Russian “Illegal” Spies in the US Were Betrayed by a Double Agent

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 210

FSB Headquarters in Moscow

The group of ten Russian spies arrested last June in the US by the FBI and later deported to Russia in a spy exchange was revealed by Moscow last week to have been betrayed by a high-ranking double agent in the Foreign Security Service (SVR)– the successor of the First Main Directorate of the KGB, known as PGU. Last week, the alleged SVR traitor was exposed as “Colonel Shcherbakov”– no first name was given (Kommersant, November 11). This week, unidentified intelligence sources told Russian journalists that “Colonel Shcherbakov” was indeed a double agent who fled to the US “several years ago.” It was not Shcherbakov, however, who betrayed the ten spies but another SVR colonel, Aleksandr Poteev, who allegedly fled to the US with his family several days before the arrests began. Poteev was reportedly a deputy chief of the SVR “S” Directorate, which prepares deep cover agents for work abroad (Interfax, November 17;, November 17).

The leak that led to the publication concerning the betrayal of the “illegals” apparently originated from the Federal Security Service (FSB) (Kommersant, November 17). After the collapse of Communist rule in Russia, then President Boris Yeltsin split the all-powerful KGB into five independent entities. Under President Vladimir Putin (a former KGB colonel), the Border Guard Troops and the government communications agency returned under the FSB mantle. Today, only the SVR and the Federalnaya Sluzba Okhrani (FSO) –Federal Guarding Service (formerly the KGB’s Ninth Main Directorate and the Russian equivalent of the US Secret Service)– retain organizational independence. The core of the FSB is Obshaya Kontrrazvedka (General Counterintelligence), the former Second Main Directorate of the KGB and a traditional rival of the PGU. Today the FSB is investigating the alleged betrayal in the SVR headquarters that led to the mass spy exposure. The case may lead to serious changes in personnel and possibly in the organization of the intelligence community in Moscow, namely the subordination of the SVR to the FSB, to root out negligence and corruption (Kommersant, November 17).

Western intelligence services do not plant “sleeper” spies in Russia and the essence of “illegal” spying seems to be little understood. Anna Chapman (28), the redheaded beauty who previously lived in Britain and held both UK and Russian passports due to her 2002 marriage to a British man, Alex Chapman, became an instant tabloid sensation and a trademark of the busted spy ring. In fact, there was no “spy ring”– the “illegals” did not know each other or Chapman, who was in fact not an “illegal.” Chapman and Mikhail Semenko (30) resided in the US under their true identities.

Retired military intelligence (GRU) Colonel Vitaly Shlykov told Jamestown that “illegal” spies are a Russian (Soviet) trademark. Their main task is to activate in the event of war or a prewar crisis when diplomatic ties are severed and the “legal” Russian resident spies from diplomatic missions are forced to leave. The “illegals” must then step in and handle local agents that are normally handled by the “legal” resident spies. During the Cold War, caches of arms and radio communications equipment were buried on the territories of Western and other foreign nations to allow the “sleeper” spies to communicate and organize “diversions” (terrorist attacks). The essence of being a Russian-style sleeper spy is to lead an ordinary, moral and uneventful life; to blend as much as possible into the background of middle class society until an order is given to begin operations. “Illegals” tend to have stable marriages and children, and typically both spouses act together as a spy team. Some “illegal” spies live undercover abroad for decades while maintaining loyalty to their home country, like the eldest of the deported ten, Mikhail Vasenkov (66). Known in the US as “Juan Lazaro,” Vasenkov was married to Vicky Pelaez (55), a journalist born in Peru. Such missions, according to Shlykov, require immense dedication and self-sacrifice.

Sleeper spies in deep hibernation were specifically ordered to refrain from recruiting agents or any other spying activities that could blow their cover, though they could report back to Moscow on potential agents that might later be approached by “legal” recruiting officers using diplomatic cover. The FBI, which shadowed the Russian agents after their true identities were betrayed, apparently recorded no sinister activity and the sleepers did not seem to have much to reveal. A former Russian “legal” spy who was posted in the West under diplomatic cover and who asked not to reveal his identity told Jamestown that in most cases the exact locations of the arms and explosive caches that were secretly planted by “legal” spies were not revealed to the sleepers. Instead, the sleepers would receive the locations and the list of targets to attack simultaneously with their activation orders from Moscow. Unlike the true “illegals,” Chapman in New York and Semenko in Washington seem to have been in regular contact with the “legal” Russian spy residencies in both cities.

The possible exposure of any one of the sleeper spies could not have led the FBI to the others. Only a betrayal in Moscow in the SVR headquarters by a double agent could have revealed the list of Russian “illegals” without diplomatic cover in the US. Death threats have been publicly issued in Moscow, alleging an assassin has been sent to kill the traitor, just as Leon Trotsky was slain in 1940 in Mexico City by Ramon Mercader, a Spanish communist sent from Moscow by Josef Stalin (Kommersant, November 11). The threat seems to be empty, however, intended only to undermine the morale of the alleged double agent, according to intelligence sources in Moscow. The damage has already been done, therefore making an assassination a senseless and high-risk endeavor (, November 17).

Today, unlike during the Cold War era, the prospect of all-out war or a severing of diplomatic relations between Russia and major Western nations appear remote. Keeping an “illegal” spy network seems increasingly senseless. In any case, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to replace the deported spies with men and women of equal ideological dedication in today’s lawless and corrupt Russia. According to State Duma deputy and former FSB colonel Gennady Gudkov, the apparent serial betrayals of colonel after colonel within the SVR is the result of the “total moral degradation in Russia, where everything is up for sale” (Interfax, November 11).