Crossroads of a Crisis: Spies use global chaos as cover

The Dupont Circle Hotel in Washington, Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015. Mikhail Lesin, a former aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin who helped found the English-language news service Russia Today, was found dead in the upscale Washington hotel room, Russian authorities said. He was 57. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Declining Western support for Ukraine. A massacre in Israel followed by war in Gaza. The disarray in the U.S. Congress. In his new series “Crossroads of a Crisis,” WTOP’s National Security Correspondent J.J. Green’s delves into the three weeks in October when the world changed dramatically. And while many have been distracted by the chaos, Russian spies have launched a secret espionage operation in the U.S. 

For years, Robert Baer lived in the trendy Dupont Circle neighborhood. After a long career as a clandestine CIA operative abroad, he understood what the signs of intelligence activity were. He also knew his own neighborhood was a hotbed of foreign activity. Much of it, he believed, was connected to the Russian government.

“The FSB is known to run operations out of the Russian Cultural Center,” according to Baer, who said he knows this, because “I used to live right around the corner from it.”

Read Part 1 of “Crossroads of a Crisis”: The storm no one saw coming

The Federal Security Service (FSB) is Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, but in the last 20 years, its responsibilities have expanded to include spying operations abroad.

Baer, author of the recently released nonfiction book, “The Fourth Man, The Hunt for a KGB Spy at the Top of the CIA and the Rise of Putin’s Russia,” has always been disquieted by suspicious foreign intelligence activities in the U.S.

His concern ran even deeper in Dupont Circle because of a tragic incident that seems to point directly to Russian intelligence.

Former Russian media mogul Mikhail Lesin was found dead in a Dupont Circle hotel room on Nov. 5, 2015. The mysterious nature of his death, declared “accidental,” still bothers many intelligence and law enforcement officials because of concerns that it might have actually been a Kremlin assassination on U.S. soil.

During a recent visit to the scene of Lesin’s death, Baer told WTOP that he was skeptical about the official cause of death, “which suggests he got drunk, fell and died.”

Baer said, “he had injuries all over his body. It doesn’t fit any experience I’ve had with hard drinking and people who’ve died from it.”

For Baer, it fit the profile of someone who was beaten to death. It led him to a disturbing conclusion: “There are no barriers that Vladimir Putin has in front of him to stop him from committing an assassination in the United States.”

Numerous current and former U.S. intelligence and government officials have told WTOP they believe that may have been what happened.

Concern about suspicious Russian intelligence activities led the FBI to issue a warning several months ago to a specific group of people.

Churches warned about Russian intelligence threat

At some point in 2023, the FBI sent a serious warning to Russian and Eastern Orthodox church leaders in the U.S.

The message read in part:

“ … The FBI decided to share the specific and sensitive Investigative information below to provide tangible examples to the Russian Orthodox and other Eastern Orthodox communities of the threat posed to them by the (RIS) Russian Intelligence Services.”

The threat emanated from a man named Dmitry Ivanovich Petrovsky.

He had been stopped, incredibly, more than two years earlier by U.S. authorities as he tried to enter the U.S.

According to the FBI warning, which WTOP obtained a copy of, he was suspected of being “a Russian Intelligence Officer operating under nonofficial cover, as a lay person staff member in the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).”

Petrovsky’s likely mission, a search of the laptop he was carrying revealed, was possibly to coerce church clergy and employees into spying for Russian intelligence.

The FBI warning said:

“ … files obtained via the border search identified perceived vulnerabilities of ROC clergy and ROC employees very likely for use as kompromat, (compromising material) in an effort to blackmail employees into participating in Russian intelligence operations.”

WTOP learned about this during an interview in late September with Russian investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov, whom the Russian government is seeking to capture.

Soldatov said, “many, many people are now either trying to leave Russia or have already left. The FSB, the SVR (Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service) and Russian military intelligence are trying really hard to penetrate these communities, because it is a way for them to replace positions (spies) they lost last year.”

In 2022 hundreds of Russian diplomats were expelled from Western countries after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Many of the diplomats were suspected of being spies.

What’s the connection to the church?

The church, Soldatov said, “is one of the organizations which was always quite close to the Russian security services.

“It’s been true for a long time going way back to the middle of the Cold War, that the KGB used the Russian Orthodox Church,” said Baer.

On Oct. 3, WTOP reached out to a top official at a local Orthodox church to ask about the message from the FBI.

The official replied, “Please direct your inquiries to the [REDACTED] Orthodox Archdiocese of America.” The Archdiocese did not respond.

We asked the FBI. They responded with a statement.

“While we have no comment on the specifics of your inquiry, the FBI regularly meets and interacts with members of the community. We do this to enhance public trust in the FBI, to enlist the cooperation of the public to fight criminal activity, to provide information in support of crime prevention efforts, and to open lines of communication to help make the FBI more responsive to community concerns. As always, we encourage members of the public who observe threatening or suspicious activity to report it to or to their local field office directly.”

Global chaos ‘a dream’ for Putin

Moscow has, according to Western intelligence sources, launched a full-fledged undercover influence campaign to destroy support for Ukraine in the west.

The objective is allegedly to use global instability as a distraction. The U.S. House of Representatives, paralyzed for weeks without a speaker, may have played a key role.

The FBI’s concerns about Russian intelligence recruitment efforts in the U.S. coincide with stepped up Kremlin activities overseas to silence its critics and Ukraine’s supporters.

“There’s a lot of people being poisoned all over Europe,” said Bill Browder, author of “Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice.” He, like Soldatov, is also on the Kremlin’s hit list.

And it’s not just people who live in Europe that need to be concerned.

Natalia Arno, head of the Free Russia Foundation, based in Washington, D.C., narrowly escaped death while traveling in Europe, during the summer.

She returned to her hotel room and, “found the door open. Immediately, as soon as I entered the room, I sensed a very unpleasant, very strong smell.”

A few days later, she was back in the Washington area at a hospital in the suburbs of Alexandria, Virginia.

“What started to worry me was a numbness of my hands and feet and along the spine,” said Arno.

She was an American citizen and had been poisoned. She believes Russian intelligence operatives are responsible.

Numbness is a characteristic of poison agents that Russian intelligence operatives are known to use. Russian opposition figures Vladimir Kara-Murza and Alexei Navalny, both now serving long prison terms in Moscow, suffered similar symptoms after being poisoned.

Concern that something like that might happen on U.S. soil may be a part of the reason why two years after Petrovsky was stopped, the FBI warned the church.

‘Not the KGB of the Cold War’

Baer said Russian intelligence needs to increase its presence in Washington, “because they’re desperate.” And he warned, the new operatives are clumsy.

“The KGB we’re dealing with today is not the KGB in the Cold War,” he said, recalling the precision and expertise of their operations in past decades.

Today, many of those recruited are known to be untrained amateurs because of Moscow’s urgent need to resume its agenda — to shut down global support for Ukraine, by any means necessary.

“Vladimir Putin knows that he can’t beat Ukraine on the battlefield. So, his big bet is to beat Ukraine by us (the U.S.) no longer supplying Ukraine with military support and with financial support,” Browder said.

But intelligence sources say the Kremlin needs cover to do that. The chaos in the Middle East, appears to be just the smoke screen it needs.

After the Oct. 7 massacre in Israel, according to Browder, “you’ll notice that for the first two and a half/three weeks, there wasn’t a single news article about Putin [or] his crimes in Ukraine. Ninety five percent of the world’s attention and the media’s attention is now focused on the Middle East.”

As a result, he said, “this invasion by Hamas in Israel and the subsequent retaliation by Israel is just a dream for Vladimir Putin.”