WASHINGTON AND MOSCOW — Across a vast global chessboard, the pieces were set in motion Wednesday.
In Moscow, Igor Sutyagin, an imprisoned physicist, was transported from a prison camp near the Arctic Circle to the high-security Lefortovo facility, where he was ushered into a room to meet with a general from the Russian security services and three U.S. diplomats.
On the other side of the world, five alleged Russian spies due in U.S. federal court Wednesday instead were transferred to New York to join five other suspected spies detained there.
The moves appeared to foreshadow another turn in the already intrigue-laden case of the 10 accused deep-cover agents for Russia: the possibility of the largest U.S.-Russia spy swap since the end of the Cold War.
The mother of Sutyagin, the Russian scientist convicted in 2004 of spying for the U.S., told the Los Angeles Times that her son was hastily transported to Moscow from a prison camp and told that if he confessed to spying, he would be among 10 people exchanged "for the 10 Russians recently arrested in the United States."
In the U.S., lawyers for the accused would say only that talks with federal prosecutors were ongoing.
"We are in negotiations with the government, and they're of a sensitive nature, and we're not going to comment on them," said Fiona Doherty, a lawyer representing Anna Chapman, the young Russian who has been fodder for tabloid newspapers.
"I can't say anything publicly about it right now," said Charles Burnham, a lawyer for accused spy Patricia Mills.
A federal indictment unsealed Wednesday in New York officially charged the 10 spying suspects with trying to secretly gather information for Russia. An 11th suspect, Christopher Metsos, was arrested in Cyprus last week, but disappeared after being released on bail.
The indictment mirrored charges outlined in the criminal complaint that led to their arrests last month.
Arraignment for the 10 defendants in custody is scheduled for 2:45 p.m. Thursday in New York before U.S. District Judge Kimba M. Wood.
As rumors of a spy swap rippled Wednesday across Moscow and Washington, both governments clammed up. State Department spokesman Mark Toner would only confirm that a high-ranking U.S. diplomat, William Burns, discussed the spy case with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in a meeting at Kislyak's residence. He referred further questions to the Justice Department, where spokesman Dean Boyd declined to comment.
"I have nothing for you on that," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters.
Gibbs' statement came hours after Sergei Guskov, a spokesman for the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, said, "There will be no comments on the situation with the people detained in the United States."
Officially, the Russian government has called the charges "baseless and improper," and Russian news media, which are heavily influenced by the government, have not been reporting on the case.
A 20-person spy swap would be one of the largest in U.S. history. In 1985, the U.S. freed four Eastern Europeans charged with espionage in exchange for 25 Western agents held prisoner in East Germany and Poland.
In another famous trade, downed U.S. U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers was exchanged in 1962 for a KGB spy known by the alias Rudolf Abel.
The current spy case has captured the public's imagination because it harks back to a simpler time in U.S. foreign relations, when its chief adversary was a single nation, the Soviet Union. And it involves age-old spying techniques seen in countless movies, including "dead drops" and "brush passes."
These days, the biggest threats come from terrorist groups, and the most damaging espionage is undertaken by unglamorous computer hackers, who can download more stolen material in an hour than a spy from decades gone by might have collected in a lifetime.
The 10 defendants arrested last month are accused of living double lives by embedding themselves in suburban America in an effort to cultivate influential people and draw out secrets. But they have not been charged with receiving classified information.
Sutyagin, the Russian prisoner taken to Moscow on Tuesday, is a former researcher for the USA and Canada Institute, a Moscow-based think tank. He was flown from a prison camp near the Arctic Circle, where he had been serving a 15-year sentence, said his mother, Svetlana Sutyagina.
The 45-year-old scientist was arrested in 1999 and spent five years in pretrial detention. In 2004, Sutyagin was convicted of passing classified information on Russian submarines and missile systems to a British company called Alternative Future, which the investigation claimed was a CIA front.
After arriving at Moscow's Lefortovo prison, Sutyagin was taken into a room where he met with a Russian general and three U.S. diplomats, his mother said.