Russian agents reportedly attempted to assassinate a CIA informant on American soil in 2020, a dramatic ploy that has since been blamed for a sudden deterioration of relations between Washington and leaders of the Russian Federation.
Their target was a former Russian agent whose defection to the United States led to a counterintelligence investigation that resulted in the capture and expulsion of nearly a dozen spies embedded along the US eastern seaboard. His attempted murder is just the latest alleged effort by agents of Vladimir Putin, formerly head of the country’s feared intelligence service, the FSB, and now its leader, to get revenge against Russian defectors living abroad.
The event was separately reported in the upcoming book Spies by Calder Walton.
Three former senior US officials told The New York Times that Russian agents targeted Aleksandr Poteyev with an operation in early 2020 that involved an effort to tail Mr Poteyev around his new hometown of Miami. A Mexican scientist, allegedly coerced into being involved in the plot after members of his family were prevented from leaving Russia, is reported to have rented an apartment near Mr Poteyev’s residence for the purpose of surveilling the ex-spy.
That scientist, Hector Alejandro Cabrera Fuentes, would later allegedly be instructed by his Russian handlers to tail Mr Poteyev, leading to an incident where he and his wife were spotted by security agents and cameras (apparently at their victim’s apartment complex) photographing Mr Poteyev’s licence plate. Realising they had likely just blown their cover, the two fled for Mexico, but were stopped at the US border and arrested.
According to one former official, Mr Fuentes was likely unaware of the eventual goals of the operation and was merely tasked with providing initial intelligence regarding Mr Poteyev’s whereabouts.
While the US government has never publicly acknowledged the operation, the Times reports that it was a leading cause behind the expulsion of nearly a dozen Russian diplomats in April 2021, including a senior member of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR).
Mr Fuentes’s lawyer declined to comment to the Times on his client’s alleged involvement with the case. He was sentenced to a federal prison term in 2022, with officials at the DoJ describing his crime at that point as acting “as a Russian agent” and loosely explaining how he was accused of photographing Mr Poteyev’s car — while omitting the latter’s name from the news release. The ex-spy was only described as a “US person” in documents made public about Mr Fuentes’s sentencing, and the identity of Mr Fuentes’s wife was left out as well.
“The manner in which Fuentes communicated with the Russian government official and his undertakings in this case are consistent with the tactics of the Russian intelligence services for spotting, assessing, recruiting and handling intelligence assets and sources,” read the DoJ’s sentencing announcement. “Fuentes had not notified the U.S. Attorney General, as required by law, that he was acting in the United States as an agent of the Russian government.”
He is currently serving a four year prison term for failing to register as a Russian agent. Mr Poteyev’s current whereabouts are unknown.
Russia has repeatedly been accused of carrying out assassinations on foreign soil. Moscow is believed to have been behind the murder of FSB whistleblower Alexander Litvinenko, using the nuclear isotope polonium-210, in London in 2007, as well as an attempt to murder former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England in 2018, using the nerve agent novichok. While they both survived, a woman named Dawn Sturgess who handled the perfume bottle the poison had been smuggled in died as a result.
In 2007 police arrested an alleged assassin in London believing he was planning to murder the exiled Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky. Mr Berezovsky was found dead in his bathroom in 2013 in what was ruled a suicide. An inquest into the death of Russian whistleblower Alexander Perepilichny, who collapsed while jogging near his home in Britain in 2012, has heard allegations that he was poisoned.
In 2019 former Chechen rebel commander Zelimkhan Khangoshvili was shot dead while riding a bicycle through Berlin’s Tiergarten park. A Russian citizen, Vadim Krasikov, was convicted of his murder and two Russian diplomats were expelled from Germany.
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