A former active-duty officer in the U.S. Army was arrested Friday and accused of conspiring to spy for the Russian government over a period of 15 years.
Peter Rafael Dzibinski Debbins, 45, of Gainesville, Va., is scheduled to appear in Alexandria federal court next week. He faces up to life in prison.
Debbins first went to Russia at 19 and visited repeatedly over the next several years, according to the indictment. During his first visit, in 1996 as a college student in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, he met twice with Russian intelligence agents, the indictment alleges.
The following year, Debbins joined the U.S. Army and served until 2005, including in the Special Forces. He continued meeting with Russian intelligence, according to prosecutors, allegedly taking the code name “Ikar Lesnikov” and signing a statement of allegiance. The indictment alleges he was aware they worked for the Russian spy agency known as the GRU.
Debbins provided information on his Special Forces unit to the Russian operatives, according to prosecutors, along with the names of counterintelligence operatives and a Special Forces team member he thought might be cooperative. The Russian agents requested Army field manuals but Debbins deemed it too risky to provide them, according to the indictment.
He was at one point given $1,000 by the Russian agents, prosecutors allege, a sum he initially declined, along with a bottle of cognac and a Russian military uniform.
Although Debbins was stripped of command and his security clearance was suspended for a 2004 violation when he was serving in Azerbaijan, it was restored in 2010, the government said.
Army officials could not immediately be reached on Friday. It was not immediately clear what security violation he committed. Being relieved of command likely would have hurt his chances at progressing in the Army, but the service released him with an honorable discharge.
By 2010, Debbins had left active duty and was working for a Ukrainian steel manufacturer in Minnesota, according to prosecutors. But that year his Russian intelligence contacts urged Debbins to again find work with the U.S. government, according to the indictment.
After leaving the Army, Debbins moved to Washington and worked at Fort Meade as a Russian analyst, he said in an alumni profile for the Institute of World Politics published in 2018. He said he also worked for three years with CACI, a defense contractor, and as a contractor for the firm CoSolutions, working at U.S. European Command while based in the United Kingdom.
Debbins said in the profile that his mother was born in the Soviet Union and was taken captive by the Germans during World War II. She and her family were taken to internment camps and performed slave labor for the Nazis, he said.
Debbins said he has 17 siblings, including 10 who were adopted, and went to Russia every summer while in college to study the language while preparing to join the U.S. military.
“Because I spoke fluent Russian, I was never posted to Iraq or Afghanistan,” Debbins said in the profile. “Instead, I served in the Caucasus, Germany, and the Balkans.”
A family member reached by phone Friday said the allegations were inaccurate and Debbins had always supported and helped the U.S. government while maintaining an interest in his Russian heritage.
The relative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of privacy concerns, said the agents misinterpreted communications with elderly grandparents in Russia as nefarious. She said Debbins had been cooperative with federal agents since last year and voluntarily went Friday to what he thought was another meeting: “We thought it was over.”
“They’re abusing their power against our family just because we’re Russian,” the relative said. “The U.S. government has something against the Russian government and that’s the reason.”
The arrest is the second espionage case charged this week; an ex-CIA officer in Hawaii was arrested Monday and accused of giving classified data to China.
“We must remain vigilant against espionage from our two most malicious adversaries — Russia and China,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers said in a statement.