In this piece I’d like to dwell on the topic of why certain categories of Russians leave their country for good and what stands behind this move. The issue was initially raised in the column titled «Who is Mr. Voloboev», whose English version got plenty of attention beyond Cyprus. Meanwhile, Russian speakers here have long been aware of the «Russian community secretary general» anyway.
Russia has blessed quite many sons of hers to have a life beyond its borders, including the «nobles», like the ones who are trying to open here a representative office of the Russian-occupied Crimea, as well as representatives the «working class», like «welders» [for our English speaking readers, it should be noted that «welders» in Russian pronounces as «svarshchiki», which is a colloquial name for SVR foreign intelligence operatives]. Beyond Russia, these types of people’s creativity find the second breath and inspiration in various fields.
All mentioned categories, apart from the «working class» have been naturalized in other countries and stay abroad with a certain mission, which is probably being thoroughly scrutinized by competent authorities across the EU.
But let’s turn our attention to the latest developments in the Kremlin and talk about another Russian national, Oleg Smolenkov.
The story of the assistant to the Russian president’s advisor who turned out to be a CIA mole resembles a boomerang that Russia had once launched across its borders and saw it come around, as usual, causing much pain. Really, if you’ve been financing foreign politicians, parties, and radicals across Europe for their little services for just too long time to expect that your own citizens, overwhelmed with the spirit of overall corruption, will behave any differently.
Today, Putin’s Russia is an extremely immoral state, where education, upbringing, personal qualities, experience, and reputation are off the list of valued things. Instead, participation in corruption-laden schemes, loyalty to government and venality are on top of that list. Actually, pretty much anything can be sold at the official level.
Under these conditions, a new type of Russian officials and security operatives has been formed, which I must note is significantly different from an ordinary Russian. Those are officials ready to fulfill any orders of their leader – this is exactly what gives them a ticket into the system, guaranteeing impunity and wealth. However, these people also become cynical, dishonest, mean, corrupt, and lacking initiative.
Only those are able to reach the upper steps of the hierarchical ladder who become part of the leader’s personal servants, while others munch on crumbs, but everyone wants to make some good cash, right?
It is highly probable that this is exactly the portrait of a slightly mysterious Oleg Borisovich Smolenkov, whose exposure recently blew up the newsfeeds on both sides of the Atlantic. It turned out that two years ago the CIA went for an emergency exfiltration mission to evacuate their asset from Russia, fearing for his safety. Journalists revealed that the mole had been handled by U.S. intelligence for at least 10 years. The asset and his family were extracted via Montenegro – a popular holiday destination where he took his family for an alleged vacation.
The way how Smolenkov went missing while on vacation in Montenegro in 2017 reminds of the case of Colonel Alexander Poteev, intelligence officer and deputy director of the SVR’s «illegals» spy program operating a network of deep infiltration assets (remember The Americans series?). He managed to slip out of Moscow in 2010, the day before the FBI nabbed 10 Russian assets. A Russian court would eventually find him guilty of treason and convict him in absentia. In 2016 came the reports of his death, but just two years later, the American media found that a person bearing the same name had recently acquired a fishing license.
The Guardian wrote that defectors are now more likely to retain their real names after being transferred to the United States, especially if they took their families with them. In Soviet times, spies would usually change identities and hide somewhere in a small town’s quiet suburbs (recall Viktor Suvorov). Now, apparently, there isn’t much sense in doing this, so Smolenkov’s name emerged in public records in 2018 when he and his wife bought a house in Virginia, paying almost a million dollars for their new crib.
Smolenkov was born in Moscow in 1969. There are no data on his education and first career steps after his graduation. This, as well all as a subsequent job with the Russian diplomatic corps, most often indirectly points to a person being part of the intelligence community. In 1999, Smolenkov was hired MFA Russia, becoming a clerk with the foreign exchange department, later in 2000-2001to become part of the affairs management office, then moving for a short time to the HR dep’t before heading in 2003 for a long deployment in the United States as 2nd Secretary of the Russian embassy, becoming an assistant to Ambassador Yuriy Ushakov.
People who knew Smolenkov claim that he quickly became Ushakov’s confidant as the envoy was apparently aware of his aide’s mysterious CV, which implied numerous stages of vetting routine. Moreover, the two became so close that they no longer parted even after the U.S. deployment was over. In May 2008, ex-Ambassador Ushakov was appointed deputy chief of staff of the Russian Government (after Vladimir Putin became Prime Minister). Ushakov brought along his protégé-buddy Smolenkov, who traditionally became his assistant, and also, concurrently, a staffer with the government’s Military-Industrial Commission.
Apparently, it was also Smolenkov’s patron who in 2010 lobbied granting him a higher rank of 3rd Class State Advisor (similar to Major General in military terms). The talented assistant got the rank even despite the fact that his previous diplomatic rank of 2nd Secretary corresponded to a military rank of captain. Both persons reached their career peaks in 2012, when Ushakov became Putin’s advisor, while Smolenkov retained his position of Ushakov’s assistant.
But throughout all these years, Oleg Smolenkov was an American intelligence asset, working diligently to save enough for a comfortable retirement. It is difficult to say when exactly he was recruited, but it is a fact that his patron was already in his senior years back then, so Smolenkov did realize that the old man wouldn’t be able to pull him higher for too long, just as he understood that the «don’t change horses in the midstream» saying doesn’t really work in Russian politics.
People in power do change their «horses», and sometimes throw them behind bars, too. And it is precisely being aware of this that pushes officials to at least obtain Western citizenship or, as a max objective, to steal as much money as possible to provide for a brighter future at some distant ocean resort, which, in turn, makes such official perfect targets for foreign intelligence agencies. And, it seems, the story of Smolenkov is a typical case, rather than an isolated one. It’s just that this particular story resonated through the media quite unexpectedly.
It all started across the lake after CNN delivered an exclusive report, citing intelligence sources, that a CIA asset had been «extracted» from Russia, who was «one of its highest-level covert sources inside the Russian government.» Moreover, journalists said it was Donald Trump who was to blame for the urgent exfiltration after he allegedly shared during a warm meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the then- Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak certain information that could potentially lead to the mole’s exposure. Such a version, of course, is hard to believe, otherwise Smolenkov wouldn’t have been safe in the U.S. now. But, you know, American media pursue have their own goals, while Russian outlets have different objectives.
At the same time, while CNN has kept a veil of secrecy over the identity of the alleged CIA asset, his name was first leaked precisely from Russia. According to Kommersant, the primary sources of the explosive leak were news channels on Telegram messenger, namely «Bezposhchadniy Piarshchik», and other platforms, whose ultimate beneficiary is Aleksey Gromov, Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration.
Then heavy artillery came into play: president’s spox Dmitry Peskov told reporters that «indeed, Smolenkov had worked for the presidential administration, but he was fired several years ago.» In turn, MFA’s talking head Maria Zakharova said: «He worked at a certain period in career at our embassy in Washington. Here I have nothing more to comment on. I never met him personally.» She added that he had been engaged in «economic management issues».
Further publications in Russian media claimed that Smolenkov was an alcoholic and adulterer, who also stole from his first wife a child they had conceived. And, of course, all those reports stressed the idea that Smolenkov had nothing to do with state secrets. All this somehow does not fit with The New York Times’s version of events where the publication names Oleg Smolenkov one of the most valuable CIA assets in Russia. So who’s lying?
The money the U.S. government spent on Smolenkov, including exfiltration costs, a million-dollar house, money in the asset’s accounts, a lifelong witness protection program, as well as some circumstances of Smolenkov’s work, suggest that it’s Russian officials who are spreading lies.
Apparently, there is no smoke without fire, and it was Smolenkov who handed over to the U.S. officials certain data, including documentary evidence, about the Kremlin’s meddling in the American elections, which, in line with the old tradition, was probably sanctioned personally by Putin. Come on, this couldn’t be the FSB chief, right?
In addition, holding a high position in the entourage of Putin’s Assistant Ushakov, he had access to very sensitive information, because his boss, as put by Valdai Club program director Dmitry Suslov, «is actually a center that integrates different impulses – from the Foreign Ministry and special services – and takes part in decision making.»
Smolenkov also conveyed to Americans plenty of valuable intelligence on military issues. Being part of the government’s military-industrial commission staff, which implements state policy in the field of the defense industry, military-technical support of the country’s defense, state security and law enforcement, he was definitely aware of most of things related to said issues.
So, it appears, for all these years, Russia’s American and partially the general Western policy line was like an open book for the United States, just as the Kremlin’s inner workings, of which Smolenkov had been actively enquiring, his former colleagues recall.
According to Yahoo News, the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats in 2016 was related to Russia’s attempts to hack the FBI communications to hinder the agents’ work on identifying Russian spies and obstruct contacts with CIA and FBI agents in Russia. It seems, Russians have successfully decrypted some of the U.S. secure communication channels and monitored secret devices from the premises of their permanent mission’s residences. It is difficult to say whether Smolenkov is involved in this leak, but the fact that Russia didn’t apply a mirror expulsion speaks of the fact that the Americans had solid evidence of Russian penetration effort.
What’s interesting is that these data were mainly taken from Russian sources. But how’s that? The thing is that the «Smolenkov Case» led to the next round of internal war of the «Kremlin towers» and affiliated special services (FSB, SVR, and GRU).
Some are trying to fan the scandal by portrayinh Smolenkov as some Agent 007 able to handle any task. Albeit hyperbolized, these assumptions are not too far from the truth. The Smolenkov-Ushakov bond showed how futile the FSB counterintelligence efforts really are.
The Lubyanka (FSB HQ) responded by launching a media spin claiming Smolenkov was too worthless a spy and a person – simply a loser binge drinker and womanizer doing valet work, having no access to any state secrets. But this outright lie is just a clumsy attempt to protect «corporate dignity».
SVR in the person of its head, Mr Naryshkin, chose not to comment on the issue at all, although Smolenkov was most likely one of their guys.
At the same time, Russia’s usual tactics in a situation where the Kremlin fails so bad it literally hurts is publishing a huge number of fake or fact-manipulating versions of the events in question. Judging by their number, the Smolenkov case delivered a truly crushing blow to Ushakov, Naryshkin, Lavrov, as well as Alexander Bortnikov, whose agency (the FSB) failed to see a mole so close to Putin. No one wants to be a scapegoat so everyone’s trying to downgrade Smolenkov, portraying his as an extremely insignificant figure. The attempts are too chaotic though, turning the whole endeavor into a cheap farce.
So what does the story of Oleg Smolenkov teach us? Firstly, it’s absolutely unclear how many other officials just like him are long-time «foreign agents» walk around the Kremlin as you’re reading this. Secondly, the Kremlin’s corrupt heritage will face hard pressure – Russia has already received a black mark from those who will be dealing with this. There is more than enough information to this end, and apparently, not only Mr Smolenkov was its source.
Therefore, I would like to recommend that businesses here in Cyprus beware those various «gray schemes». After all, you know, one can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. These shady dealings, it appears, are clearly monitored by U.S. and EU authorities.
*Any similarity to the title of the poem by M. Lermontov is coincidental.