MOSCOW (AP) — 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 — asking her to "try to take it calmly" — 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 U.S. in July, testified during the closed trial that only Col. 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.
Ms. Chapman testified that she was caught after an undercover U.S. agent contacted her using a code that only Col. 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. Ms. 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 Col. 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 Col. 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."
Col. Poteyev's grown son and daughter reportedly have been living in the United States for years.
His court-appointed lawyer, Andrei Kucherov, said Col. 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." Mr. Lyubimov said, according to Interfax.
The court said Col. Poteyev had overseen the Russian sleeper agents in the U.S. as deputy head of the "S'' department of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service.
In addition to Ms. Chapman, other agents also confirmed that only he had access to the sensitive information that allowed the U.S. authorities to apprehend them, the RIA-Novosti news agency said.
The court said Col. Poteyev had begun working for American intelligence in 1999 or 2000 — betraying the agents, their means of communication and financial information. It said Col. Poteyev had sought to hamper the agents' work by forcing them to meet in places that were unsafe and providing them with inferior equipment.
The Russian spies were given a hero's welcome when they returned home, and President Dmitry Medvedev bestowed them with the nation's highest awards in October.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a 16-year veteran of the KGB, sang patriotic songs with the spies to celebrate their return. Mr. Putin warned in December that traitors come to a bad end and "whatever equivalent of 30 pieces of silver they get, it will get stuck in their throats."
Unlike other members of the spy ring who have stayed out of the limelight, Ms. Chapman has basked in the attention. She has stripped down to lingerie for a photo shoot by the Russian edition of Maxim under the caption "For Your Eyes Only," become the new celebrity face of a Moscow bank, joined the leadership of the youth wing of the main pro-Kremlin political party and hosted a TV program.