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.
The lost decade
Curiously, US court documents only cover the 15 years up to January 2011, although Debbins had a remarkably successful intelligence career in the private sector with top-secret clearance from at least 2014 to 2019.
"He constantly positioned himself to provide first-hand information on a plethora of topics to include signals intelligence, chemical and biological weapons, nuclear weapons, cybersecurity, and cyber operations," Burgess said.
He was a defense contractor working on a cyber platform for Army counterintelligence for four years. At various points, he was also a National Security Agency analyst, lectured on Russia, and became a specialist in hybrid warfare - a strategy that mixes conventional warfare with clandestine methods like fake news.
Was the GRU still pushing their mole to aim higher when Debbins lobbied for a job as a National Security Council advisor to Donald Trump? Or when he moved to England in 2017 to coach NATO and US EUCOM analysts on cybersecurity?
Debbins, an ex-soldier discharged for security breaches – a man whose father-in-law was a Russian air force colonel – was repeatedly given top-secret clearance to work on some of the most sensitive military projects in the world.
“The red flags are brightest when viewed in hindsight,” Burgess said. “The fact that his father was a colonel in the Russian military may not have been revealed, and background checks are difficult to conduct outside the United States.”
The end game
Debbins’ downfall came when he made a mistake during a standard interview and polygraph test to renew his security clearance in 2019. He later confessed to spying while in the US military, but maintains he stopped when he was a private contractor with access to top-secret intelligence.
Prosecutors argued that Debbins’ prime motivation for spying may have begun with ideology but soon turned financial: “Debbins willingly jeopardized the security of his country and the safety and well-being of his teammates for monetary gain and to exact revenge.”
Debbins’ lawyers described him as “an intelligent yet troubled man who was taken advantage of at a young age by a foreign government and could not find a way out”.
The extent of his damage may never be fully known.
Russia’s ‘son’ was sentenced to more than 15 year in prison in May 2021 after a 25-year career as an elite soldier, private contractor, and Kremlin spy guiding US security.
The long game may be up, but many questions remain.