Who Is Peter Dzibinski Debbins? Ex-Green Beret Sentenced on Russian Espionage Charges

Former Amy Green Beret Peter Dzibinski Debbins was sentenced to more than 15 years in prison Friday on espionage charges after he admitted to divulging military secrets to Russia.

At his sentencing hearing, Debbins said he was victimized by the GRU, the Russian intelligence service, and said he is at risk of Russian retaliation for admitting his work with them.

His lawyer said Debbins' actions caused minimal damage and that he was blackmailed by Russian agents threatening to expose his same-sex attractions during the "don't ask, don't tell" era of his U.S. military service.

"I have suffered in lonely silence for 25 years," Debbins said. He added that he is in danger, saying "the GRU does not make threats; they keep promises."

 Peter Dzibinski Debbins Russia
A group of protesters hold placards reading "Yankee go Home - No way to USA", in Istanbul, on April 14, 2021, during a demonstration against the US decision to send two warships to sail through Turkey's Bosphorus to the Black Sea. A former U.S. Army Green Beret was sentenced for over 15 years in prison on espionage charges after he admitted to giving military secrets to Russia. Ozan KOSE/AFP via Getty Images

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Prosecutors, in seeking a 17-year term, said Debbins never told the FBI anything about being blackmailed during 20 hours of interviews. They said he's fabricated the excuse and that his original explanation of his motive is far more likely, that he was bitter about his time in the Army and that he considered himself a "loyal son of Russia."

And they said the very fact that a Special Forces soldier agreed to betray his country is just as damaging as any particular information he betrayed.

"The world has now observed that Russia successfully placed an espionage recruit within the elite U.S. Army Special Forces, a propaganda victory for Russia at the expense of the reputation of the Special Forces," prosecutors Thomas Traxler and James Trump wrote in their sentencing brief.

Debbins' relationship with Russian intelligence dates to 1996 and spanned 15 years. It began when he was an ROTC student at the University of Minnesota and on a visit to Russia gave a handler there the names of four Catholic nuns he had visited after a Russian intelligence agent told him the nuns were involved in cult activity.

In later years, he provided details about activities of his Special Forces unit overseas and the names of fellow Special Forces members.

Debbins entered active-duty Army service in 1998 and by then had already committed in writing to serve the Russians and had been assigned the code name "Ikar Lesnikov."

In a handwritten confession filed in court, Debbins wrote that in 1997, he gave Russian intelligence a signed statement saying that "I want to serve Russia."

"I had a messianic vision for myself in Russia, that I was going to free them from their oppressive government, so I was flattered when they reached out to me," Debbins wrote.

He later joined the Special Forces and served there until 2004, when he was a captain assigned to Azerbaijan. But he was dishonorably discharged for a security violation, specifically for relocating his wife to Azerbaijan and providing her with a U.S. government cell phone.

In 2008, he traveled to Russia and gave intelligence agents information about old Special Forces unit's activities in Georgia and Azerbaijan. A damage assessment of what Debbins disclosed was filed under seal — Debbins said in sentencing papers that he thought he only gave the Russians information they already knew.

Debbins received nominal payments for his information, even though he initially refused an offer of a $1,000 cash payment. In one meeting with Russian intelligence, he accepted a bottle of Cognac and a Russian military uniform as payment, according to the indictment.

Raj Parekh, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, whose office prosecuted the case, said in a statement after the hearing that "the defendant's brazen disclosures to Russian intelligence agents jeopardized U.S. national security and threatened the safety of his fellow service members. This prosecution underscores our firm resolve to hold accountable those who betray their sworn oath and bring them to justice for their exceptionally serious crimes."