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.