Russian Received in Spy Swap Not Sexy, Not a Spy

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Photo: AFP/Getty Images

While we know that Anna Chapman and her fellow Russian spies were given a sexy hero's welcome back in Russia, what became of our spies that the Russians released in exchange? So far, only one of them is talking — Igor Sutyagin, the man around whom speculation of a spy swap initially centered. Though ten Russians were sent back to the motherland, America only received four prisoners, including Sutyagin, in return. It seemed like a fair deal because the spies America was releasing were barely spies at all — they just walked around pretending to be in a Cold War spy movie.

But this Sutyagin fellow doesn't seem to be the super-spy we'd expected him to be. For one thing, he is not sexy.


Slight of stature, his hair thinning on top, Mr. Sutyagin, 45, seems an unlikely figure in a drama that briefly captivated the world.

So you would think he'd at least be damn good at spying. But in reality, the information Sutyagin provided to a British company, for which he was given a fifteen-year prison sentence, was all public, gleaned from newspapers and official statements.


As a young arms researcher at the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies in Moscow, Mr. Sutyagin attended a conference in Birmingham, England, and met representatives of Alternative Futures, a British firm advising investors in Russia. They put him on a contract for up to $1,000 a month, more than his day job. In exchange, he said, he provided analyses based on public sources like newspapers and government statements....

In interviews, Mr. Sutyagin gave two examples of information he provided. One report he wrote on problems with Russia’s early warning system used information that had been published in The Washington Post. Another on the creation of new military units was based on public statements by Defense Ministry officials in Red Star, the official military newspaper. “It’s truly Kafka,” he said.

This is not a case of Sutyagin downplaying his activities so as not to get his soup poisoned by the F.S.B. The State Department and "half a dozen government and intelligence officials from three administrations" all deny that Sutyagin was ever a spy. So why exactly did we — or England, where he currently resides, though he pines to return to Russia — even want him?


Mr. Sutyagin came of age as the Soviet Union collapsed and got to know Americans during the heady 1990s. As a visiting scholar at Stanford University, he met professors like Condoleezza Rice, who would go on to become President George W. Bush’s secretary of state, and Michael McFaul, now President Obama’s top Russia adviser.

From getting a job to getting released from a frozen Russian prison in an international spy swap, it really is all who you know.

Ruing Exile, Russian Says He’s No Spy [NYT]