Russia has identified the double agent who betrayed its US spy ring over the summer and has sent a contract killer to assassinate him, according to a newspaper report published yesterday.
Ten spies, including Anna Chapman, were rounded up by the FBI in July and sent back to Moscow in exchange for four Russians imprisoned for spying for the West. At the time, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said the 10 had been betrayed, and that he knew the name of the traitor.
That name has stayed secret, until yesterday. The Russian newspaper Kommersant identified a Colonel Shcherbakov, an employee of the SVR foreign intelligence service, who headed the department responsible for handling sleeper agents in the US, as the double agent. The paper's sources said that Colonel Shcherbakov had been working for the Americans for some time, and fled to the US shortly before the arrests were made. If true, it would make him one of the most senior defectors since the end of the Cold War.
The paper also quoted a Kremlin official who insinuated that a hit squad had been dispatched to the US to kill Colonel Shcherbakov. "Don't doubt that a Mercader has already been sent after him," said the source, referring to Ramón Mercader, a Soviet agent who killed Leon Trotsky with an ice pick in Mexico in 1940. "The fate of such a person is unenviable... living every day in fear of retribution."
Kommersant said that Russia's intelligence community was still in shock over the summer's events, and that a wide-ranging investigation was under way inside the SVR as to how obvious warning signals about Colonel Shcherbakov, including the fact that his daughter lived in the US, had been overlooked.
Since the July scandal, information about the 10 spies and the chain of events that led to their arrest has been hard to come by. The only one of the 10 who has been spotted in public is Ms Chapman, who has participated in a number of candid photoshoots and is apparently now working for a Russian bank. The fate of the other spies is unclear, although President Dmitry Medvedev is reported to have awarded them top state honours.
Yesterday's Kommersant report gave new insight into one of the 10 spies, Juan Lazaro, who posed as a Uruguayan but was actually named Mikhail Vasenkov and was born in Siberia. Mr Vasenkov first spied in South America under the cover of working as a press photographer, before moving to the US with his Peruvian wife Vicky Pelaez. She, allegedly, was not aware of his real identity.
Kommersant claims that Mr Lazaro's cover was blown when Colonel Shcherbakov entered the interrogation room with a dossier containing his real name and place of work. The paper also claims that Mr Lazaro had three ribs and a leg broken during interrogation, and returned to Russia with these injuries.
Both sides have been anxious to ensure that the fallout from the spy scandal does not derail the much trumpeted "reset" in relations between Moscow and Washington. If the Kommersant story is true, then American behaviour throughout the episode is a marked departure from standard practice during the Cold War, when such a high-level defection would have been proudly announced to the world. Instead, there have been no information leaks from Washington on how the arrests came about. The SVR has refused to comment on the truth of the report.