Russian plot to kill defector began with a false story of his death

Michael Isikoff
Chief Investigative Correspondent
Dan Hoffman, former CIA station chief in Moscow. (Yahoo News photo Illustration; photos: Harry Walker Agency, Getty)

In the summer of 2016, a Russian news agency published a story about the death of a high-level defector who had been living in hiding in the United States. But the defector, Col. Alexander Poteyev, was, and is, alive; the CIA’s former station chief in Moscow believes the phony story was likely part of a plot to smoke him out and target him for assassination in the U.S.

Daniel Hoffman, a retired CIA officer and one of its top specialists on the Kremlin, says the Russian intelligence operation against Poteyev, which has only recently come to light, appears to be part of an increasingly aggressive pattern of activity by Vladimir Putin’s government to target Russian spies who betray their country.

“He’s interested in exacting revenge on as many of these guys as he can find,” said Hoffman in an interview on the Yahoo News podcast “Skullduggery.” “There is no bridge too far for Vladimir Putin.”

Hoffman spoke to “Skullduggery” about the revelations in a new book, written by a veteran BBC journalist, Mark Urban, who spent ten hours in 2017 interviewing Sergei Skripal, the former Russian intelligence officer who was poisoned along with his daughter — allegedly by Kremlin agents — in Salisbury, England, last March. The book, “The Skripal Files: The Life and Near Death of a Russian Spy,” offers provocative new theories about the attempted murder of Skripal, suggesting that he was targeted when the Russians failed in their attempts to kill Poteyev, another Russian military intelligence spy turned double agent. It was Poteyev who had tipped off the FBI in 2010 about the existence of a ring of “sleeper agents” — known as “the illegals” because they operated without the usual diplomatic cover — who were spying on American political and business figures. (The most prominent member of the ring was Anna Chapman, a glamorous young woman who became a tabloid favorite and later a regular TV personality when she returned to Russia.)

Poteyev was exfiltrated from Russia by the CIA and has been living under U.S. government protection ever since. But in July 2016, the Russian news agency Interfax published a story that said Poteyev was dead. It wasn’t true, but the purpose of the story, according to Urban — and a view backed by Hoffman — was to generate “chatter” by Poteyev’s family and friends back in Russia that might allow the country’s intelligence agencies to pinpoint his whereabouts in the U.S. In law enforcement and intelligence circles, it’s a practice known as “tickling the wire.”

“It’s a not uncommon practice in law enforcement and other operations to try to induce some sort of activity — you know, emails and phone calls. And that’s certainly one way to do it,” he said. “The idea would be to target those who are not so sophisticated in the MO [modus operandi] of Russian intelligence services to understand that this is just a ruse … it’s typical of the Russians to do that sort of thing. For them, whatever angst they might cause someone — and people could fall ill if they heard stories like this — doesn’t matter. For them, the ends justify the means.”

The idea that the Russians are tracking down defectors in the West, including in the U.S., has gotten new traction in recent days from the disclosures that Poteyev had been targerted by a Russian hit man who had approached his Florida home several years ago.

But according to Urban, the Russians inability to eliminate Poteyev may have prompted them to move to the next person on their list of targeted defectors, Skripal. After being caught spying for British intelligence, Skripal was released — and allowed to move to Great Britain — as part of a spy swap in 2010 in which the Russian “illegals,” including Chapman, were returned to Russia.

Download or subscribe on iTunes: “Skullduggery” from Yahoo News

But even if he was a secondary target, Skripal had done much to earn Putin’s wrath, according to Urban. While stationed in Madrid in the mid-1990s, Skripal had fed British intelligence information about corrupt kickbacks being paid to Nikolai P. Patrushev, a close Putin crony who was then director of the intelligence agency FSB. (Patrushev is now the director of Russia’s security council.)

“Certainly exposing Russia’s massive level of corruption, [and] colluding with [the] former director of FSB, Patrushev definitely brought Putin’s ire and certainly encouraged Putin to aim his sights on Skripal. That’s for sure,” said Hoffman in the “Skullduggery” interview. “It’s all about regime security, and when the guys in the FSB [and other Russian intelligence agencies] see that there is corruption at high levels like that, then they wonder … why am I taking on this low state salary while Patrushev is skimming so much money from the state coffers?”

As CIA station chief in Moscow in 2010, Hoffman arranged the spy swap that freed Skripal from a Russian prison in exchange for the release of Chapman and the other “illegals” by the U.S. Hoffman said the near-fatal poisoning of Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury last March — eight years after the spy’s release — was part of a pattern of Russian intelligence operations in recent years that were relatively easily “discoverable” and intended to send a message. “Putin wanted his own people to know it, because he wants them to know that if they step out of line, he’s going to kill them,” he said.

As if to underscore Hoffman’s point about Putin’s contempt for Russian spies who spill secrets to Western intelligence agencies, Putin this week lashed out at Skripal, calling him a “traitor” and a “scumbag.”

“There’s such a thing as a traitor to the Motherland,” Putin said at an energy conference on Oct. 3 when asked about Skripal. “He’s one of them. He’s just a scumbag.”

Skripal and his daughter were poisoned in Salisbury after being exposed to a highly toxic military-grade nerve agent, Novichok. Both survived the attack, and British authorities have since identified two Russian men with suspected links to the GRU — the country’s military intelligence agency — as the perpetrators. The two later returned to Russia and, after their identities were revealed by British authorities, gave an interview to the Russian propaganda organ RT claiming to have been two businessmen who traveled to Salisbury on holiday to see the city’s famous cathedral. A man and a woman from Salisbury who authorities suspect may have come in contact with a bottle left behind by the would-be assassins were also poisoned. The woman, Dawn Sturgess, 44, died.


More “Skullduggery” from Yahoo News: