A Russian spymaster who helped the U.S. expose a ring of sleeper agents operating in the U.S. was reported dead Thursday, leading Russia’s former federal security chief to claim the death was faked to put the double agent in the witness protection program.
Alexander Poteyev, a Russian SVR intelligence operative turned CIA spy, helped expose the now infamous Anna Chapman sleeper cell in 2010. Nikolai Kovalev, the former director of Russia’s FSB intelligence service and current member of Russian parliament, suggested to the Kremlin-backed RIA Novosti that U.S. officials faked Alexander Poteyev’s death.
Potoyev is believed to have been the head of the so-called “Department S,” a division within Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence branch that handles sleeper agents in the U.S. He is believed to have been recruited by the CIA sometime in the 1990s, revealing to his handlers a network of Russian agents referred to as “illegals” living under fake names in the U.S.
Thanks to Potoyev’s disclosure, Chapman and her spy ring were arrested by the FBI in 2010 after an exhaustive investigation that lasted for years. She would be deported to Russia where her fantastical story and movie star good looks made her an overnight celebrity.
Poteyev’s actions would force him to flee Russia just days before arrest, his abrupt departure meant he could only send his wife text messages before fleeing to the U.S.
“Mary, try to take this calmly: I am leaving not for a short time but forever,” he wrote. “I did not want this but I had to. I am starting a new life. I shall try to help the children.”
A Russian military court would brand Potoyev a traitor in 2011, convicting him of treason and desertion in abstentia.
Russian sources have expressed doubts as to the authenticity of Poteyev’s death reports. One noted that the reports are still “being verified,” while another seemed to reiterate Kovalev’s theory that they may simply be “disinformation, with the aim that the traitor is simply forgotten.”
Should Poteyev’s death be confirmed, it will undoubtedly draw suspicion as to whether or not he was assassinated by Russian intelligence. His death would not be the first time Russia has assassinated defectors. The poisoning of former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko with highly radioactive polonium-210 in 2006 made international headlines, with many blaming the Kremlin for his death.
More recently, the suspicious death of Mikhail Lesin, a former Russian cabinet minister, has led to many blaming Russian intelligence. Lesin was found dead in his Dupont Circle Hotel room on November 5 of last year, with the Washington D.C. medical examiner citing blunt force trauma to the head as the cause of death. Officials have yet to determine whether or not the death was criminal in nature.
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