When U.S. intelligence busted a Russian spy ring earlier in the year, a disgusted Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sounded an ominous warning to any Russian spy masters who might have helped the United States to ferret out Anna Chapman and her cohorts.
"Sellouts always end up in a ditch, either drunk or drugged," Putin said at the time. "The other day one such traitor kicked the bucket, exactly like that, abroad."
Apparently, Putin, a former head of the Soviet KGB, wasn't talking through his hat. The Russian government seems to be determined to help the latest sellout shuffle off his mortal coil. According to an unidentified Kremlin official quoted in the Russian newspaper Kommersant, assassins have been dispatched to track down and kill the double agent known as Colonel Shcherbakov, revealed Thursday to have been the ringleader of all Russian deep-cover spy operations in the United States.
The anonymous official predicted that the turncoat "will carry this with him all his life, and will fear retribution every day," though his days may be short.
"We know who he is and where he is," the official said. "He betrayed us for money, or simply to harm something. Do not doubt that a Mercader has been sent after him already." Ramon Mercader was the Russian agent who killed Leon Trotsky in Mexico with an ice ax in 1940.
It's believed that Colonel Shcherbakov defected to the United States -- where his daughter was already living -- along with his son in the summer, just before the spy ring was busted. They are all now presumably living under the protection of American intelligence.
The Russian government reportedly had no inkling of any potential leaks within the spy ring organized by Shcherbakov. Russian intelligence officials now regard it as one the biggest failures in the history of the country's spy operations. "There has never been such a failure by Section S, the American department that Shcherbakov directed," one Russian lawmaker told the Kommersant.
One thing is for sure: Russian agents don't take the task of meting out retribution lightly. The most notorious recent reminder of this tradition was the purported 2006 gradual poisoning of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko -- who accused Putin of being a pedophile, among other things. Commentators at the time noted how the elimination of Litvinenko, who had been living as an exile in Britain, closely followed a plotline from a James Bond film.
Good luck, Colonel Shcherbakov.
(Photo of Putin hunting tigers: AP/Alexei Druzhinin)