MOSCOW — A senior Russian intelligence officer convicted of working for the United States fled Russia on a train just before the Americans busted his 10 sleeper agents.
Details of Col. Alexander Poteyev's quick escape and farewell text message to his wife were among evidence produced by the court Monday as it found him guilty in absentia of high treason and desertion.
Pinup spy Anna Chapman, one of the 10 agents deported from the United States in July, testified during the closed trial that only Poteyev could have provided the information that led to their arrest last summer, Russian news agencies reported, citing a summary of the evidence read by the judge as he issued his ruling.
Chapman testified that she was caught after an undercover U.S. agent contacted her using a code that only Poteyev and her personal handler knew, the reports said. She said she immediately felt during the meeting that something was wrong and called her handler in Moscow, who confirmed her suspicions. Chapman and others were arrested shortly after.
The agents, who were arrested a year ago Monday, were deported in exchange for four suspected Western agents who had been imprisoned in Russia. It was the biggest spy swap since the Cold War.
The Moscow military court sentenced the 59-year-old colonel to 25 years in prison and also stripped him of his rank and state medals.
The court said Poteyev got word that the agents were being rounded up in the United States and was in such a hurry to leave Russia that he rushed out of a meeting at intelligence headquarters, the Interfax news agency reported. It said Poteyev fled to Belarus, crossed the border into Ukraine and then moved west to Germany and, finally, on to the United States using a passport in another person's name.
He had no time to say goodbye to his wife and later bid his farewells in a text message: "Mary, try to take this calmly. I'm leaving not for some time, but forever. I didn't want to, but I had to. I will start my life from scratch and will try to help the children."
Poteyev's grown son and daughter reportedly have been living in the United States for years. His court-appointed attorney, Andrei Kucherov, said Poteyev's wife believes he is innocent and wants to join him in the United States.
Mikhail Lyubimov, a veteran Soviet spy, described the court's ruling against Poteyev as "symbolic."
"He must be rubbing his hands together and laughing at that together with his family somewhere in the U.S.," Lyubimov said, according to Interfax.