scandal to a close

Analysis: What you need to know about the spy scandal of the decade.

Man in Red Square
A man is reflected in a puddle while walking across Red Square in central Moscow on Aug. 14, 2009. (Natalia Kolesnikova/Getty Images)

UPDATE: The spy scandal of a decade came to a swift close on Thursday, when the 10 suspects plead guilty in a U.S. court to working as undercover agents for Russia. The defendants sat in a packed courtroom and answered two hours worth of questions from judge Kimba Wood. All 10, some with heavy Russian accents, admitted to conspiring to act as agents for Russia. The five men and five women were sentenced to deportation following 10 days in jail, and will be exchanged for four people imprisoned in Russia for suspected contact with Western intelligence agencies.

NEW YORK — The spy scandal of the decade may soon come to a swift close, as Russian and U.S. officials negotiate a deal to swap the alleged Russian sleeper agents caught on American soil last month for a host of men jailed in Russia on charges of spying for the West.

Russian media reports said that Anna Chapman, the New York-based redhead who has come to symbolize the spy affair, would be traded for Igor Sutyagin, a Russian scientist convicted by a Moscow court in 2004 of passing nuclear secrets to the CIA.

The reports signal that several more swaps could be in the works.

Many comparisons will be made to the spy swaps of the Soviet-era — but, on the contrary, the case proves how much times have changed.

While U.S. media have fixated on tales of femme fatales, secret spy codes and the fate of children unaware of their parents’ real identities, the issue has been decidedly downplayed by U.S. and Russian officials alike.

U.S. President Barack Obama has worked hard to “reset” relations with Russia after years of tension under the Bush administration. He has backed down on building a missile defense system in Eastern Europe and cut back U.S. involvement in neighboring Ukraine and Georgia — moves that have been welcomed in a country keen to preserve influence in its backyard.

In response, Russia supported (admittedly watered-down) U.N. sanctions on Iran and appears to have backed down on calls to close a key U.S. military base in Kyrgyzstan. Both sides worked hard to renegotiate a successor treaty to START, which calls for bilateral cuts in nuclear warheads.

Now both Russia and the U.S. appear keen to sweep the spy issue under the rug as soon as possible.

Ten of the 11 suspects were due to appear in a U.S. federal court on Thursday to be arraigned for conspiring to act as spies. The 11th, and apparently most important, suspect, Christopher Robert Metsos, was arrested in Cyprus on June 29 and released on bail. Allegedly tasked with overseeing payment for the ring of U.S. sleeper agents, he has since fled the island, a favorite Russian offshore.

Chapman, a 28-year-old Russian whose private life (and private body parts) have been splashed across the tabloids thanks to a British ex-husband, was due to leave for Moscow after her court appearance, respected Russian news site reported.