MOSCOW — Svetlana Chervonnaya still remembers that Monday morning in 1978, when she was working at the Institute for the U.S. and Canadian Studies on Khlebny Pereulok in Moscow.
“The wave of scandal hit us about 10 o’clock,” she recalled. “Everybody knew. I don’t know how, but everybody knew.”
The scandal, unmentioned up to that point in the Soviet media, was that Arkady Shevchenko, undersecretary general of the United Nations, had on the previous Friday defected to the United States — for which he had been secretly working for nearly four years.
He was the highest-ranking Soviet ever to have been exposed as an intelligence asset of a foreign power.
And his sensational bolt to the other side was in considerable contrast to the long silence in the latest spy intrigue: an agent spirited off to the United States by the CIA in 2017 but never acknowledged by either side until this week.
That exfiltration — as the spy-saving operation is known — took place sometime after an Oval Office meeting in May 2017, when President Trump revealed highly classified counterterrorism information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador, said current and former U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive operation.
Shevchenko sits in a park near Time magazine’s Washington bureau in 1985. He was serving as undersecretary general of the United Nations when he defected to the United States. (Diana Walker/Life Images Collection/Getty Images) Today, just as in 1978, Russia, China and the United States still rely on flesh-and-blood spies, despite the huge advances in digital technology.
[ Did Trump help trigger a spy extraction? Media outlets disagree. ]
In 2010, for example, the FBI rounded up 10 Russian sleeper agents, including a couple whose children had no idea what they were up to. In 2016, Christopher Steele, whose dossier on Trump was privately commissioned, relied on intelligence from his sources in Moscow.
Turning informants against their own governments can have powerful results, experts say . They have insight that an algorithm may not be able to match and a sense of where the best available information might be — as opposed to the indiscriminate vacuum cleaner approach of a digital intelligence operation.
“Espionage is as old as governments and societies itself,” said Calder Walton, a historian who studies intelligence-gathering and is assistant director of the Applied History Project at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “A good spy in the right place and the right time can give you intelligence no other source can.”
As news spread of the 2017 CIA exfiltration — first reported by CNN — the Russian media cast suspicion on Oleg Smolenkov, a former diplomat who more recently worked in the administration of President Vladimir Putin.
This mid-level bureaucrat disappeared with his wife and three children while on vacation in Montenegro. Russia at first opened a murder investigation, but dropped it when information came to light that the family was alive and living in Virginia — under their own names.
So, for quite some time, the Russians have known that this former Kremlin insider was living in the United States, and there has been no fuss up to now.
“He was fired a couple of years ago and this is the only thing I can tell you now,” Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, told reporters Tuesday. “He was never a high-ranking official.”
[ U.S. got key asset out of Russia following election hacking ]
Some Russian commentators have suggested that the identification of this bureaucrat by the Kommersant newspaper, quickly followed by other news sites, has more to do with Kremlin infighting than anything else.
Smolenkov had worked as a diplomat in Washington for the then-Russian ambassador, Yuri Ushakov, then worked for him as an aide when Ushakov joined the Russian cabinet. From there, he went with Ushakov to the Kremlin, where Ushakov today is a foreign policy adviser to Putin.
“Of course Ushakov is a target,” said Chervonnaya, the former U.S. and Canada analyst in Moscow. “But why after so many years? It looks a little bit crazy.”
How, she asked, could a top adviser to a top adviser disappear and hardly make any waves?
“Something is missing in this story,” she said. “It’s been more than two years.”
That, too, might have something to do with the Kremlin in its current incarnation under Putin, suggested Andrei Soldatov, who has made a career studying Russia’s secret services.
It may not be “unthinkable” that someone could vanish from the halls of power unremarked — even if he was in a position to gather critical intelligence, as the Americans have described their agent.
“The Kremlin bureaucracy became so secretive that unthinkable could be possible,” he tweeted.
Alexei Venediktov, editor in chief at the Ekho Moskvy radio station, asked on the air why the suspected agent would buy a house in the United States under his own name if he were such a high-ranking spy.
“Do you think,” he said, “we are all idiots here?”
And yet that’s exactly what Shevchenko did, after he emerged from six months in hiding after his defection in 1978.
He had snuck out of his New York apartment while his wife was asleep, he later acknowledged, but left her a note telling her how she could join him. He had feared she would alert the KGB if she knew of his plan or learned of his espionage.
She did call the KGB when she woke up in the morning. They took her back to Moscow where she died less than two months later, officially a victim of suicide.
Shevchenko bought a house in Georgetown with money provided by the U.S. government. The FBI, he later said, fixed him up with dates from an escort service.
In 1985, he went on “The Phil Donahue Show ,” where he said that even though the KGB knew where to find him, he didn’t expect an immediate assassination attempt. It wouldn’t be good, he said, for the Soviet image to kill the former No. 2 diplomat at the United Nations.
“It doesn’t mean that eventually they will not get me,” he said. “You know that the KGB has a long hand and a long memory.”
And its successor agencies apparently still do. Russia’s state intelligence agencies are considered prime suspects in the gruesome murder by radiation poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 and the attempted killing with a nerve agent of Sergei Skripal last year — both men reviled in the Russian services as turncoats.
Shevchenko had said it took him “years and years” to decide to defect. He approached the CIA in 1975, but they asked him to stay on at the United Nations and pass on intelligence about Soviet policies. He hadn’t expected that — but agreed.
In 1978, he got a message recalling him to Moscow. He went to Washington instead.
The KGB never did get him. He died in Washington in 1998, of cirrhosis of the liver.
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