US-Russia prisoner swap: a throwback to the Cold War
December 8, 2022 10:05 PM
Moscow's exchange on Thursday with Washington of US basketball star Brittney Griner for Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout is reminiscent of East-West prisoner swaps during the Cold War.
The operation, at Abu Dhabi airport, also bears the hallmark of a historic spy swap in 2010 in Vienna.
Bout was sentenced in 2012 to 25 years in a US jail for arming rebels in some of the world's bloodiest conflicts.
Griner, 32, was arrested shortly before Russia's February invasion of Ukraine at a Moscow airport for possessing vape cartridges with cannabis oil.
- 1962: Soviet spy for CIA pilot -
During the Cold War, prisoner exchanges regularly took place on the iron Glienicke Bridge which linked West and East Berlin over the Havel river.
The first memorable spy swap of the Soviet era took place there in 1962, involving legendary Soviet intelligence officer Rudolf Abel and American pilot Gary Powers.
Abel had been sentenced by the United States to 30 years in prison. Powers had been captured by the USSR after his CIA reconnaissance plane was shot down in Soviet airspace.
Also included in that exchange was an American student, Frederic Pryor, who was captured in East Germany.
Director Steven Spielberg turned their story into an Oscar-winning 2015 film, "Bridge of Spies".
- 1986: Refusenik Sharansky freed -
In February 1986, the bridge again served as the backdrop for a spectacular swap.
Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky had spent nine years in a Siberian gulag on charges of spying for the US -- he claimed he was targeted for applying for permission as a Jew to emigrate to Israel.
Sharansky was exchanged for Czech spy couple Karl and Hana Koecher, who were held in the US, and three spies held in West Germany.
Sharansky immediately emigrated to Israel, where he went into politics.
- 2010: Chapman and Skripal released -
On July 9, 2010, Russia and the United States carried out their biggest spy swap since the fall of the Iron Curtain at Vienna airport, exchanging 10 agents deported by the US for four freed by Moscow.
In the highly choreographed cloak-and-dagger operation, special Russian and US flights carried the spies to Vienna, parked next to each other on the runway, then took off within 15 minutes of each other after the exchange by shuttle bus.
A government jet flew the 10 Russian spies, including the glamorous Anna Chapman, back to Moscow's Domodedovo airport.
The four released by Russia included three convicted of spying for the West.
Among them was Sergei Skripal, a former colonel with Russian military intelligence.
Skripal later took refuge in southern England, where he survived a Novichock poisoning that sparked a major diplomatic crisis between Russia and the West.
Several Western countries have accused Moscow of being behind the assassination attempt on the former double agent, something that Moscow has always denied.
- April 2022: Ukraine war exchange -
On April 27, 2022, two months after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Russia exchanged former US marine Trevor Reed, who was three years into a nine-year jail term for assaulting police.
In return, Russia received Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was convicted of drug smuggling in 2010 in the United States.
The pair were exchanged on the tarmac at an airport in Turkey.
"The American plane pulled up next to the Russian plane and they walked both prisoners across at the same time, like you see in the movies," Reed's father Joey told CNN.