PRESIDENT Dmitry Medvedev has confirmed that a Moscow double agent helped Washington crack a major Russian spy ring that sparked the worst espionage row between the two countries since the Cold War.
He conceded that Russia would have to draw lessons from the fiasco but that it was not time to start firing officials over the case – an increasingly popular sentiment in disgruntled Moscow.
“To me, what Kommersant said was not news. I knew about it the day it happened, with all its attributes and accessories,” Mr Medvedev said at the G20 summit in the South Korean capital when asked about Thursday’s report in the respected Russian business daily.
Kommersant identified Washington’s Russian accomplice as a colonel with the Russian foreign intelligence service named Shcherbakov, whose job was to plant civilian moles in the United States similar to the deep cover spy ring dismantled by Washington.
Kommersant quoted intelligence sources as saying that a Russian hit squad had been especially assigned to hunt down Shcherbakov in retribution and to prevent him from passing any other sensitive information to Washington.
The group of 10 spies, many of whom had been working for years undercover in the United States as sleeper agents, returned to Russia in a July swap that saw Moscow send four convicted Russian spies to the West.
Mr Medvedev did not confirm specific elements of the Kommersant story. His comments suggested that he knew about the double agent before the June arrests and prior to his summit talks that month with his US counterpart Barack Obama.
But the Russian leader also brushed aside suggestions that he should sack the head of his country’s foreign intelligence service, Mikhail Fradkov, who has been the subject of growing dismissal talk.
His sacking was backed heavily on Thursday by some opposition lawmakers and discussed widely both on television and in the popular press.
“I would not like to comment on the investigation,” Mr Medvedev said. “There has to be an investigation and we will draw our conclusions then.”
The Kommersant report was confirmed on Thursday by the lower house of parliament’s security council deputy chairman Gennady Gudkov and even featured on the main state channel’s evening news broadcast.
Both the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and the Russian foreign ministry refused to comment.
Mr Medvedev’s comments echoed a similar statement from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who suggested in the aftermath of the crisis that Russia knew about the double agent all along.
“This was the result of treason and traitors always end badly. They finish up as drunks, addicts, on the street,” Mr Putin said at the end of July.
He then enigmatically added that “recently one (traitor) for instance ended his existence abroad and it was not clear what the point of it all was”.
But some Russian media and lawmakers suggested that the Kremlin was simply trying to put a brave face on a bad situation and that Shcherbakov had done long-term damage to Moscow’s espionage program.
“The damage committed by the colonel to the state is too enormous” not to have further repercussions, Gudkov said.
The double agent’s naming forced Mr Medvedev to return to a sensitive issue for Russia just as the country attempts to play a more forceful role in foreign affairs.