The CIA Russian spy drama currently grabbed Washington has taken a new turn as a suspect. US mole inside the Kremlin was a member of Vladimir Putin's administration who disappeared in 2017 and was initially thought to have been murdered.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, confirmed the man, Oleg Smolenkov, who had worked for the Kremlin but down his importance, insisting he was a low-level employee who had been fired two years ago.
The Russian news site Daily Storm reported in September 2017 that Smolenkov, who had once worked in the Russian embassy, had been seen since he went on holiday with his wife and three children to Montenegro in June of that year. Smolenkov was still alive and living abroad.
On Monday night, the New York Times and Washington Post confirmed to CNN report that a US agent inside the Kremlin had been spirited out to the US after concerns about his safety, but they did not name the spy.
The US reports said that he had worked for US intelligence for more than a decade and reached a senior level with access to Putin himself. According to CNN, he had even provided pictures of documents on Putin's desk.
But there were different versions of the motivation for the emergency "exfiltration". One source told CNN that the decision was driven partly by Donald Trump's divulging classified information to Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, in an Oval Office meeting on 10 May 2017, a month before the exfiltration.
Trump had fired the FBI director, James Comey, the previous day at the time when the bureau was under investigation.
The New York Times and Washington Post, however, quoted sources as the agent was persuaded to leave Russia amid increased scrutiny by Kremlin officials after US intelligence agencies revealed what they knew about Russian election interference, and in particular, Putin's role in it.
Peskov dismissed the US reporting as "pulp fiction".
The Kremlin spokesman said he could not confirm that Smolenkov was the longtime American agent referred in the US reports. Speaking on Tuesday, Peskov said Smolenkov had no "contacts" with Putin, and was removed from his government post in 2016 or 2017.
"Smolenkov worked for the presidential executive office but he was discharged online with an internal directive several years ago," Peskov said in Moscow. “I do not know whether he was an agent or not. The only thing I can tell you He was dismissed. "
Peskov also downplayed the accounts of extraordinary operations in 2017 to exfiltrate the US asset from Moscow.
"This is an American media discussion about who was urgently evacuated, who was saved from whom to know," said Peskov. "So let’s leave it up to them."
Peskov refused to be drawn on Smolenkov's current whereabouts. "We are not engaged in tracing people. "I can only say in this case that there was a lot of administration," he said.
Smolenkov is reported to have worked on the US embassy in Washington under the ambassador Yuri Ushakov. He then followed the ambassador back to Moscow in 2008, when Ushakov was appointed Putin's foreign policy adviser. Putin served as prime minister from 2008 until 2012, when he returned to the Kremlin for a third presidential term.
Kommersant, at Russian business daily, Smolenkov did direct access to Putin. "This is serious," an unnamed official said. Another said that it was unlikely Smolenkov had sight of secret material of value to the US intelligence services.
According to the New York Times, the CIA first tried in late 2016 to extract the source from Moscow. The informant at first refused, citing family concerns – prompting doubts about his trustworthiness, and unhappiness inside CIA headquarters. The paper said, "The paper said."
Smolenkov vanished on 14 June 2017, from his family home on Kargopolskaya Street, in a northern suburb of Moscow, Russian media reported. He flew with his wife Antonina, a civil servant, and their children – aged girls two and seven, and a 13 – year – old son – to Montenegro. The family has not returned their social media accounts.
The source appears to have settled in the US, in a comfortable house on the outskirts of Washington. In June 2018 the Washington Post's real estate section listed in the Stafford, Virginia, by Antonina Smolenkov and one Oleg “Smokenkov”. The property costs $ 925,000. The difference in spellings appears to be a mistake.
The source's removal would have dealt a significant blow to the US ability to understand top-level Kremlin decision making. The Russian government – largely made up of former KGB officers, now in their mid-60s – is paranoid about western spies.
Former diplomats say the chaotic nature of Russia in the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin made it to fertile time for recruiting Russian assets. One of those hired by MI6 during this period was Sergei Skripal, a mid-ranking GRU officer. Two alleged GRU assassins tried to murder Skripal in March 2018 using the deadly nerve agent novichok, the UK government says.
The source is likely to have earned millions of dollars from his lengthy career as a double agent, one well-placed source said. Any hasty manner of removal and his subsequent exposure is likely to determine other sources soon.