News / USA

Russian Double Agent Betrayed Spy Ring in US

A combo of undated booking photos provided by the US Marshals Service on 29 Jul 2010 shows individuals charged with acting as unregistered foreign agents for Russia
A combo of undated booking photos provided by the US Marshals Service on 29 Jul 2010 shows individuals charged with acting as unregistered foreign agents for Russia
James Brooke

Russia's spy scandal is flaring up again on the news that an intelligence service colonel betrayed the identities of 10 spies, then defected to the United States.

A high-ranking Russian double agent was behind last summer's exposure and arrest of 10 Russian sleeper spies in the United States. The news was published in Kommersant newspaper Friday and later confirmed by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

Days before the arrests, a Colonel Shcherbakov, a branch leader of  Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, fled Moscow to join his daughter and son in the United States, according to the news report.

Gennady Gudkov, a deputy on the State Duma's Security Committee,  told Interfax that the colonel's defection was a major blow to the "S" Directorate, which prepare deep cover agents for overseas work. He said internal alarm bells should have rung because the colonel's daughter was a long-term resident in the United State and the Colonel declined a promotion last year, presumably to avoid taking a lie detector test.

This drawing shows five of the 10 arrested Russian spy suspects in a New York courtroom, 28 Jun 2010
This drawing shows five of the 10 arrested Russian spy suspects in a New York courtroom, 28 Jun 2010

The arrest of its members was an embarrassment to Moscow just days after a summit in Washington between Mr. Medvedev and President Barack Obama.

Russian and American authorities immediately minimized the spy scandal, hoping to keep on track wider cooperation between Russia and the United States in Afghanistan, on Iran's nuclear program and on Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization.

U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Beyrle, at the time of the arrests, downplayed their impact:

"US-Russian relations right now are as strong as they have been for quite some time, and nothing that has happened in connection with this spy exchange has done anything to change that," he said.

And, the pattern of minimizing damage continued Friday as Russian state television repeatedly broadcast a video clip showing President Obama and President Medevedev smiling broadly as they strolled into the G-20 Summit in Seoul.

Asked about the spy report, the Russian president told reporters:  "This was not news to me. I knew about it the day it happened."

In Moscow, opposition lawmakers are using the news to call for the replacement of  Mikhail Fradkov, head of Russia's foreign intelligence service. President Medvedev appeared to brush these calls aside, saying merely that the spy investigation will take its course.

Russia's spy story had faded since last summer.

Russian PM Vladimir Putin (File)
Russian PM Vladimir Putin (File)

Back then, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a former KGB Colonel in East Germany, sang patriotic songs with the spies. Later, at the Kremlin, President Medvedev awarded them top national honors. Anna Chapman, one of the five female spies, took a more public approach. Scantily clad and caressing a silver pistol, she appeared as "Agent 90 60 90" for Maxim, a Russian men's magazine.

Two weeks later, Russian Prime Minister Putin, reminded Russians of the sorry fate that awaits double agents.

Speaking to reporters, Putin said of the unmasking of the Russian spies that:  "This was the result of treason and traitors always end badly. They finish up as drunks, addicts, on the street," he warned.

This week, a similar threatening tone surfaced in the Kommersant report.

The newspaper, one of Moscow's most respected, quoted a source saying of the double agent: "We know who he is, and where he is. He betrayed either for money, or was caught for something. And there's no doubt that a Mercader has been sent for him."

Ramon Mercader was a Spanish Communist sent by Stalin to kill his political rival, Leon Trotsky. In 1940, Mercader visited Trotsky at his house in Mexico City. He killed him with a single blow of an ice ax.

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