Russia seeks to kill defector in Florida

Photographs of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence colonel who was convicted in 2006 of selling secrets to British intelligence, in Moscow on August 28, 2018. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)

Photographs of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence colonel who was convicted in 2006 of selling secrets to British intelligence, in Moscow on August 28, 2018. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)

As Russian President Vladimir Putin has pursued enemies abroad, his intelligence operatives now seem ready to cross a line they previously avoided: trying to kill an informant valuable to the US government on US soil.

The clandestine operation, aimed at eliminating a CIA informant in Miami who had been a senior Russian intelligence official more than a decade earlier, represented a brazen extension of Putin’s targeted assassination campaign. It also signaled a dangerous low point, even between intelligence services that have a long tense history.

“Red lines are long gone for Putin,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former CIA officer who oversaw operations in Europe and Russia. “He wants all these guys dead.”

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The assassination failed, but the aftermath partly turned into retaliation by the United States and Russia, according to three former senior US officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss aspects of a conspiracy supposed to be secret and its consequences. Sanctions and expulsions, including of senior intelligence officials in Moscow and Washington, followed.

The target was Aleksandr Poteyev, a former Russian intelligence officer who leaked information that led to a year-long FBI investigation that in 2010 trapped 11 spies living under cover deep in the suburbs and towns on the East Coast. They had taken false names and worked ordinary jobs as part of an ambitious bid by the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, to gather information and recruit more agents.

In line with an effort by the Obama administration to reset relations, a deal was reached that aimed to ease tensions: Ten of the 11 spies were arrested and deported to Russia. In return, Moscow freed four Russian prisoners, including Sergei Skripal, a former colonel in the military intelligence service who was convicted in 2006 of selling secrets to Britain.

Poteyev’s assassination attempt is revealed in the UK edition of the book “Spies: The Epic Intelligence War Between East and West”, which will be published by an imprint of Little, Brown on June 29. The book is by Calder Walton, a national security and intelligence scholar at Harvard. The New York Times has independently confirmed his work and is reporting for the first time on the bitter fallout from the operation, including the retaliatory measures that followed once it was revealed.

According to Walton’s book, a Kremlin official claimed that a hitman, or Mercader, would almost certainly hunt down Poteyev. Ramón Mercader, an agent of Josef Stalin, slipped into Leon Trotsky’s office in Mexico City in 1940 and drove an ice ax through his head. Based on interviews with two US intelligence officials, Walton concluded that the operation was the start of a “modern-day Mercader” sent to assassinate Poteyev.

The Russians have long used assassins to silence their perceived enemies. One of the most famous at SVR headquarters in Moscow is Colonel Grigory Mairanovsky, a biochemist who experimented with deadly poisons, according to a former intelligence official.

Putin, a former KGB officer, has made no secret of his deep contempt for defectors among the intelligence ranks, especially those helping the West. Skripal’s poisoning at the hands of Russian agents in Salisbury, Britain, in 2018 signaled an escalation in Moscow’s tactics and heightened fears that he would not hesitate to do the same on US shores.

The attack, which used a nerve agent to sicken Skripal and his daughter, sparked a wave of diplomatic expulsions across the world as Britain rallied support from its allies in a bid to issue a response vigorous.

The incident set off alarm bells within the CIA, where officials feared that former spies who had settled in the United States, such as Poteyev, would soon be targets.

Putin had long vowed to punish Poteyev. But before he could be arrested, Poteyev fled to the United States, where the CIA relocated him as part of a top-secret program to protect former spies. In 2011, a Moscow court sentenced him in absentia to decades in prison.

Poteyev had appeared to disappear, but at one point Russian intelligence sent agents to the United States to find him, though his intentions remained unclear. In 2016, Russian media reported that he was dead, which some intelligence experts believed was a ploy to flush him out. Indeed, Poteyev was alive and well, living in the Miami area.

That year, he got a fishing license and registered as a Republican so he could vote, all under his real name, according to state records. In 2018, a news outlet reported Poteyev’s whereabouts.

The CIA’s concerns were not unwarranted. In 2019, the Russians undertook an elaborate operation to find Poteyev, forcing a scientist from Oaxaca, Mexico to help.

The scientist, Hector Alejandro Cabrera Fuentes, was an unlikely spy. He studied microbiology in Kazan, Russia, and later earned a PhD in the subject from the University of Giessen in Germany. He was a source of pride for his family, with a history of charity work and no criminal past.

But the Russians used Fuentes’ partner as leverage. He had two wives: a Russian living in Germany and another in Mexico. In 2019, the Russian wife and two daughters were barred from leaving Russia as they attempted to return to Germany, according to court documents.

In May, when Fuentes traveled to visit them, a Russian official contacted him and asked to see him in Moscow. In a meeting, the manager reminded Fuentes that his family was stuck in Russia and that maybe, according to court documents, “we can help each other.”

A few months later, the Russian official asked Fuentes to secure a condo just north of Miami Beach, where Poteyev lived. Instructed not to rent the apartment in his name, Fuentes gave an associate $20,000 to do so.

In February 2020, Fuentes traveled to Moscow, where he again met with the Russian official, who provided a description of Poteyev’s vehicle. Fuentes, the Russian said, should find the car, get its license plate number and take note of its physical location. He advised Fuentes to refrain from taking photos, presumably to weed out any incriminating evidence.

But Fuentes missed the operation. Upon entering the complex, he attempted to bypass his front door by tailgating another vehicle, attracting the attention of security. When questioned, his wife walked away to photograph Poteyev’s license plate.

Fuentes and his wife were ordered to leave, but security cameras captured the incident. Two days later, he attempted to fly to Mexico, but U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers stopped him and searched his phone, discovering Poteyev’s vehicle photo.

After his arrest, Fuentes provided details of the plan to US investigators. He believed that the Russian official he had met worked for the FSB, the Russian internal security service. But covert operations abroad are usually run by the SVR, the successor to the KGB, or the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency.

One of the former officials said that Fuentes, unaware of the importance of the target, was just gathering information that the Russians would use later.

Fuentes’ attorney Ronald Gainor declined to comment.

The plot, along with other Russian activities, drew a harsh response from the US government. In April 2021, the United States imposed sanctions and expelled 10 Russian diplomats, including the SVR post chief, who was based in Washington and had two years left on tour, two former US officials said. The station chief’s dismissal can be incredibly disruptive to intelligence operations, and agency officials suspected that Russia was likely to seek retaliation against its American counterpart in Moscow, who had just weeks left in this. role, officials said.

“We cannot allow any foreign power to interfere in our democratic process with impunity,” President Joe Biden said at the White House when announcing the sanctions. He made no mention of the plot involving Fuentes.

Sure enough, Russia banned 10 American diplomats, including the CIA station chief in Moscow.

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