Is Russia Hunting Defectors in America?


March 31, 2018

They get lonely. They miss their friends and family left behind in Russia. And so, despite the danger of exposing themselves to Kremlin retribution, Russian defectors hiding abroad make phone calls or send emails back to relatives in the motherland.

And when they do, the Kremlin is listening.  

March 31, 2018

They get lonely. They miss their friends and family left behind in Russia. And so, despite the danger of exposing themselves to Kremlin retribution, Russian defectors hiding abroad make phone calls or send emails back to relatives in the motherland.

And when they do, the Kremlin is listening.  

“It’s easy to find us, if they are really determined,” one defector in the U.S. tells Newsweek.  Phone calls and emails make it easy for Russian eavesdroppers to locate them. A visit from a relative back home makes it even easier. Agents can just trail them to a defector’s doorstep.

Some U.S. security sources say there has been an uptick in Russian activity here over the past two years. Suspected Russian agents have been spotted cruising the neighborhoods of some defectors protected by CIA security teams, they say.  The FBI and CIA have been ”bringing people out of retirement, people who worked against the Russians in the 1990s,” to cope with the the challenge, the defector said, speaking anonymously out of fears for his personal safety.

The CIA declined to comment. The FBI did not respond to questions about Russian activity in America.

The March 4 nerve-agent attack on Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy for British intelligence, in a shopping mall in Salisbury, England has U.S. counterintelligence agencies on edge.

“Everyone’s been on high alert since the Skripal poisoning,” Michelle Van Cleave, head of the National Counterintelligence Executive under President George W. Bush, tells Newsweek. On Thursday, another former Russian double agent in the U.K, Boris Karpichkov, reported that he’d been warned last month that Kremlin agents were coming for him, too. “Be careful, look around, something is probably going to happen,” an old comrade told him in mid-February, according to NBC News. "It's very serious, and you are not alone."

Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were assaulted with Novichok, a lethal chemical agent invented by Soviet-era biowarfare engineers in the 1980s. A policeman who came to their aid was also infected. Skripal remains in critical condition; his daughter, who had recently left Russia to visit her father in England, is “recovering rapidly,” authorities said.

A similar attack is not unthinkable here, CIA veterans with long histories with Moscow tell Newsweek.

"I've heard nothing along those lines, but it's very plausible.,” former CIA analyst and Russia specialist Mark Stout says. “Even without the recent events I'd be concerned.” The Russians, he said, “largely got out of this business in the mid-1970s,” but with the rise of Vladimir Putin to power in the 1990s they got back into “tracking down and hunting defectors.”

“I would certainly not rule out” an attempt on a defector’s life here, says Daniel Hoffman, a 30-year CIA veteran who spent five years on duty in Russia. "Putin has demonstrated there are no limits to the methods he would use to target Russia's ‘main enemy’ and our allies."

“The Russians have always sought to locate Russian defectors in the U.S. and Britain, and attempt to lure them back to Russia if possible,” fellow CIA veteran and Russia hand John Sipher told Newsweek. Their message: “all is forgiven.” Few believe it. Only one defector is known publicly to have returned home and lived to tell about it: Vitaly Yurchenko, who in 1985 changed his mind, apologized to his CIA minder in a Georgetown pub, walked out the door and up the street to what was then the Soviet embassy. The Russians made propaganda hay out of his turnaround, probably to encourage other re-defections.

The recent string of events suggests Russia has abandoned the carrot for the stick. “The attack on Skripal should be ringing alarm bells for all NATO member countries, including the United States, that something like that could happen here,” says Hoffman. “We can assume that there has been a recent step-up in activity” here, Sipher says, “given the events in the U.K.”

Led by British Prime Minister Theresa May, European leaders responded furiously to the Skripal attack, expelling scores of suspected Russian spies working under official diplomatic cover in their countries. President Donald Trump, as is his fashion, declined to join the Europeans in their harsh criticism of the Kremlin, but the administration booted 60 Russian diplomats from the U.S.—48 from its Washington, D.C. embassy and 12 from the Russian mission to the United Nations—and shuttered the Russian consulate in Seattle. Moscow responded in kind, expelling 58 U.S. diplomats and closing the American consulate in St. Petersberg.

Moscow rejected any responsibility for the attack on Skripal—and at least some spy veterans raised questions about it, too. The Russian defector who spoke with Newsweek called it an amateuristic job, “very unprofessional,” not only because it failed to kill its target but inevitably pointed a finger at the Kremlin. A top Russian assassin, he said, would have avoided a public attack and used a poison dust delivered via, say, a mailed letter that killed its victim “three days after” being inhaled, obscuring its source and the perpetrator. He also pointed Newsweek to a recent Russian documentary film alleging that quantities of Novichok, the nerve agent fingered in the Skripal attack, had been stolen from the Russian lab.

And why Skripal, the defector asked? The former GRU officer had been unmasked as a British mole years earlier and squeezed dry under interrogation before being released in a trade for 10 Russian spies arrested in the U.S. in 2010. “He had no more secrets with him,” the defector says. “He was no threat to Russia. There was no reason to punish him any more.” More likely, he says, some former GRU comrades whom Skripal betrayed to British intelligence were taking revenge, using “idiots” in the Russian mob to carry out the “amateuristic” hit.  

The Russian ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov, said much the same. “He spent five years in Russian jail. So it was enough time for us to know everything that he knew," the ambassador told NBC News. "Why we should make revenge?”

That’s easy, Hoffman says. “Putin wanted to whip up his electorate with anti-western rhetoric” before the March 18 elections.  And he was assured of “an intense reaction” over Skripal from May, who was home secretary in 2006 when another defector, Alexander Litvinenko, was fatally poisoned by plutonium. The expulsions, Hoffman said, allowed Putin to “portray Russia as a besieged fortress, which only he could defend.”

The Kremlin has a long history of none-too-subtle assassinations, its critics point out. A Russian agent murdered former revolutionary Leon Trotsky with an ice pick to the head in Mexico in August 1940. Six months later, an outspoken Russian defector, Walter Krivitsky,  was found in a pool of blood in his room in a Washington, D.C. hotel. The official investigation, unaware he was on a Soviet hit list, concluded he committed suicide.

Likewise last year in Washington, D.C. police officially concluded that Putin’s former media chief, Mikhail Lesin, died of blunt-force injuries to the head, neck, and torso from falls during a in November 2015 drinking binge. But “everyone thinks he was whacked and that Putin or the Kremlin were behind it,” an FBI agent recently told Buzzfeed. In February, the news site also surfaced evidence implicating Russia “in 14 suspicious deaths on British soil that the U.K. government had largely ignored.”

The Lesin affair, says  former FBI intelligence analyst Aaron Arnold, “could be a good test to see if they could get away with it—a litmus test to see how far people would let them go.”

In January, Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee issued a report warning that the long, deadly arm of Russian intelligence might well reach into the United States and take somebody out. “The trail of mysterious deaths, all of which happened to people who possessed information that the Kremlin did not want made public, should not be ignored by Western countries on the assumption that they are safe from these extreme measures,” it said.  

Putin said as much after the FBI rounded up Anna Chapman and nine other deep-cover Russian “illegals” here in 2010. Whoever betrayed them would suffer: "It always ends badly for traitors,” he said. “As a rule, their end comes from drink or drugs, lying in the gutter. And for what?"

The defector Newsweek spoke with is fatalistic about his chances of living peacefully into old age here.

“I know it’s going to happen to me sooner or later,” he said on the phone as a baby cried in the background. “All I can do is renew my life insurance. If they send a professional, I’m done.”

Courtesy/Source: Newsweek