A military court in Moscow last night handed down a 25-year sentence to a top Russian foreign intelligence agent who was convicted in absentia of exposing a “sleeper cell” network in the US.
Colonel Alexander Poteyev — thought to be hiding in the US after leaving his wife behind and dramatically fleeing Moscow by night train — received a 20-year sentence for high treason and five years for desertion.
“Poteyev’s actions delivered a considerable blow to Russia’s national security,” the Interfax news agency quoted the presiding judge as telling the hearing.
The cell’s detection last summer inflicted severe damage on Russia’s foreign intelligence efforts and revealed weaknesses in a surveillance program that had been Moscow’s pride since Soviet times.
The 10 sleeper agents’ main job was to blend in with young US professionals and get hired at top state agencies and private firms that dealt with advanced technologies and other sensitive data.
Each person in the group, which included tabloid sensation Anna Chapman, was welcomed home personally as a hero by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, himself a former spy.
Mr Putin later used a national television appearance to call the double agent a “pig” who would “regret it a thousand times over”.
Chapman, the pin-up girl for the agents, has testified she was caught after an undercover US agent contacted her using a code that only Poteyev and her personal handler knew.
She had immediately felt that something was wrong and called her handler in Moscow, who confirmed her suspicions.
Chapman and others were arrested soon after.
New details about Poteyev read out in the sentence showed a decade of co-operation with the US in which the colonel betrayed compatriots working in Latin America and Canada as well as America.
“However, the court could not establish that Poteyev received monetary compensation for what he did,” court spokeswoman Irina Zhirnova said.
Russian media said Poteyev had until last year served as the deputy head of the US department of Directorate S — a covert operations unit that co-ordinates sleeper cell work.
Days before the sleeper cell network was exposed last summer, he fled Moscow on a night train to Minsk on a false passport provided to him by the US.
The judge read a telephone text message Poteyev reportedly sent his wife as he was fleeing, which warned that eh would “never be back”.
“Mary, try to take this calmly. I am not leaving for a bit, but forever. I did not want to, but I had to. I will start a new life and try to help the children,” the Russian colonel reportedly wrote in the text message to his wife.
The incident left some intelligence officials conceding that their US surveillance program had been set back by as much as a decade.