Russian agents made an attempt to assassinate a former Russian agent turned CIA informant on American soil in 2020, according to multiple sources.
This incident has been cited as a major factor in the deteriorating relationship between the United States and the Russian Federation.
The New York Times first reported on this development, which was later revealed in Calder Walton's upcoming book, Spies.
The target of the assassination plot was Aleksandr Poteyev, a former Russian agent who defected to the US. Poteyev's defection led to a significant counterintelligence operation that resulted in the capture and expulsion of nearly a dozen Russian spies embedded along the US eastern seaboard. Evidently, Russian agents sought revenge against defectors like Poteyev living abroad.
Russian agents orchestrated an operation in 2020
According to three former senior US officials who spoke with NYT, Russian agents orchestrated an operation in early 2020 to track Poteyev in his new hometown of Miami.
Allegedly, a Mexican scientist named Hector Alejandro Cabrera Fuentes was coerced into participating in the plot.
Fuentes, whose family members were reportedly prevented from leaving Russia, rented an apartment near Poteyev's residence for surveillance purposes.
Instructions from his Russian handlers led Fuentes to tail Poteyev, which eventually resulted in a security breach. Fuentes and his wife were spotted by security agents and cameras seemingly at Poteyev's apartment complex, as they were photographing Poteyev's license plate.
Realizing their cover was blown, the couple fled to Mexico but were apprehended at the US border and subsequently arrested.
It is believed that Fuentes was unaware of the ultimate objective of the operation and was likely tasked only with providing initial intelligence on Poteyev's whereabouts. While the US government has not publicly acknowledged the operation, NYT suggests that it played a significant role in the expulsion of approximately 11 Russian diplomats in April 2021, including a high-ranking member of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR).
Fuentes's lawyer declined to comment on the allegations surrounding his client's involvement in the case. In 2022, Fuentes received a federal prison sentence of undisclosed length.
The Department of Justice (DoJ) described his offense as acting "as a Russian agent," specifically citing his accusation of photographing Poteyev's car. Notably, the DoJ's news release omitted Poteyev's name, referring to him only as a "US person." Similarly, the identity of Fuentes's wife was not disclosed in the publicly available documents pertaining to his sentencing.
In light of Fuentes's actions and the subsequent investigation, the DoJ's sentencing announcement stated that "the manner in which Fuentes communicated with the Russian government official and his undertakings in this case are consistent with the tactics of the Russian intelligence services for spotting, assessing, recruiting, and handling intelligence assets and sources."
The announcement further revealed that Fuentes had failed to notify the US Attorney General, as required by law, of his activities as an agent of the Russian government.
Presently, Fuentes is serving a four-year prison term for his failure to register as a Russian agent. The current whereabouts of Poteyev remain unknown.
Growing list of accusations against Russia
This attempted assassination on American soil adds to the growing list of accusations against Russia regarding assassinations abroad.
The murder of FSB whistleblower Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2007, using the nuclear isotope polonium-210, is believed to have been orchestrated by Moscow.
Additionally, Russia faced international condemnation for the 2018 attempted murder of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England, where the nerve agent novichok was used. While the Skripals survived, Dawn Sturgess, who handled the poisoned perfume bottle, tragically lost her life.
Notably, in 2007, London authorities arrested an alleged assassin suspected of targeting exiled Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky, who was found dead in his bathroom in 2013, with the death ruled a suicide.
The inquest into the death of Russian whistleblower Alexander Perepilichny, who collapsed while jogging near his British home in 2012, heard allegations of possible poisoning.
In 2019, Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a former Chechen rebel commander, was shot dead while cycling through Berlin's Tiergarten Park. Vadim Krasikov, a Russian citizen, was convicted of his murder, leading to the expulsion of two Russian diplomats from Germany.