In a bizarre post-script to the Russian spy scandal that resulted in the humiliating return of 10 alleged spies from the US this summer, a Kremlin official claimed today that a hit man has been dispatched to kill the double agent who betrayed a network of moles.
While a handful of Russian defectors have died in suspicious circumstances recently, some analysts believe today's death threat is just bluster to cover up an embarrassing intelligence failure.
When the spy scandal broke in June, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin – an ex-KGB agent – chalked up the nearly unprecedented intelligence debacle to betrayal. "It is the result of treason," he said, "and traitors always come to a sad end."
The threat, published in today's Kommersant newspaper, follows publication of an unusually detailed front-page story in Thursday's Kommersant that described the turmoil that erupted within Russia's SVR external intelligence service following a defector's unmasking of 10 of the agency's deep-cover agents in June. President Dmitry Medvedev effectively vouched for the accuracy of the Thursday report today.
The paper named the turncoat as "Col. Scherbakov," former head of the American Desk of the SVR's Directorate S, which conducts clandestine operations abroad. The defector is presumably living somewhere in the US today, under the protection of American authorities.
"We know who he is and where he is. Don't doubt that a Mercader has already been sent after him," the unidentified Kremlin official told Kommersant Friday, referring to Ramón Mercader, the Soviet agent who murdered renegade Bolshevik Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1940. "The fate of such a person is unenviable ... living every day in fear of retribution."
Rumblings of a Medvedev-Putin battle
The SVR – Russia's equivalent of the CIA – had no comment on the Kommersant story, or the reported death threat, on Friday.
Both the Kremlin and the SVR were humiliated by the US roundup of Russian secret agents, which was followed by a cold war-style spy swap in which the Russians were exchanged for four people convicted of espionage and held in Russian prisons.
All of the 10 returned Russian agents were decorated for heroism at a Kremlin ceremony last month.
One of them, flame-haired "femme fatale" Anna Chapman, has broken the old KGB code of silence and turned her notoriety into celebrity with provocative photo shoots in two men's magazines – including the Russian edition of Maxim – sensational public appearances, and the recent launch of her own iPhone app.
The Kommersant story's accuracy was confirmed Friday by President Medvedev, who told reporters on the sidelines of the G-20 summit that "as far as I'm concerned, what was published in Kommersant was not news. I found out about it on the day in happened, with all its attributes."
Medvedev may even be the one responsible for leaking the story to Kommersant, an independent but mainstream Moscow business daily, in the first place, some analysts suggest.
"Medvedev had the feeling that Putin was the big domestic winner from the spy scandal," says Andrei Soldatov, editor of Agentura.ru, an online journal that reports on the secret services. Putin, who appears in increasingly open competition with Medvedev in advance of 2012 presidential elections, used his own background as a KGB spy to appear in charge. In comparison, Medvedev, who was blindsided by the spy revelations at the end of an official visit to the US, looked weak and out-of-the-loop.
"This story makes Medvedev look like he's the guy in charge of the secret services, not Putin," says Mr. Soldatov.
But even though the story's stratospheric sourcing may be taken as genuine, don't assume there's much truth in it, warn some Russian analysts.
"I think the Russian leadership was deeply unhappy about the spy scandal, which made our secret services look like clowns, and so they concocted this tale about how they were really excellent agents who would never have been caught if they hadn't been betrayed by a traitor," says Alexander Golts, a security expert and deputy editor of Yezhednevny Zhurnal, an independent online newspaper.
A push to reinvent the KGB?
Kommersant said that SVR officials had failed to notice several signs that Scherbakov might have turned double agent, including the fact that he had quietly brought his whole family to live in the US and the curious detail that he'd refused a promotion a year earlier. "In hindsight, it's clear that he didn't want another polygraph test that went with the new position," the paper noted. "That means he was probably already working for the Americans at that time."
One of the possible hidden agendas lurking behind the Kommersant story, experts say, is the suggestion made by its high-level sources that pressure may grow as a result of the scandal to merge the SVR with its domestic counterpart, the FSB security service. That would effectively reinvent the Soviet-era KGB, a vast security behemoth that encompassed domestic secret services, counter-intelligence, border guards, and external espionage all under one roof. Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin broke the KGB into separate pieces in a bid to make them more manageable and more accountable to political authority.
"At the bottom of this story is the idea that we need to return to the good old days of the KGB, when things were done properly," says Mr. Golts. "This is serious, but who doesn't remember that we had our traitors in those days too?"
Why some see the death threat as bluster
Many experts say that the reported death threat is probably just bluster.
The SVR's former spokesperson, Yury Kobaladze, says the threat was probably just bluster by some Kremlin official hiding behind the cloak of anonymity.
"This talk of sending a 'Mercader' after someone is absolute foolishness," Mr. Kobaladze says. "The intelligence services stopped carrying out those kind of 'wet' operations long ago. The law today prevents that kind of activity. Someone said this to sound clever, but now it will spread around the world and do harm not only to the SVR but to Russia's image as well."
The SVR has said the last "state enemy" killed by Soviet secret services abroad was the Ukrainian anti-Soviet insurgent Stepan Bandera, who was assassinated in Munich in 1959.
A law passed by the State Duma in 2006 licenses the SVR to carry out extra-territorial assassinations, but only against "terrorists." In 2004, Qatar charged two Russian intelligence agents with the murder of former Chechen president Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev. There have also been suspicious deaths of Kremlin political enemies abroad, notably the apparent murder-by-radiation of former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London four years ago.
"They say they've stopped all killings of traitors, but that claim should be treated with caution," says Mr. Soldatov. "I don't think it's likely that Stepan Bandera was truly the last enemy to be assassinated."
How safe are Russian defectors?
A Russian online newspaper, Leningradskaya Pravda, on Friday published a list of five defectors from Russian secret services who have died under suspicious circumstances in recent years.
They include Sergei Tretyakov, a former SVR agent working inside the United Nations, who defected to the US 10 years ago and died last June after choking on a piece of meat. Yevgeny Toropov, an SVR officer who defected from the Russian Embassy in Canada in 2000, is said to have accidentally electrocuted himself in his bath in April of this year. Vasily Mitrokhin, a former KGB archivist who defected to Britain with 25,000 pages of secret documents in 1992, reportedly died of pneumonia in 2004, although the Leningradskaya Pravda report says he was "liquidated."
But Gennady Gudkov, deputy chair of the Duma's security committee, says there are plenty of former KGB "traitors" running around without being touched.
They include Oleg Gordievsky, a former KGB bureau chief in London who was an MI-6 double agent for more than a decade before defecting in 1985, and former KGB general Oleg Kalugin, former head of KGB operations in the US, who now lives in Washington. Mr. Kalugin has publicly denied ever betraying any Russian agents.
"One can well understand that some [Kremlin official] may have made an emotional remark, wishing he could grab the traitor by the scruff of his neck and make him pay for what he did," says Mr. Gudkov. "But these are not the methods of our intelligence agency. Otherwise, how could Gordievsky go around giving interviews and taking part in events, or how could Kalugin feel free to go anywhere in USA? They would not likely be walking around safe and sound today."