According to three former senior American officials, Putin sought to kill a double agent in Florida through a clandestine operation.
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As President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has pursued enemies abroad, his intelligence operatives now appear prepared to cross a line that they previously avoided: trying to kill a valuable informant for the U.S. government on American soil.
The clandestine operation, seeking to eliminate a C.I.A. informant in Miami who had been a high-ranking Russian intelligence official more than a decade earlier, represented a brazen expansion of Mr. Putin’s campaign of targeted assassinations. It also signaled a dangerous low point even between intelligence services that have long had a strained history.
“The red lines are long gone for Putin,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former C.I.A. officer who oversaw operations in Europe and Russia. “He wants all these guys dead.”
The assassination failed, but the aftermath in part spiraled into tit-for-tat retaliation by the United States and Russia, according to three former senior American officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss aspects of a plot meant to be secret and its consequences. Sanctions and expulsions, including of top intelligence officials in Moscow and Washington, followed.
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The target was Aleksandr Poteyev, a former Russian intelligence officer who disclosed information that led to a yearslong F.B.I. investigation that in 2010 ensnared 11 spies living under deep cover in suburbs and cities along the East Coast. They had assumed false names and worked ordinary jobs as part of an ambitious attempt by the S.V.R., Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, to gather information and recruit more agents.
In keeping with an Obama administration effort to reset relations, a deal was reached that sought to ease tensions: Ten of the 11 spies were arrested and expelled to Russia. In exchange, Moscow released four Russian prisoners, including Sergei V. Skripal, a former colonel in the military intelligence service who was convicted in 2006 for selling secrets to Britain.
The bid to assassinate Mr. Poteyev is revealed in the British edition of the book “Spies: The Epic Intelligence War Between East and West,” to be published by an imprint of Little, Brown on June 29. The book is by Calder Walton, a scholar of national security and intelligence at Harvard. The New York Times independently confirmed his work and is reporting for the first time on the bitter fallout from the operation, including the retaliatory measures that ensued once it came to light.
According to Mr. Walton’s book, a Kremlin official asserted that a hit man, or a Mercader, would almost certainly hunt down Mr. Poteyev. Ramón Mercader, an agent of Joseph Stalin’s, slipped into Leon Trotsky’s study in Mexico City in 1940 and sank an ice ax into his head. Based on interviews with two American intelligence officials, Mr. Walton concluded the operation was the beginning of “a modern-day Mercader” sent to assassinate Mr. Poteyev.
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