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Murdered In Montenegro, Or Living In Suburban Virginia? Unraveling The 2017 American Spy Story

September 10, 2019

By Aric Toler

On September 10, 2019, CNN reported that the United States helped a Russian government official flee after working as a spy for American intelligence in 2017 — all reportedly due to concerns regarding President Trump and his administration’s handling of “classified intelligence”. The CNN report was sparse on details, but it was enough to identify a runaway Russian government official who fits the bill:

In a previously undisclosed secret mission in 2017, the United States successfully extracted from Russia one of its highest-level covert sources inside the Russian government, multiple Trump administration officials with direct knowledge told CNN. (…) The decision to carry out the extraction occurred soon after a May 2017 meeting in the Oval Office in which Trump discussed highly classified intelligence with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and then-Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak.

There are two pieces of information in these CNN quotations that allow further investigation: The source was a higher-up in the Russian government, and the decision was made in May 2017, meaning that the escape from Russia likely happened either in May or June 2017.

The New York Times also reported on the “source” late on Monday, noting that he was recruited by American intelligence “decades ago“. The Times also noted that this spy did not work directly with Putin, but was near him, likely pointing to an official somewhere in the Presidential Executive Office (also called the Presidential Administration):

The informant, according to people familiar with the matter, was outside of Mr. Putin’s inner circle, but saw him regularly and had access to high-level Kremlin decision-making — easily making the source one of the agency’s most valuable assets.

These two stories kicked off a search for a potential American spy who worked in the Russian government, leading to the re-discovery of the mysterious 2017 disappearance of a Russian official and his family in Montenegro. And although CNN and the Times did not initially name a potential informant — there has been plenty of direct speculation in Russia.

Who Disappeared From Russia In Mid-2017?

The most likely candidates for a high-level government source in Russia would be either a senior official in a key ministry, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or Ministry of Defense, or Putin’s powerful Presidential Executive Office, which seems closer aligned to the official detailed in the New York Times report. The sudden disappearance abroad of a mid-level or senior official from one of these governmental organs would surely raise headlines, and the disappearance of one such official did.

In September 2017, the Russian independent media outlet Daily Storm (no relation to Daily Stormer) published a story on the disappearance of Oleg Smolenkov, a long-time diplomat and official in the Presidential Executive Office, and his family, including his wife and three children. Smolenkov, per the Daily Storm report, went to Montenegro with his family on vacation on June 14, 2017, and had not been heard from again.

Russian authorities opened a murder investigation into the disappearance of Smolenkov and his family, but the matter was closed without resolution. As Daily Storm noted, Oleg’s wife has two social media profiles on the VKontakte site (which were also found by Bellingcat, along with her Instagram and two Facebook accounts) that had logins a week after the disappearance, on June 21st. There has been no public-facing social media activity on VK, Facebook, or Instagram, outside of a VK login, since the family’s June 2017 disappearance.

Smolenkov’s Role In The Kremlin

Oleg Smolenkov was a fairly senior official in the Russian Presidential Executive Office, working under Yuri Ushakov, a long-time diplomat and current adviser to President Putin on international affairs. There is no easy one-to-one comparison of Ushakov to an American or European counterpart, but his role in being a direct adviser to Putin on international affairs has a rough approximation of Jason Greenblatt or John Bolton to President Trump, or Ben Rhodes to President Obama.

Smolenkov was a long-time aide to Yuri Ushakov, making him a potentially valuable source of information if he was indeed cooperating with U.S. intelligence services.

In a Telegram post, Ilya Shumanov, longtime expert on Russian internal affairs and corruption, wrote what he considered Smolenkov’s role was within the Russian government:

“If it’s true that the person who disappeared across the border with his family, Oleg Borisovich Smolenkov, actually did work for American intelligence, then this is not about ‘some government clerk in the Office of Presidential Affairs’ who fled across the border. Oleg Smolenkov was in the inner circle of Presidential adviser Yuri Ushakov. Up until his disappearance, he held the position of chief adviser in Ushakov’s apparat. Back when Ushakov held the ambassador position in the United States, Smolenkov worked as a second secretary in the Russian Embassy. Before this, Smolenkov held various posts in the monetary-finance department and in the administrative apparatus of the Foreign Ministry. Smolenkov also worked in the Europe department of the Foreign Affairs Ministry, which had several years prior been headed up by his patron, Ushakov. From all this, we can say that Smolenkov was in Ushakov’s inner circle for at least fifteen years.”

The Russian government official who disappeared in 2017 is named Oleg Borisovich Smolenkov and was born in 1969 — a man named Oleg Borisovich Smolenkov born in 1969 has criminal violations (likely minor, traffic-related offenses) in Virginia in 2006, when Smolenkov was working at the Russian Embassy in Washington D.C.

Furthermore, numerous open records corroborate the claim that Smolenkov was a Second Secretary at the Russian Embassy in Washington D.C.

Was Smolenkov The Spy?

Probably, but it may be more prudent to say he was spy, and not necessarily the spy that CNN and the Times reported on.

While it is possible that Oleg Smolenkov, his wife, and their three children were all murdered in an unsolved case while on a family vacation in Montenegro, it’s more likely they’re now living in northern Virginia under government protection.

A series of records have been filed since June 2018 showing that “Oleg and Antonina Smolenkov” — the same names as the husband & wife who disappeared in Montenegro in 2017 — bought a house in suburban Virginia for $925,000. NBC visited the house and were soon greeted by “young men in an SUV” (apparently government protection) who were monitoring the residence and questioned the journalists.

A number of Russian media outlets, most notably the business daily Kommersant, have also reported on Smolenkov and his residence, with quotes from Russian government sources corroborating the claim that he fled Russia after working as some sort of intelligence asset. Additionally, Kommersant reported that the FSB discovered that Smolenkov was still alive and living in a different country after investigating his Montenegro disappearance. On Tuesday, Dmitry Peskov said that Smolenkov did indeed work at the Presidential Executive Office, and was fired “several years ago“, making it unclear if he was fired before or after his disappearance to Montenegro. In comments on Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov underscored that he has never talked to or met Smolenkov.

While the dates for the reported operation to sweep away a spy from Russia to America aligns with the timeline of when Smolenkov and his family mysteriously disappeared in Montenegro, we cannot say with certainty that Smolenkov is the same spy detailed in these anonymously-sourced reports.

Instead, we can say that it is quite clear that Smolenkov was clearly acting as a spy or in a spy-adjacent role for the American government — it’s hard to imagine another scenario to account for the Montenegro disappearance and men in black providing security for his house in suburban Virginia. With this in mind, he very well may be the same spy as the one described in the initial CNN report, but there is still the possibility that there is another spy who was whisked back to America at roughly the time as Smolenkov, thus causing some media outlets to conflate the two.

Conclusion

We at Bellingcat have uncovered the identities and activities of Russian spies and security service officers through a number of methods that often include mistakes from Russian bureaucracy and petty corruption within the country. For example, we were able to identify 305 GRU officers — though most of these men worked mundane desk jobs and weren’t undercover agents — through a common car registration address, used to avoid traffic fines and the tax man. Last year, we also showed how Albania accidentally revealed the identities of many of its undercover intelligence operatives through exposed financial documents.

The easy identification of Oleg Smolenkov as a former Russian government official and apparent spy who fled Russia in 2017 through connecting a local media report (Daily Storm) and publicly available, Google-indexed property records in Virginia shows that a bit of digital sleuthing can show the apparent incompetence of intelligence agencies in America just as it has in Russia.

Aric Toler

Aric Toler started volunteering for Bellingcat in 2014 and has been on staff since 2015. He currently heads up Bellingcat's training efforts and its Eastern Europe/Eurasia research.

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11 Comments

  1. Elai

    Is it incompetence to have them buy a house in Virginia under their real names, or is it just not actually that risky?

    Like, hey Moscow we got you good, not like you’re going to do anything about it!

    Reply
    • Servus

      It’s obvious that the exfiltered spy needs protection in a hidden place. Typically former spys were given new identity, some had plastic operations etc.
      So I doubt that they really live in this house and even own it, this is just too good to be true. The purchase could be an element in a trap, honey pot’ or some other game…
      To early to jump onto any conclusions.

      Reply
      • Our Man in Vienna

        They already interviewed the neighbors. It’s quire clear he lived there with his family until Monday night. They left their stuff all over the yard.

        Reply
  2. Maks

    I wonder if and how this will impact negotiations regarding Ukraine… Also if this relates to John Bolton’s leave.

    Reply
    • Rob

      This extraction happened (Jun 17) under Pompeo.
      And Pompeo was not fired today, so Pompeo did not make this decision.
      That means the decision to extract this spy came from Trump himself.

      Reply
  3. anastasia

    the house is obviously a ruse. if he was that valuable a target to the russians, he certainly wouldnt buy a house in his name and make sure that his wifes name was on the deed too

    Reply
    • FG

      “Obviously” you know everything about this and have a far superior insight to everyone else involved.

      Reply
  4. Rob

    Several things don’t make any sense on this story about Smolenkov.

    Allow me to reason with evidence :

    For starters, let’s investigate the question of why the US extracted a Russian spy who was providing information to the US for decades, and thus was obviously a very valuable asset. Why was it extracted in June ’17 ?

    The CNN narrative was that the spy was extracted by the CIA because “concerns that President Donald Trump and his administration repeatedly mishandled classified intelligence”.
    https://www.cnn.com/2019/09/09/politics/russia-us-spy-extracted/index.html

    However, that does not make any sense, since the identity of the spy would almost certain NOT be known to Trump. Just like Obama, he would receive the information that came from these skies in security briefings, but not the identity of the spies that provided it. Especially when the information is highly classified :
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/world/national-security/obama-putin-election-hacking/?utm_term=.95ae9e608c1a

    Also, if Trump was the risk-factor here, then that would put Pompeo in an awkward position, since Pompeo would have extracted a spy from Russia just because he thought that Trump would spill beans ?
    Apart from the fact that Pompeo is extremely loyal to Trump, this scenario does not make sense, since Pompeo would have had to be the one revealing the identity of the spy to Trump in the first place.

    So, this (CNN) scenario does not make any rational sense at all.

    The NYT quoted “other current American officials” that the real reason this spy was extracted was “media scrutiny of the agency’s sources alone.”
    https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/09/us/politics/cia-informant-russia.html

    Now, let’s investigate that claim.
    The media did not, and have not since June 2017, revealed anything about the identity of any high-level information sources from within the Russian government.

    If anything, the Steele dossier came closest to revealing sources, because of the highly detailed discussions going on within the Putin administration going on about interfering in the US elections.
    Nothing else came even close.

    The Steele document was released by BuzzFeed in January 2017, 6 months before the CIA extracted Smolenkov.
    So the Russians knew that there was a mole in their mids, but obviously they did not know who it was, or they would have arrested Smolenkov between Jan and Jun 2017.

    So what was the real reason that the CIA extracted a valuable asset like Smolenkov in June 2017, after multiple decades of providing information ?

    I think the following scenario makes a lot of sense :

    Putin convinced Trump to take out the spy that revealed that Russia meddled in Trump’s US 2016 elections, and caused “RussiaGate”.

    Trump convinced Pompeo to take out the spy in the Kremlin.

    Pompeo, who is very loyal to Trump, did.

    That’s a win-win for Trump and Putin, and they could even agree that he would keep his own name so they could both track him in the future.

    Reply
    • BonzaiBoy

      I like your scenario up to the point where Putin allows Pompeo to extract. Why would he allow someone with a 20 year career of spying walk out of the country? And why would he allow US intelligence assets in to enable the extraction.

      What a PR coup if he had a) arrested Smolenkov trying to flee; b) arrested a CIA team trying to get him out; c) revealed that the Steele dossier possibly had validity (only after further interrogation and trial would that be revealed, of course…Trump could make it easier for Putin and thus make the problem “go away”) ; d) learn a great deal about CIA methods and contacts in Russia and elsewhere.

      Of course this assumes that Pompeo was notified of the extraction.

      The whole idea hat the CIA would put Smolenkov in a safe-house purchased under his own name flies in the face of logic. Unless trade-craft has collapsed under Pompeo’s mandate there would be no way that this would occur. A false identity would have been created and the money for the purchase would not have come from Smolenkov’s account but from a CIA dummy account. I suspect it was a ruse to draw out potential assassins or moles in the US who might come visiting to check out the lead.

      I was able to go on-line and find the house in a matter of minutes. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8oxnWbxFOhw

      You don’t really think that the CIA would not have scrubbed a video of a safehouse that shows every nook and cranny, window, doors (without security systems), surrounding woods and yard, etc. As you can see by the comments there has already been attention paid to it, and threats, even prior to the published report.

      This is a dangle job that has been contrived by a phylactologist.= 😉

      Reply
    • Servus

      The idea that Russians let Smolenkov out in some sort of deal is highly improbable for me. Russians have serious problems with security, what holds the whole circus together is greed and fear, so money can buy secrets, and they need to exemplary arrest and sentence the traitors. Like recent spectacular arrest of 3 high FSB officers, one responsible for Kremlins cyber security.

      CIA gave several confidential briefings to congressional committees on Russians’ meddling into US election, difficult to imagine that some details did not leak out. Trump have certainly boasted or showed inside knowledge of Kremlin.
      So Russians must have been actively looking for a mole. Maybe other moles reported the narrowing chase….

      By successfully exfiltrating Smolenkov, CIA told its spys ´we take care of you and your family…..and look what a luxury house and life waits for you in Washington’! The sales video of the house must be commented in Russia ‘Smolenkov.. what a guy, have you seen his new datcha in US?’

      So, rather then a failed hideout, a brilliant destabilization and recrutement operation.

      Reply
  5. Tracey Thakore

    Without no body there is no crime.
    With the “perils,” of such a job, is the risk of any assasination by any opposing Government “spy.”

    Reply

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