Peter Debbins was a Minnesota university student with dreams of making the world a better place when he agreed to spy for the Kremlin: “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,” Debbins would later tell US prosecutors.
Debbins’ mother was born in the Soviet Union and he was fascinated by his grandmother’s stories about life under communism, so he studied international relations and Russian to get closer to his family’s roots.
“He went to Russia as part of a study abroad program, many do. The GRU spotted him but didn't put much effort into the recruitment of him, nor the handling of him during the early years of the relationship,” said Christopher Burgess, a former CIA officer for more than 30 years.
Debbins was planning a career in the US military and joined the University of Minnesota’s ROTC, the Reserve Officers' Training Corps. He also fell in love during one of his study trips abroad to Chelyabinsk, in western Russia, and was soon engaged to Yelena Selyutin, the daughter of a Russian air force colonel.
Grooming a Russian spy
It was the Cold War and Debbins was now on the radar of the GRU, Moscow’s military intelligence. They decided to test the divided loyalties of the 21-year-old American with a Russian fiancé. The GRU invited Debbins to a meeting, a pleasant meal and a drink at a hotel. At first, they played spy games. Could Debbins discover the names of four nuns at the local Catholic church without raising suspicion? Would he like a code name?
They later offered gifts in exchange for US defense intelligence – a bottle of cognac, $1,000, a Russian military uniform. If Debbins needed to contact his handlers in an emergency, he was told to send a postcard using his new codename, Ikar Lesnikov, with a message: ‘Happy Victory Day’ or ‘Happy Mother’s Day’.
It was thrilling and dangerous. Debbins was born in 1975 into a family of 17 children - 10 of them adopted - and he was seduced by the GRU’s attention. During a later trip to see Yelena, he signed a written pledge to ‘serve’ Russia using his codename, and referred to himself as a ‘loyal son of Russia’.
Debbins would later say he was worried about what might happen to his wife’s family if he didn’t cooperate, and his defense lawyer suggested Debbins was blackmailed into cooperating. Yet, Debbins also admitted feeling the US was too powerful and needed to be ‘cut down to size’.
Whatever his reasons, Debbins was now a Kremlin mole, a deep-penetration agent prepared to burrow – as John le Carré would say – into the very fabric of Western society.
A double life
By 1999, Debbins was a married US Army Lieutenant stationed in South Korea, supplying Russia with the details of his mission, the number of men in his unit, and their equipment. His handlers weren’t satisfied, however. The GRU told him to aim higher.
Within five years, Debbins was a Captain in the US Special Forces, the elite Green Berets who engage in dangerous missions like hostage rescues. He was stationed in Germany with top-secret security clearance when his promising career came to a crashing halt.
Debbins had brought his wife on a mission to Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic, and allowed Yelena to use his US government-issued phone, security breaches that led to an honorable discharge in 2005.
Angered about how his military career had ended, Debbins debriefed the GRU on Green Beret operations in Europe and named names, describing US soldiers with useful intelligence and others likely to be sympathetic to Russia. It was a betrayal that shocked his US brothers-in-arms.
“My detachment commander sold me out to Russia,” one officer told the US court in East Virginia. “For the rest of my life, I will need to stay vigilant for possible threats to my safety. I will always have to consider if it’s safe to travel to destinations outside of the United States. I will always fear for the safety of friends and family.”
Whether Debbins betrayed his country out of anger, revenge, or his love of Mother Russia - spies often have more than one motive - he was finished talking about ideology at this point. Debbins wanted money. He asked the GRU to help organize a business deal in Russia. His handlers had other ideas, however. They wanted Debbins to ingratiate himself into Washington’s intelligence circles as a private contractor.