MOSCOW — He drank too much, abandoned his sick, aged mother and — most important of all for Russia in its own account of the man portrayed in the United States as a highly valued spy burrowed deep into the Kremlin — he had no contact whatsoever with President Vladimir V. Putin.
Just hours after The New York Times and other American news outlets this week detailed how an unnamed Russian informant helped the C.I.A. conclude that Mr. Putin ordered and orchestrated a campaign of interference in the 2016 United States election, Russia fired up its propaganda machine to provide an entirely different picture of the same man, who the state-controlled news media identified as Oleg B. Smolenkov.
Instead of a superspy who saw Mr. Putin regularly and became “one of the C.I.A.’s most valuable assets,” he is now being presented by Russian officials, state-controlled news outlets and pro-Kremlin newspapers as a boozy nobody with no access to Kremlin secrets.
No American official has ever claimed the C.I.A.’s source was part of Mr. Putin’s inner circle. But nevertheless, if Mr. Smolenkov was the informant, he had a position of interest to the C.I.A.: an aide to a senior official close to Mr. Putin. Anyone in that position could have provided a vital flow of information to the United States government.
Dmitri Peskov, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, told journalists on Tuesday that Mr. Smolenkov had been fired several years ago from a modest position in the Kremlin “that did not belong to the category of senior posts.” This job, he added, “did not provide for any contacts with the president at all.”
Mr. Peskov said he could not confirm whether Mr. Smolenkov is indeed the alleged C.I.A. informant extracted from Russia in 2017 and described American news media accounts of the informant’s escapades as “pulp fiction.”
The C.I.A. declined to comment and The New York Times was not able to independently confirm that Mr. Smolenkov was indeed the spy extracted by the United States.
Much of what the Russian government was putting out through state-controlled media amounts to disinformation, said current and former American officials. The information about Mr. Smolenkov, they said, could not be trusted.
Playing down the importance of a rival’s recruits is as much part of spycraft as exaggerating the importance of those recruited by one’s own side.
“It’s pretty standard practice to magnify your own intelligence triumphs and minimize those of your rivals,” said Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia’s security system at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London. This is partly just an effort to control embarrassing publicity. But, he added, “the hope — probably vain — is to cast doubt in the minds of the other side’s intelligence managers and consumers of the real value of the source’s insights.”
Whether the former Kremlin official was as valuable as the Americans describe him or as derelict as the Russians now claim is a question of paramount importance.
On his bona fides rests an issue at the heart not only of Washington’s relations with Moscow but also American politics: just how accurate was the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion, made public in a declassified report in January, 2017, that Mr. Putin personally “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election” and developed “a clear preference for President-elect Trump?”
The informant extracted from Russia in 2017, whoever it was, had proved vital to the intelligence assessment about Moscow’s interference campaign. The informant’s reports in 2016 detailed Mr. Putin’s intentions and orders, and led to the C.I.A.’s declaration with “high confidence” that the hack of the Democratic National Committee was the work of the Russian government.
For the Obama administration, the inside source’s testimony was critical; it gave them what they were missing, an understanding of the role of the Russian leadership in this new, innovative attack on the American democratic process. It was the spy’s testimony that described a coordinated campaign that Mr. Putin himself ordered, as a public intelligence report, released in January, 2019, detailed.
Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, on Wednesday lashed out at reports of Mr. Smolenkov providing inside information to the C.I.A. on Russian election meddling, saying this was impossible “because there was no meddling.” He condemned what he described as “the piling up of one lie on top of another and the multiplication of slander about us.”
Mr. Ryabakov’s boss, foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, also weighed in, mostly to distance himself from Mr. Smolenkov. “I never saw him, never met him and didn’t follow either his career or his movements. And I don’t want to comment on rumors,” the foreign minister said.
Aleksei Pushkov, chairman of the information policy committee in the Russian Parliament’s upper house, accused the United States of leaking information about its Russian informant as part of an effort to revive “its old story about ‘Russian interference in the election.’”
He did not name Mr. Smolenkov but mocked him as someone who “supposedly knew everything about everyone.” He concluded: “The story is muddy, the goal is clear.”
Frants Klintsevich, a member of the defense and security committee of the upper house, said on his Facebook page that American news media reports of the extracted spy were “a routine attempt to discredit American President Donald Trump,” and said there was “no question of any American informant having worked ‘inside the Russian leadership.’”
Born in Ivanovo, a depressed former textile manufacturing center northeast of Moscow, Mr. Smolenkov seems to have joined the Russian Foreign Ministry straight out of college in the early 1990s. But his duties, according to Russian accounts, involved less high diplomacy than lowly administrative tasks like money transfers.
He worked for a time at the ministry’s Second European Department, which handles relations with Britain, Baltic states and parts of Scandinavia.
Sent to Washington around 15 years ago to work in the Russian embassy there, he appeared in diplomatic lists as a “second secretary” and was listed as being accompanied by his then wife, Regina. (He subsequently remarried a woman 16 years his junior, Antonina, who also worked in the Russian bureaucracy.)
While in Washington, the family rented a house in Norfolk, Va., but it is not clear whether the diplomat lived at this address, which is several hours’ drive from the capital. Mr. Smolenkov worked under the Russian ambassador at the time, Yuri Ushakov, a seasoned diplomat who later became Mr. Putin’s diplomatic adviser in the Kremlin.
It is not clear where or when the C.I.A. recruited its informant, though it was decades ago, according to people familiar with the matter. If Mr. Smolenkov was the spy, his tour of duty in Washington would have given the agency ample opportunity to cultivate him further.
Mr. Ushakov is precisely the kind of official close to Mr. Putin the agency was interested in. Since 2012, Mr. Ushakov, now 72, has served as Mr. Putin’s foreign policy aide in the Kremlin. And Mr. Ushakov has been involved in every major confrontation between Russia and the West in recent years — from the incursions into Ukraine to the annexation of Crimea to the confrontations over arms control with the U.S.
RIA-Novosti, a state-controlled Russian news agency, quoted an unnamed former colleague as saying Mr. Smolenkov’s duties at the embassy revolved around menial tasks like buying automobiles for the embassy car pool and goods for its shop. The colleague also said Mr. Smolenkov “often” drank and a “bit more than usual,” which is saying something in the context of Russia’s diplomatic corps. Another former associate said Mr. Smolenkov complained about his foreign ministry salary being too low.
After returning to Russia, Mr. Smolenkov appeared in a 2010 civil service ranking as a “third class” official serving as an adviser to the government. He left the government bureaucracy around 2012 and joined the presidential administration, a separate system, as an aide and then “chief adviser” to Mr. Ushakov, the former ambassador to Washington. He had an office in Old Square, a tightly guarded complex of buildings used by many of Mr. Putin’s officials down the road from the Kremlin.
Mr. Galeotti, the Russian security expert, said that Mr. Smolenkov’s position, though fairly lowly, would probably have granted him “considerable access.” That said, he added, the “Russians operate ‘compartmentalized intelligence’ based on need-to-know, and I’d be skeptical he’d have any sight of operational materials.”
As in many governments, Russia’s foreign policy professionals have wary relations with their country’s intelligence services, particularly the military intelligence agency, the G.R.U., which has been accused of spearheading Moscow’s election meddling. This makes it highly unlikely, experts say, that Mr. Smolenkov or even Mr. Ushakov would have had detailed knowledge of a secret program to disrupt American democracy hatched by Russia’s spies.
Mr. Smolenkov’s known curriculum vitae is so thin that it has prompted speculation on Russian social media that rather than providing the C.I.A. with secret inside information he merely acted as a “courier” to the Americans for information obtained by a more highly placed agent who has yet to be exposed.
But such speculation could itself be disinformation, as there is no easier way to thwart the operations of a country’s intelligence apparatus than planting seeds of suspicion of hidden traitors. In the 1960s and 1970s, the C.I.A. became paralyzed by an endless hunt for turncoats driven by James Jesus Angleton, the agency’s deeply paranoid counterintelligence chief.
The Russian and American accounts of Mr. Smolenkov’s activities diverge so sharply that even the manner of his escape from Russia is clouded by contradiction. United States officials describe a secret operation in 2017 to “exfiltrate” — spy talk for extract — him to safety. Russia, though, has detailed a far more mundane exit, saying Mr. Smolenkov took his second wife and their three children on holiday to Montenegro, a popular tourist destination for Russians on the Adriatic coast, and then traveled on to the United States, where he bought a house under his own name in Virginia for $925,000 in 2018.
The only certainty is that he and his family disappeared. Russian opened a murder case after they vanished but closed it when no bodies could be found. In the fall of 2017, friends of his son, Ivan, exchanged anxious messages on VKontakte, a Russian social networking site. “Is he dead or what?” asked one of Ivan’s friends. When this drew flippant responses, the friend tried again: “Seriously, what has happened to him?”
“God only knows,” replied another friend.