The Russian Spy Who Came in Through the Email

Moscow says it nabbed the alleged spy in 2013. Why did it announce his arrest this week? Thomas Peters/Reuters

Updated | One of the lowliest jobs in the CIA is an assignment to the digital version of the mail room, where interns and office drones sift through the river of emails flowing into the spy agency from its public website. Only once in a blue moon does something interesting turn up in all the messages from wannabe spies, students looking for help with their term papers, critics howling about torture and untold thousands of certifiable nuts who insist they're getting radio messages through their teeth.

Every once in a while there's a speck of gold panned from the silt. In 2009, according to Russian news reports, Roman Ushakov, a 33-year-old Interior Ministry policeman in Siberia, sent an email to the CIA via its public website, offering to rat out his co-workers and superiors. Over the next four years, according to Thursday's announcement from the Moscow prosecutor, he gave the agency reams of coded messages from inside the Ministry of Interior, known as the MVD, which is responsible for a wide variety of domestic investigations, ranging from drug trafficking to organized crime and corruption.

Ushakov may have been a lowly policeman, and "readers might wonder why that would be of interest to the CIA," says Mark Stout, a former CIA and State Department specialist on Russia. But "the ministry of internal affairs at least potentially has a great deal of information that might be useful to the United States."

Such information "includes both Russia's national-level police force and also the [MVD troops] who are very roughly analogous to the U.S. National Guard," says Stout, who directs a graduate program in national security and intelligence studies at Johns Hopkins University. "On both grounds the MVD might be interesting [to the CIA]. As the police force, the ministry would possess information about Russian politics, corruption, and organized crime—information that could help the United States frame its foreign policy vis-a-vis Russia. Meanwhile, the [interior ministry] troops play an important role in Chechnya and other hot-spots, so it might be interesting in that regard."

According to one news account, Ushakov was a kind of spotter for the CIA, providing Langley with the identities of roughly a dozen agents in the FSB, Russia's version of the FBI. These agents were assigned to "closed" towns and scientific research bases in Siberia, "where Russian strategic missiles are located, and uranium and plutonium is manufactured." The Russian authorities said they caught Ushakov while he was searching for a fake rock that held instructions and an installment of the reported $37,000 the CIA supposedly paid him over four years. He also met with CIA operatives in Finland, Spain and Turkey, according to reports.

A former CIA operative in Moscow called the reports "bizarre enough to be true—especially about the CIA website for contact, which seems rather hard to believe." And "those rocks," he added on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence methods, "have been in use for about 40 years."

But two former CIA officers with long experience combating Russian intelligence said the case smelled like a classic deception operation run by "the Center," as Moscow's spy headquarters is known. "It's difficult to imagine that Ushakov is for real," said Colin Thompson, who spent much of his career targeted on Soviet Russia. "First, the internal directorate of the FSB certainly monitors the CIA website, and the CIA should view any Russian volunteer using that channel as a likely provocation or, if not, a fool who should be ignored…. And how can this police officer travel the world for meetings with CIA officers?" he said. "You think his absences wouldn't attract attention? And all this for the names of some FSB officers located in the ice fields of Siberia?"

"Smells like 'chicken feed' from a dangle," said another former operative, referring to the ersatz defectors that spy services "dangle" in front of each other. "A low-ranking FSB guy would not likely travel abroad so freely," he said on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive trade craft. "Maybe FSB let him travel to establish contact." And the reason Ushakov gave for volunteering to spy for the U.S.—that he was refused a better job? "A classic tell of a dangle is limited access," said the former operative. That way, he has a plausible reason for telling the CIA "he can only get certain info, not top secrets." Perhaps Ushakov was genuine in the beginning, he said, but Russian intelligence almost certainly would have have noticed his open email to and "flipped him."

Whatever his value to the CIA, Ushakov certainly ranked far below the many Russian colonels and generals who spied for the U.S. during the Cold War, at least a dozen of whom were caught and executed after being betrayed by Moscow's own moles in the CIA and FBI. But if Ushakov was only in a position to read interior ministry cables, as Russian news reports suggest, he was still a valuable spy.

Thursday's announcement of Ushakov's 2013 arrest prompted immediate suspicion that Russian authorities timed it to distract attention from last week's professional-style assassination of a prominent opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, on a street just outside the Kremlin's walls. But the Russian media, having broadcast a variety of spurious, Kremlin-inspired theories deflecting responsibility for the murder away from President Vladimir Putin and his allies, has largely dropped the subject.

More likely, some longtime observers say, the announcement of the case is the Kremlin's response to the FBI's bust of a Russian spy ring in New York in January. Last month authorities in Moscow also announced the arrest of Eugene Petrina—a priest from the Russian Orthodox Church's powerful external relations wing, responsible for outreach to foreign governments and branches of the patriarchy—on suspicion of spying for the U.S.

"Since Russia is constantly embarrassed over [the arrest of] their spies, this is certainly a payback—a kind of, 'You catch our spies and we catch yours,'" says Nina Khrushcheva, a professor of international affairs at the New School in New York and the great-granddaughter of former Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev.

But the announcement of the priest's arrest and Ushakov's conviction also serves to reinforce the Kremlin's drumbeat that "the menacing West is doing everything in its power to undermine Russia's power," said Khrushcheva, the author of the 2014 memoir The Lost Khrushchev: A Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind.

"First, they say that the CIA, State Department, the White House or some such killed Nemtsov to provoke more protests and blacken Putin's reputation. Now it's, 'They recruit spies.' So when the Kremlin says 'the West is out to get us,' they now supposedly have 'factual evidence,' i.e., this spy case, to show for it," she said.

Meanwhile, back in at CIA headquarters, the email room crew keeps sifting through the silt, hoping to find something that glimmers.

Jeff Stein writes Spytalk from Washington, D.C. He can be reached more or less confidentially via