As war rages, Russia may up its spy game in Seattle
The war in Ukraine has exposed Russia’s limitations in battlefield technology, and trade sanctions imposed by the west are further strangling Russia’s access to all forms of tech goods.
Some experts believe that means that Russia will ramp up its spying operations in U.S. cities that are rich with technology firms, and that includes the Seattle area.
“I think that Russian espionage will be more aggressive,” Russian journalist Andrei Soldatov told KING 5 in a video interview from London.
“Russian spies now believe they are in a war mode, meaning that more things are acceptable for them than before the war,” Soldatov said.
“Seattle remains a prime location for espionage to occur,” said Naveed Jamali, a former civilian double-agent for the FBI, who used to live in Seattle.
Experts say it’s not just technology. western Washington’s military bases, including the fearsome Trident nuclear submarines at Naval Base Kitsap and defense contractors like Boeing have valuable secrets.
“Russia’s emphasis and priority on collecting intelligence, that’s a fancy way of saying spying, has only increased as a result of Ukraine,” said Jamali.
Within the last decade or so, several cases have revealed Russia’s interest in stealing secrets in Seattle.
Mikhil Kutzik (alias: Michael Zotolli) and Patricia Mills (alias: Natalia Pereverzeva)
They were the private couple that lived on the fifth floor of the Belmont Court Apartments in Seattle in the mid-2000s.
Michael Zotolli and Patricia Mills had a son, held jobs and attended classes at the University of Washington’s Bothell campus.
“If you tried to talk to them on the elevator or in the hallway, they were just always very evasive,” said one neighbor in 2010, just days after it became public that the couple had been arrested and deported as Russian sleeper spies.
Using forged documents, Zotolli and Mills had created false identities and blended into American society.
“There are Russian folks undercover, essentially masquerading as Americans,” said Jamali.
Zotolli and Mills were rounded up in 2010 with eight other sleeper spies on the East Coast in a case the FBI called “Operation Ghost Stories.”
For years before then, agents secretly recorded photos and videos of spies handing off money and flash memory cards, burying packages in “dead drops” for other spies to pick up later and meetings between spies and undercover FBI agents.
Videos show Zotolli making several trips to New York to meet with other Russian spies. One video from 2006 shows Zotolli in a New York park digging up a duct-tape bound package that another spy had buried two years earlier.
When arrested by the FBI, documents show that the façade cracked and both Zotolli and Mills admitted to the roles as spies before they were deported to Russia.
Seattle’s Spy Base
In 2018, the federal government shut down what was believed to be a den of spying in the Pacific Northwest.
The Russian consulate in Seattle was an extension of the Russian embassy in Washington D.C., responsible for processing Russian visa applications, passports and other official documents.
Federal agents believed the Russian diplomats posted there were spies, and the Trump administration expelled them.
Experts say Russian diplomats are routinely military intelligence officers with high-level training in espionage. In “Operation Ghost Stories,” agents had recorded diplomats in New York handing off packages filled with cash to spies to fund their ongoing operations.
The U.S. never released specifics about the reputed spying at the Seattle consulate.
The Consul’s residence, a historic mansion called “Hyde House” on East Madison Street, still sits empty.
King County property records show the building is still owned by the Russian Consulate.
However, the grounds are controlled by the U.S. State Department, which said in a statement to KING 5.
“Under U.S. law, the Secretary of State can restrict access to such properties,” the statement read. “There has been no change in the status of the property in Seattle since March 2018.”
A Russian “asset” in Seattle
By the time Naveed Jamali had a brush with a suspected Russian spy in Seattle, he was already a well-known former “double agent.”
In the early 2000s, Jamali’s family in New York owned a business that supplied military textbooks and manuals to government agencies.
One day, FBI agents approached and informed the family that suspected Russian spies were regular customers at their store.
That was the beginning of Jamali’s relationship with the FBI, which blossomed into a plan to dangle the young Jamali before the Russians as a potential source ripe for recruitment.
“So, I became a double agent. And to make it very clear what my goal was, I was to have the Russian intelligence apparatus operating in the United States recruit me as a Russian spy,” Jamali told KING 5. “The whole time I was being recruited, I was really working for the FBI.”
Jamali says the plan was “crazy” and “unconventional,” but it worked. Three years later he reeled in a big fish, a Russian diplomat who was deported (he could not be arrested or charged because of diplomatic immunity).
Years later, Jamali wrote a book, “How to Catch a Russian Spy” and told his story on the lecture circuit.
After he moved to Seattle in 2016, he told his story to a community group at the downtown Westin Hotel.
It was there he was approached by a woman who set off his well-honed spy sense.
“I fully believe that she was a Russian asset who had been directed to make contact with me and try to see if I would talk or get me in a compromising position,” said Jamali, who once served as an intelligence officer in the Naval Reserve.
“I turned it all over to federal officials,” he said, adding that he is unclear if the FBI acted on his tip.
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“In a War Mode”
Russian journalist Andrei Soldatov is renowned for his inside reporting on Russia’s three spy agencies and is a senior fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis.
His reporting is increasingly restricted in his homeland.
"That is one of the reasons why I left the country in September 2020,” said Soldatov, from his London office.
Soldatov said he does not have any specific information about Seattle, but he does expect Russia’s “war mode” to raise the stakes for spies operating in U.S. cities with vibrant tech companies.
“The United States is the main target. So, I would completely expect that they have a lot of people on the ground, and they can use them now,” said Soldatov.
Soldatov said the current economic sanctions against Russia should not be underestimated.
“We had this situation before, back in the (era of the) Soviet Union. And the way the Soviet Union tried to fix this problem was to go to spies and ask them to steal some technologies from the West,” said Soldatov.
Soldatov said Russian president Vladimir Putin, a former intelligence officer, has spent decades building his spy machine.
Seattle may be one place where it’s already up and running.