A top Russian secret service agent suspected of blowing the cover of a sleeper spy ring in the United States was a heavy drinker who betrayed Moscow purely to make money, sources said on Wednesday.
Alexander Poteyev, who will go on trial in absentia for treason in Moscow on May 16, is charged with having tipped off Washington about a ring of 10 Russian spies who were later deported in the biggest post-Cold War spy scandal.
The Izvestia daily Wednesday published a slew of new information about Poteyev, saying he was linked to Russian defector Sergei Tretyakov who died last year and had also managed to avoid taking a lie detector test.
A high-ranking source in the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) told the paper that Moscow Centre believed there was no ideology behind Poteyev’s betrayal of the spies, who included the notorious femme fatale Anna Chapman.
“He sold himself in the most banal way. Money and nothing other than money,” said the source, which was not named. “He has two weaknesses — he loves money and loves drinking.”
“What damage he has brought to his country and his colleagues, just because he needed 20,000-30,000 dollars!” the official added.
“We are all feeling a desire for revenge. He should be put against the wall. Today we don’t use the word traitor much but Poteyev is a real traitor. Before, such people were shot dead and rightly so,” added the source.
The spy scandal — which ended with a swap of the 10 sleepers with four Russians convicted of spying for the West — was a huge embarrassment for the SVR, the successor of the Soviet KGB’s foreign intelligence wing.
Several of the spies were portrayed by the press as bumbling amateurs although Izvestia emphasised that the most senior among them, Mikhail Vasenkov, had been undercover in the United States since before the collapse of the USSR.
Poteyev — whose father Nikolai was made a Hero of the Soviet Union for his courage in World War II — had served in Afghanistan before working for the diplomatic service in the United States in the 1990s.
On his return and until last year, he served as the deputy head of the US department of the SVR’s Directorate C — a covert operations agency involved in placing sleeper agents in foreign countries who try to pass off as locals.
He then successfully fled Russia just before being identified by the SVR as the traitor and is currently believed to be at an unknown location in the United States.
Izvestia said that it was likely that Tretyakov, one of Russia’s best known modern traitors who defected to the United States in 2000, had told his new masters about the possibility of turning Poteyev.
Tretyakov died in June 2010 in Florida after choking on a piece of meat, by strange coincidence just before the spy ring scandal erupted.
In a possible allusion to the cases of Poteyev and Tretyakov, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin last year said one traitor “recently ended his existence abroad” and such people in general become “drunks, addicts, on the street.”
Former KGB spy Fyodor Yakovlev, who served with Poteyev in Afghanistan, told Izvestia that he believed that “family circumstances and financial reasons” had prompted the spy’s defection.
He said Poteyev’s Moscow apartment had been mysteriously burgled a few years ago in a crime that was never solved and this may have been “a kind of signal” for him.
He said any “liquidation” operation to take out Poteyev was unlikely but the defector would be living in constant fear. “He has probably had to change his appearance.”
Izvestia said that in a breach from usual practice for SVR employees returning from abroad, Poteyev had not undergone a lie-detector test when he came back to Moscow from his US posting.
It said that he had likely used his contacts within the service to be let-off the test, an examination which is still well trusted in Russia.