MOSCOW - Russia has identified the double agent who betrayed its United States spy ring this year and has sent a contract killer to assassinate him, according to a newspaper report published yesterday.
Ten spies, including the glamorous Anna Chapman, were rounded up by the FBI in July and sent back to Moscow in exchange for four Russians imprisoned for spying for the West.
At the time, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said the 10 had been betrayed, and that he knew the name of the traitor.
That name stayed secret, until yesterday. The Russian newspaper Kommersant identified a Colonel Shcherbakov, an employee of the SVR foreign intelligence service who headed the department responsible for handling sleeper agents in the US, as the double agent.
The paper's sources said Shcherbakov had been working for the Americans for some time and fled to the US shortly before the arrests were made. If true, he would be one of the most senior defectors since the Cold War ended.
The paper also quoted a Kremlin official who insinuated a hit squad had been dispatched to the US to kill Shcherbakov.
"Don't doubt that a Mercader has already been sent after him," said the source, referring to Ramon Mercader, the Soviet agent who killed Leon Trotsky with an ice pick in Mexico in 1940.
"The fate of such a person is unenviable ... living every day in fear of retribution."
Kommersant said Russia's intelligence community was still in shock over the events, and a wide-ranging investigation of the SVR was under way into how obvious warning signals, including the fact that Shcherbakov's daughter lived in the US, had been overlooked.
Information about the 10 spies and the events leading to their arrest has been hard to come by. The only one who's been spotted in public is Chapman, who has taken part in a number of candid photoshoots and is apparently working for a Russian bank. The fate of the other spies is unclear.
However, Kommersant gave new insight into Mikhail Vasenkov, who was known as Juan Lazaro and had posed as a Uruguayan but was actually born in Siberia.
Vasenkov first spied in South America under cover of working as a press photographer, before moving to the US with his Peruvian wife Vicky Pelaez. She allegedly wasn't aware of his real identity.
Kommersant claims Vasenkov's cover was blown when Shcherbakov entered an interrogation room with a dossier containing his real name and place of work.
The paper also claims had three ribs and a leg broken in interrogation, returning to Russia with these injuries.
Both sides want to ensure the fallout from the spy scandal doesn't derail the much trumpeted "reset" in relations between Moscow and Washington.
If the Kommersant story is true, American behaviour throughout the episode is a marked departure from standard Cold War practice when such a high-level defection would have been paraded to the world.
Instead, there's been no leaked information from Washington on how the arrests came about.