Russia convicts colonel of exposing US spy ring
A Moscow military court on Monday handed down a 25-year sentence to a top Russian foreign intelligence agent who was convicted in absentia of exposing a "sleeper cell" network in the United States.
Colonel Alexander Poteyev received a 20-year sentence for high treason and another five years for desertion, a spokeswoman for the Moscow District Military Court told AFP.
Poteyev is unlikely to spend time in a Russian jail because he is thought to be hiding in the United States after leaving behind his wife and dramatically fleeing Moscow by night train.
“Poteyev’s actions delivered a considerable blow to Russia’s national security,” the Interfax news agency quoted the presiding judge as telling the closed-door hearing.
Security analysts said the cell’s detection last summer inflicted severe damage to Russia’s foreign intelligence efforts and revealed weaknesses in a surveillance programme that had been Moscow’s pride since Soviet times.
The 10 sleeper agents’ main job was to blend in with young US professionals and get hired at top state agencies and private firms that dealt with advanced technologies and other sensitive data.
The group included the subsequent tabloid sensation Anna Chapman and were welcomed home personally as heroes by former spy and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Russia’s de facto leader later used a national television appearance to call the double agent a “pig” who will “regret it a thousand times over”.
New details about Poteyev read out in the sentence showed a decade of cooperation with the United States in which the colonel betrayed compatriots working in Latin America and Canada as well as the United States.
“However, the court could not establish that Poteyev received monetary compensation for what he did,” court spokeswoman Irina Zhirnova told AFP.
Russian media said Poteyev had until last year served as the deputy head of the US department of Directorate S — a covert operations unit that coordinates sleeper cell work.
The two-month hearing reportedly included testimony from Poteyev’s wife — who is still based in Moscow — and Russian intelligence officers.
Interfax said the presiding judge read a telephone text message that Poteyev reportedly sent his wife as he was fleeing that warned he would “never be back”.
“Mary, try to take this calmly. I am not leaving for a bit, but forever. I did not want to, but I had to. I will start a new life and try to help the children,” the Russian colonel reportedly texted his wife.
The court said he fled Moscow on a night train to Minsk on a false passport provided to him by the United States just days before the sleeper cell network was exposed last summer.
The incident left some intelligence officials conceding that their US surveillance programme had been set back by up to a decade.
“Intelligence work is built on trust, psychology and reputation, which makes this a terrific blow,” former military intelligence agent Viktor Suvorov told Moscow Echo radio.
“Very few people will trust us after this,” the ex-agent said.
Washington announced the Russians’ arrest just days after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev left the United States following talks with his US counterpart Barack Obama last June.
Medvedev went out of his way to stress after the expulsion that the case would not harm the two former Cold War enemies’ ties.