WASHINGTON — On a Friday afternoon in mid-June, President Obama sat down with advisers in the Oval Office and learned that the F.B.I. planned to round up the largest ring of Russian sleeper agents since the cold war. After discussion about what the agents had done, the conversation turned to the fallout: what to do after the arrests?
In that moment was born a back-to-the-future plan that would play out four weeks later, a prisoner exchange with surreal and even cinematic overtones as Russian and American airplanes met on a sunny tarmac in the heart of Europe on Friday to trade agents and spies much as had been done during a more hostile era.
From the first time the president was told about the case on June 11 — 16 days before the Russian agents were actually arrested — a swap emerged as an option that could resolve a potentially volatile situation without undercutting Mr. Obama’s effort to rebuild Russian-American relations. The Russian spy ring would be broken, the Americans would secure the release of four Russian prisoners and both sides could then put the episode behind them.
Administration officials said Friday that the arrests were not made for the purpose of making a deal and that no decision about a swap was made until after the agents were in custody. But they described a fast-moving sequence of events after the arrests in which both sides scrambled to reach an agreement, even to the point of Russian officials’ offering money and other benefits to encourage one of their sleeper agents to consider the deal.