The Kremlin is painting a target on the back of a former insider who reportedly was a key CIA source before the agency “exfiltrated” him from Russia to the United States in July 2017.
On Tuesday, the Russian daily Kommersant published the name and biography of a man living under his own name with his wife and children near Washington, D.C.. In the process, the newspaper may have opened the door to any number of potential assassins, not all of whom could be traced directly to the Kremlin.
As an ethical matter, The Daily Beast has decided not to publish the name or address of the alleged spy. But it took our reporters only a few clicks on Google to discover where he was living, in a million-dollar house. Given the threat from the vengeful and murderous regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the home appears to be closely watched (judging by the convergence of cars when The Daily Beast showed up), but security seems, to say the least, lax.
How is this possible if the Kommersant man really was as important a CIA asset as he’s been portrayed in reports by CNN, the New York Times, and The Washington Post?
Well perhaps he’s not that important or indeed that spy. Maybe there was another Deep Throat extracted from the Kremlin. But the profiles do seem to fit.
Another more likely possibility is that over the years the CIA has come to believe that the Russian secret services would not dare to carry out what are known in the trade as “wet works,” or assassinations, on U.S. soil.
But times have changed. Donald Trump, president of the United States, was elected with the help of Russian operatives and has been an apologist for Putin for years, often taking his side in public and preferring to deal with him in private, with no witnesses.
At the same time, Putin’s minions in military intelligence (GRU), and the FSB and SVR (successors to the infamous KGB), have been implicated in several murders and attempted murders, most famously the assassination of former FSB operative Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006, who was poisoned with the rare radioactive isotope polonium-210. Last year, in Salisbury, England, the arcane chemical agent novichok was used to try to kill former GRU operative (and spy for MI6) Sergei Skripal. Skripal and his grown daughter both survived, but a passerby died after she picked up the Nina Ricci perfume bottle in which the killers had carried the chemical agent.
Of course, the Kremlin has known all along about the alleged defection of the alleged CIA asset, and the Kommersant article naming him may have carried a not-so-veiled threat. Much of it is tactfully based on secondary sources—channels on the encrypted chat app Telegram and a site called Daily Storm. But then there is this:
“According to Kommersant’s sources in the power structures of the Russian Federation, a criminal case regarding the murder of [figure named in the article] and members of his family (Article 105 of the Criminal Code) was instituted by one of the ICR directorates in Moscow after a corresponding preliminary investigation. The investigation stopped and resumed several times. But in the end, investigators and FSB officers found that the alleged victims were alive and in another country.”
How Putinesque to investigate the murder of a defecting spy before he’s been killed.
The un-dead spy, by all accounts, was a highly valuable CIA asset. According to a source for CNN, which first broke the story, “there was ‘no equal alternative’ inside the Russian government, providing both insight and information on Putin.”
Beginning in the late 1990s, the man profiled in Kommersant worked in the monetary and financial department of the Russian Foreign Ministry and later was transferred to the ministry’s second European department under Alexander Udaltsov (currently, the Russian ambassador to Lithuania). In the mid-2000s, he served as second secretary at the Russian Embassy in Washington. At that time, Yury Ushakov, the current assistant to the Russian president for international affairs, was Russia’s ambassador to the United States.
According to Kommersant, the man in question continued to work directly under Ushakov, who enjoys the close trust of the Russian president, after they both returned to Moscow in 2008. From 2008 to May 2012 (when Putin was prime minister), Ushakov was deputy chief of the government staff of the Russian Federation. Since then he has been an aide to the president of the Russian Federation responsible for international affairs.
As one of Putin’s top advisers, Ushakov clearly has been deeply involved with Kremlin policy toward the U.S. for years, and his trusted aide would have known details about all aspects of the decision-making process involving the United States and Putin.
According to the New York Times: “The Moscow informant was instrumental to the CIA’s most explosive conclusion about Russia’s interference campaign: that President Vladimir V. Putin ordered and orchestrated it himself.”
The news media began speculating about possible CIA assets highly placed in the Kremlin after U.S. intelligence officials released a declassified version of their assessment of Russia’s election interference in early January 2017.
This was published, significantly, as a response to constant public criticism and doubts expressed by then-President-elect Donald Trump about the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment of the Russian influence operations that helped him get elected.
It was also around this time that the Russians began hunting very aggressively for moles within their government and security services, who might have been passing information to the Americans. In December, according to news that broke a few weeks later, the FSB arrested two of its top cyber officials on treason charges for collaborating with the CIA. One of them was dragged out of a meeting with a bag over his head—according to accounts apparently leaked by the Kremlin itself.
At about the same time FSB General Oleg Erovinkin, the right-hand man of the powerful Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin, was found dead in his car in Moscow. Sechin has long been rumored to have been a key participant in the Kremlin’s efforts to get Trump elected.
No wonder that the CIA started worrying about its main man. Putin and his cronies were clearly hell bent on finding the moles behind the leaks.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said at a Tuesday press conference that although the man named by Kommersant used to work for the presidential administration, he had been fired many years ago and he never had contact with the Russian president. (This is standard operating procedure for embarrassed and implicated politicians who suddenly claim they barely knew people they have known and worked with for years.)
Although the last thing the Kremlin wants to admit is that one of its own was a CIA asset, that won't prevent Putin from going after the fugitive.
As noted, it has long been conventional wisdom that the Kremlin would not dare to assassinate its enemies in the United States. A 1964 CIA memorandum observed that, “Since World War II and especially in the years since Stalin’s death, assassination attempts abroad have become increasingly rare… the Soviets find it increasingly difficult to find persons willing to undertake murder assignments… and the Soviets are now more concerned about the adverse publicity generated by Soviet assassinations in general than they were in previous years.”
To be sure, there have been numerous high-level defectors to the United States who have lived out their lives here uneventfully. Peter Deriabin, a KGB officer who fled to the United States in 1954, worked for the CIA for years and wrote several books on the KGB before he died a natural death in 1992 at age 71.
And then there was Arkady Shevchenko, who joined the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a young man and rose up the ranks of the diplomatic service to become a key adviser to Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko.
Shevchenko, who was appointed Under Secretary General of the United Nations in 1973, began a secret collaboration with the CIA while at the U.N. and defected to the U.S. in 1978. In 1985, Shevchenko published his autobiography, Breaking With Moscow, which was highly critical of his former government. He died in 1998 at age 68, of cirrhosis of the liver.
A more recent defector was SVR Colonel Aleksandr Poteyev, who began working secretly with the CIA in 1999. He escaped Russia in 2010, just before the arrests of 10 Russian “illegals” in the United States, whose network he allegedly helped to uncover. In 2011 Poteyev, who has lived in hiding here ever since, was convicted of treason in absentia by a Russian military court.
But there have been at least two suspicious deaths of important defectors here in the U.S.. One goes way back: Walter Krivitsky—a high-level Soviet military intelligence officer—defected to the US in 1937, at the height of Stalin’s purges, and was found shot in the head in a Washington D.C. hotel room in 1941. Although he left a suicide note, Krivitsky had been convinced that he was a target for assassination, and some assumed it was murder.
More recently, Sergei Tretyakov, an SVR officer working under diplomatic cover at the U.N. since 1995, asked for asylum in the U.S. in 2000. It was later revealed that he began passing secrets to the Americans in 1997. He was resettled, with his wife and daughter at an undisclosed location under an assumed name. Ten years later, in June 2010, he died suddenly in Florida at age 53. He reportedly choked on a piece of meat, but the possibility of murder was discussed.
According to a 2018 NBC news report: “There are dozens of defectors from Russia and the former Soviet Union currently living in the U.S. who already enjoy protection by the CIA and are believed to be high on the Russian government's list of potential targets… The U.S. intelligence community takes responsibility for their relocation and security needs, through the CIA’s National Resettlement Operations Center.”
But what does “responsibility for their security needs” mean? Especially for Russians like the Kommersant man and his family, who are living here openly?
Even if they relocate to an undisclosed place, the Russians most likely will be able to find them. As investigative reporter Jeff Stein observed in 2018: “They get lonely. They miss their friends and family. So, despite the danger of exposing themselves to retribution, Russian defectors hiding abroad make phone calls or send emails to relatives in the motherland. And when they do, the Kremlin is listening.” According to Stein, “American security sources say there has been an uptick in Russian activity in the U.S. in recent years; suspected agents have been spotted cruising the neighborhoods of some defectors protected by CIA security teams.”
One might assume that after the Kremlin’s hand was revealed in the 2006 murder of Litvinenko and later in the Skripal poisonings, Putin and his cronies would think twice about attempting an assassination in the United States. (Just last month in Berlin, after a Georgian who had once commanded rebel Chechen forces was murdered, the assailant was caught right away.)
While it’s true that in this era of high-tech communications it is easier to locate those in hiding than it was in Soviet days, it is also easier to catch hired killers.
But the fact is Putin does not much care if the Kremlin is caught red-handed. Quite the opposite. The goal, as always, is to send a warning to political enemies and would-be defectors that Putin’s vengeful reach extends around the globe.
Christopher Dickey also contributed to this story.