Medvedev says he knew about double agent

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President Dmitry Medvedev confirmed Friday that a Moscow double agent helped Washington crack a major Russian spy ring that sparked the worst espionage row between the two countries since the Cold War.

Medvedev conceded that Russia would have to draw lessons from the fiasco but dismissed talk that it was time to start firing officials over the case -- an increasingly popular sentiment in disgruntled Moscow.

"To me, what Kommersant said was not news. I knew about it the day it happened, with all its attributes and accessories," Medvedev said at the G20 summit in South Korea's capital when asked about the respected daily's report.

Kommersant identified Washington's Russian accomplice as a colonel with the Russian foreign intelligence service named Shcherbakov, whose job was to plant civilian moles in the United States similar to the deep cover spy ring dismantled by Washington.

The paper also wrote that a Russian hit squad had been especially assigned to hunt down Shcherbakov in retribution and to prevent him from passing any other sensitive information to Washington.

"You can already have no doubt that a Mercader has already been sent after him," an intelligence source told the paper in reference to Ramon Mercader, the man sent by Stalin to Mexico to assasinate his rival Leon Trotsky.

Mercader used an ice pick for the job.

This summer's scandal culminated in 10 spies -- many working for years undercover in the United States as sleeper agents -- returning to Russia in exchange for four convicted US spies.

Medvedev did not confirm specific elements of the Kommersant story. But his comments suggested that he knew about the double agent before the June arrests and prior to his summit talks that month with his US counterpart Barack Obama.

But he firmly brushed aside suggestions that he should sack the head of his country's foreign intelligence service, Mikhail Fradkov, who has been the subject of growing dismissal talk.

His sacking was backed heavily Thursday by some opposition lawmakers and discussed widely both on television and in the popular press.

"I would not like to comment on the investigation," Medvedev said. "There has to be an investigation and we will draw our conclusions then."

Medvedev's comments echoed a similar statement from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who suggested in the aftermath of the crisis that Russia knew about the double agent all along.

"This was the result of treason and traitors always end badly. They finish up as drunks, addicts, on the street," Putin said at the end of July.

Putin then enigmatically added that "recently one (traitor) for instance ended his existence abroad and it was not clear what the point of it all was."

But some Russian media and lawmakers suggested that the Kremlin was simply trying to put a brave face on a bad situation and that Shcherbakov had done long-term damage to Moscow's espionage programme.

"The damage committed by the colonel to the state is too enormous" not to have further repercussions, said parliament's security council deputy chairman Gennady Gudkov.

The double agent's naming forced Medvedev to return to a sensitive issue for Russia just as the country attempts to play a more forceful role in foreign affairs.

Medvedev came to the G20 summit promoting a makeover of the global economic order designed to win Russia respect and keep major economies such as the United States in check.

But Russian officials found themselves talking about the Cold War, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov particularly stressing that it was time to move on from the issues of the past.

Lavrov said he would be heading to Russia-NATO talks in Lisbon next week expecting to register the "conclusion of the post-Cold War era."

© 2010 AFP

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