The CIA Russian spy drama currently gripping Washington has taken a new turn as Russian media reported that a suspected US mole inside the Kremlin was a member of Vladimir Putin’s administration who disappeared in 2017 and was initially thought to have been murdered.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, confirmed the man, Oleg Smolenkov, had worked for the Kremlin but played down his importance, insisting he was a low-level employee who had been fired two years ago.
The Russian news site Daily Storm reported in September 2017 that Smolenkov, who had once worked in the Russian embassy in Washington, had not been seen since he went on holiday with his wife and three children to Montenegro in June of that year. The Russian authorities first investigated the disappearance as a possible murder but then became convinced that Smolenkov was still alive and living abroad.
On Monday night, the New York Times and Washington Post confirmed a CNN report that a US agent inside the Kremlin had been spirited out to the US after concerns about his safety, but they did not name the spy.
The US reports said that the agent had worked for US intelligence for more than a decade and reached a senior level with access to Putin himself. According to CNN, he had even provided pictures of documents on Putin’s desk.
But there were different versions of the motivation for the emergency “exfiltration”. One source told CNN that the decision was driven partly by Donald Trump’s divulging classified information to Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, in an Oval Office meeting on 10 May 2017, a month before the exfiltration.
Trump had fired the FBI director, James Comey, the previous day at a time when the bureau was the midst of an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
The New York Times and Washington Post, however, quoted sources as saying that the agent was persuaded to leave Russia amid increased scrutiny by Kremlin officials after US intelligence agencies revealed what they knew about Russian election interference, and in particular, Putin’s role in it.
Peskov dismissed the US reporting as “pulp fiction”.
The Kremlin spokesman said he could not confirm that Smolenkov was the longtime American agent referred into in the US reports. Speaking on Tuesday, Peskov said Smolenkov had no “contacts” with Putin, and was removed from his government post in 2016 or 2017.
“Smolenkov worked for the presidential executive office but he was discharged in line with an internal directive several years ago,” Peskov said in Moscow. “I do not know whether he was an agent or not. The only thing I can tell you there was such an employee in the administration. He was dismissed.”
Peskov also downplayed the accounts of an extraordinary operation in 2017 to exfiltrate the US asset from Moscow.
“All this discussion by American media about who was urgently evacuated, who was saved from whom and so on are in the genre of pulp fiction,” said Peskov. “So let’s leave it up to them.”
Peskov refused to be drawn on Smolenkov’s current whereabouts. “We are not engaged in tracing people. I can only say in this case that there really was such an employee of the administration, and that he was fired several years ago,” he said.
Smolenkov is reported to have worked at the US embassy in Washington under the ambassador Yuri Ushakov. He then followed the ambassador back to Moscow in 2008, when Ushakov was appointed Putin’s foreign policy adviser. Putin served as prime minister from 2008 until 2012, when he returned to the Kremlin for a third presidential term.
Kommersant, a Russian business daily, cited former colleagues as saying that, contrary to Peskov’s denials, Smolenkov did have direct access to Putin. “This is serious,” an unnamed official said. Another said that it was unlikely Smolenkov had sight of secret material of value to the US intelligence services.
According to the New York Times, the CIA first tried in late 2016 to extract the source from Moscow. The informant at first refused, citing family concerns – prompting doubts about his trustworthiness, and unhappiness inside CIA headquarters. The source finally agreed to flee months later, as the story of Russia’s clandestine support for Trump dominated the headline, the paper said.
Smolenkov vanished on 14 June 2017, from his family home in Kargopolskaya Street, in a northern suburb of Moscow, Russian media reported. He flew with his wife Antonina, a civil servant, and their children – girls aged two and seven, and a 13-year-old son – to Montenegro. The family did not return and switched off their social media accounts.
With Smolenkov nowhere to be found, in September 2017 Russian authorities opened a criminal investigation into his suspected murder. Russia’s FSB spy agency eventually dropped the case after concluding that the missing government official was still alive, the Daily Storm reported.
The source appears to have settled in the US, in a comfortable house on the outskirts of Washington. In June 2018 the Washington Post’s real estate section listed the purchase of a six-bedroom home in Stafford, Virginia, by Antonina Smolenkov and one Oleg “Smokenkov”. The property cost $925,000. The difference in spellings appears to be a mistake.
CNN reported that the difficult decision to remove the US’s Moscow mole was made after President Trump divulged top secret information in May 2017 to Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s veteran foreign minister.
The White House has rubbished such claims. On Tuesday, Mike Pompeo – the US secretary of state and former CIA head – said: “Suffice it to say that the reporting there is factually wrong,” without specifying exactly what he was disputing.
The source’s removal would have dealt a significant blow to the US’s ability to understand top-level Kremlin decision making. The Russian government – largely made up of former KGB officers, now in their mid-60s – is paranoid about western spies.
Former diplomats say the chaotic nature of Russia in the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin made it a fertile time for recruiting Russian assets. One of those hired by MI6 during this period was Sergei Skripal, who the British say was targeted for murder by two Russian assassins.