Peter Debbins operated as a mole within the United States Army from 1998 through 2010 for Russian intelligence. The genesis of this covert relationship began during his university years when he was spotted and assessed by the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff (GRU), Russia’s military intelligence service while on a study-abroad program in the city of Chelyabinsk. Upon graduation from the University of Minnesota in September 1997, Debbins received a reserve commission in the United States Army and reported for active duty in July 1998.  Shortly after graduation, he returned to Chelyabinsk for some unfinished business.

His girlfriend was anxiously awaiting his return prior to their marriage in November 1997. The GRU was equally as anxious to learn whether the fish on the hook, Debbins, was going to be landed.

Code Name: Ikar Lesnikov

Debbins arrived in Chelyabinsk in September 1997 for a ten month stay to his waiting fiancé. In October, RIS-1, the GRU intel officer who met with Debbins in 1998 contacted him and asked to meet. They met on the Russian Air Force base located at Chelyabinsk Shagol Airport – a second intel officer was introduced, RIS-2 from Samara, Russia. The GRU still had their fish on the line. Now they had to land it and that they did.

This meeting served as the starting point for the multi-year clandestine relationship with young Debbins. For both operational security purposes, as well as to exercise control, he was given an alias, “Ikar Lesnikov.” Additionally, they had him write an incriminating statement declaring his intent to serve Russia. He signed the statement in his new alias.

At the conclusion of the meeting, RIS-2 urged Debbins to visit him in Samara prior to his return to the United States.

GRU was now giving Debbins ample opportunity to get used to wearing the cloak of clandestinity with the threat of blow back upon Russia at a minimal level.  His, father-in-law, a Russian military officer no doubt had been tasked to monitor Debbin’s frame of mind during the months prior to his son-in-law’s departure for the United States.

(Note: Debbins did not know he was dealing with the GRU. He thought that he was dealing with the Federal Security Service (FSB), the internal security service of Russia.)

Debbins solidifies the covert relationship with the GRU

Before leaving, Debbins contacted RIS-2 in Samara and traveled by train the 530 miles from Chelyabinsk to Samara – 17 hours. It would appear from a close read of the indictment that his wife, Yelena Selyutin, did not make the trip. In Samara, he was taken to a “countryside resort” along the Volga for a few days.

The significance of Samara is worthy of approbation.

While Chelyblinsk is an active Air Force base, and no doubt had GRU officers attached to the base, Samara is where the headquarters of the GRU’s 3rd Guards Spetsnaz Brigade (Military Unit Number 21208 aka “Warsaw-Berlin Brigade”) is located. Given he was heading into the U.S. Army, the more robust billet of intelligence officers trained in handling human intelligence (HUMINT) sources were in Samara.

Prior to departing, RIS-3 urged Debbins to “serve well in the U.S. Army” and then issued him an operational telephone number located in Russia. It was a number to be used whenever he wanted to contact Russian intelligence. When calling, he was told to use his operational alias – Ikar Lesnikov.

Debbins departed Russia in July 1998 as a committed Russian intelligence source. He was a source whose motivation appears to have been centered on ideology and heritage.

He had no tasking; He was just given the direction to do well and was provided a means to communicate covertly. The GRU was in no hurry and as of July 1998, Debbins had little to no access to information of interest.

You’re in the Army Now Debbins

From July 1998 through December 2005, Debbins served as an active duty U.S. Army officer. He was assigned to various billets as he advanced from 2nd Lieutenant to Captain. Throughout his military service, the indictment indicates his only contact with the GRU occurred when he would travel to Russia on leave to visit his wife’s family.

At no time does it appear that the GRU attempted to task or meet with Debbins anywhere except in Russia where they controlled the environment and risks. They were content with debriefing Debbins about his military units and assignments during his periodic visits to Russia.

All in all, Debbins traveled to Russia four times over the course of seven years.

Trip to Chelyabinsk While on Assignment in South Korea

The first trip was in June 1999 following his assignment in South Korea where he served within the 4th Chemical Company. During this trip, he called the number he had been given by RIS-3 and was met by RIS-2 in Chelyabinsk. It was during these meetings that Debbins sorted out that he was dancing with the GRU and not the FSB.

When Debbins expressed his desire to leave the military, RIS-2 urged him to remain. Apart from debriefing Debbins on his unit in South Korea, there was no collection of intelligence nor tasking.

His handler, RIS-2 challenged Debbins with the accusation he was actually working on behalf of U.S. intelligence. Debbins assured RIS-2 he was “committed to Russia.” Debbins was asked if you would be comfortable employing electronic equipment for the Russians and whether he was willing to be polygraphed. Debbins, said he had no problem with either.

Then RIS-2, issued to Debbins another layer of covert communications, this time an accommodation address located in Samara. If Debbins needed to make contact with the Russians, a postcard to the identified address would serve as an emergency signal. The crafting of the postcard text was to include a greeting (Happy Mother’s Day or Victory Day) and then signed with the alias, “Ikar Lesnikov.”

Trip to Moscow During Leave from Fort Polk, LA

The following year was 2000, and Debbins returned to Russia, while on leave from Fort Polk, LA. These meetings apparently occurred in Moscow and not Chelyabinsk. The GRU introduced a new asset handler, RIS-4, who told Debbins that he too was from Samara. Debbins was debriefed on his Fort Polk unit. Over the course of the meeting, Debbins expressed interest in joining the Special Forces. RIS-4 encouraged Debbins to do so, as the GRU had no need for “an infantry officer.”

Again, the GRU added another level of control and compromise to the equation; RIS-4 insisted that Debbins take $1,000 as gratitude for his assistance. Though initially declined, he acquiesced and signed a receipt in his operational alias “Ikar Lesnikov.”

This was to be the only documented remuneration received by Debbins.

Following this trip to Russia, Debbins was debriefed by U.S. Army S2 associated with his Fort Polk brigade on his travel to Russia. His answers to their questions must have been satisfactory, as Debbins would transition to the Army’s Special Forces and in 2003, he was assigned to Germany and the 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group.

Back to Chelyabinsk after Three Years Away from the Motherland

Following a three-year hiatus, in August 2003, Debbins traveled to Chelyabinsk and contacted his operational phone number advising the GRU that he was in town. RIS-5 and RIS-6, two intelligence officers previously unknown to Debbins met with him in a local Chelyabinsk hotel. He was debriefed about his Special Forces unit, with Debbins providing basic tactical information on unit composition, location, and role.

RIS-5 and RIS-6 urged Debbins not to take a polygraph and at the same time offered him training on how to deceive the polygraph. When the meeting concluded, Debbins was given a Russian military uniform and a bottle of Cognac.

U.S. Army S2, again debriefed Debbins on his travel to Russia and based on his continued service and subsequent deployment to Azerbaijan, they were satisfied with his responses. The court documents show that in 2003, Debbins was required to file an SF-86 and that the SF-86 failed to note his contact with various Russian intelligence officers over the preceding five years.

The indictment gives no indication that any operational meetings with the GRU occurred between August 2003 and August 2008.

The GRU, demonstrating tremendous patience was allowing Debbins to grow his career without unnecessary risk. They were counting on his rising to a position of access and were simply content with keeping their relationship warm and active.

In November 2005, Debbins was honorably discharged from active duty and assigned to inactive reserve from December 2005 until 2010.

Debbins, back home to Minnesota

Unbeknownst to the GRU, following discharge from the Army, Debbins and family moved back to St. Paul, MN in November 2005. Public records tell us they purchased a home for $220,000, which they would retain until 2018 when they would sell it at a loss at $202,500.

From December 2005 through November 2006, Debbins identifies himself as a market representative for Eastern Marketing Solutions, and from December 2006-December 2010 associated with Trademark Transportation Inc. Both appear to be legitimate jobs, allowing Debbins to find his way in the world of commerce. There are no outward indications that Debbins is living beyond his means. In 2007, his wife, Yelana Selyutina goes to work as a masseuse, following her vocational training at the Minneapolis School of Massage and Bodyworks. All appears normal.

Debbins, a GRU source with no access

After a five-year hiatus, Debbins and family travel to Chelyabinsk for vacation from August-September 2008. Upon arrival, he contacts his ops line and announces his presence. RIS-5, who was known to Debbins, came to the meeting with a new colleague, RIS-7. It was at this meeting that the Russian’s learned that their penetration of the U.S. Army was now in the inactive reserves and had terminated his active duty in November 2005. Whether he shared his security problems encountered in Azerbaijan which resulted in his losing his security clearances is unknown.

Debbins Spills His Guts With Old but Welcome Information to Russia

Though his information was dated by three years, RIS-5 and RIS-7 nonetheless debriefed Debbins about his Special Forces unit’s mission in Georgia and Azerbaijan. Portions of this information is confirmed to be classified SECRET/NOFORN.

In addition, Debbins provided his personal assessment of a variety of colleagues from within the Special Forces. This information was provided so the Russian’s might determine if the individuals might be approached by the GRU. Debbins, ever the collaborator identified a specific Special Forces member whom he thought would be receptive to an approach by the GRU.

Also identified to the GRU were two U.S. counterintelligence officers who had approached Debbins to participate in a U.S. counterintelligence program. He expressed his anger and frustration to the Russians about his time in the U.S. Army and reemphasized how he wanted their assistance to do business with Russia.

GRU Switches Gears with Their Approach with Debbins

RIS-7 provided his cover company’s contact information and instructed him to make sure his family was aware that Debbins was now working with (as in doing business with) the company as cover for the operational calls from the Russians.

Tasking to provide copies of Army field manuals, which Debbins said he had access, was levied. He was to bring these to his next meeting with the GRU – Debbins didn’t.  When he traveled next to Chelyabinsk in September 2010, he told RIS-5 and RIS-7 that he was fearful of being detected bringing the U.S. Army Field Manuals to Russia. Debbins was told to focus on seeking U.S. government employment.

During this trip, the GRU introduced what appears to have been a commercially covered officer. He asked Debbins to collaborate and provide leads for infrastructure projects. Whether this was legitimate or simply a means to move communications to email, it is known that Debbins reached out to a Special Forces teammate to urge him to participate, thus identifying the individual to the GRU.

Debbins, via email, told this “businessman” he was moving to the Washington D.C. area, and in January 2011, he confirmed the move.

GRU is about to hit the jackpot with Debbins

While there is no indication any “business” was every consummated between the Russian businessman and the GRU, Debbins began what would be a four-year stint with defense contractor, Mission Essential Personnel in January 2011. His duties would include providing research and analysis to support customer activities in Central Asia and Eastern Europe.

While not in the U.S. Government, Debbins was embarking on a career within the defense and intelligence sectors for the next ten years until his arrest on August 21.

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Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher, served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. He lived and worked in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008). He is the founder of