New York Times report details failed attempt to kill the CIA informant, resulting in ‘tit for tat’ diplomatic row.
Russia sought to kill a defector living in the United States in 2020, enlisting a Mexican scientist to help in the plot, according to a report by the New York Times.
While the scheme to kill Aleksandr Poteyev failed, its aftermath “spiraled into tit-for-tat retaliation by the United States and Russia”, the newspaper reported on Monday.
Citing three former senior US officials, the New York Times said it had independently verified the assassination attempt, which will be chronicled in an upcoming book by Harvard scholar Calder Walton.
Poteyev, a former Russian intelligence officer, had previously served as an informant to the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). His tips led the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to ensnare 11 Russian spies living on the US East Coast in 2010.
Poteyev had escaped Russia via Belarus before he could face punishment for his disclosures. Once in the US, Poteyev was resettled in Miami, Florida, under a secret CIA programme to protect spies, according to Monday’s report.
In 2011, a Moscow court sentenced him to 25 years in prison for treason, despite his absence from the country.
The Times reported that Poteyev had gotten a fishing license and registered to vote under his own name, allowing Russia to eventually hone in on his whereabouts. It then enlisted Mexican scientist Hector Alejandro Cabrera Fuentes to aid in the plot.
A Russian official leveraged Fuentes’s Russian wife and two daughters, who were blocked from leaving the country, to get him to comply, the newspaper explained, citing court documents.
Fuentes was asked to rent a condo near Poteyev’s home under a different name and to track down Poteyev’s car. He was instructed not to take pictures.
But the plan went awry when Fuentes tried to enter the complex Poteyev lived in by tailgating another car as it passed through a security gate. While he was questioned by a guard, his wife photographed Poteyev’s license plate. The incident was captured on security footage.
Fuentes provided details of the plot after he was stopped by authorities two days later while trying to leave the US.
The scheme came two years after Russian operatives poisoned former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England. Skripal had worked as an informant for the United Kingdom and fled to the country from Russia.
Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, survived the brazen attack, which represented to many an escalation in Russia’s willingness to target defectors living in Western countries.
The US assassination plot was one of many incidents at the time that prompted a harsh response from Washington, including a mass expulsion of Russians.
In 2021, the US imposed sanctions on Russia and expelled 10 Russian diplomats, including the Washington, DC-based chief of station for Russia’s intelligence agency.
Russia, meanwhile, expelled 10 US diplomats, including the CIA’s Moscow chief of station.