Richard Zablauskas’s cat was stuck in a tree—a tree that belonged to his neighbors, who he believed were Russian spies.
It was the early ’90s, and the 50-year-old resident of Riverdale—an upscale part of Bronx in New York City—went to get some help. His cat, Frizbee, was perched on a limb hanging over Russia’s residency for the Permanent Mission to the United Nations—a drab, Soviet-style building surrounded by a large fence, a metal wall and coils of barbed wire.
Zablauskas asked the guards at the residency to let him in—and they refused. But when he returned with a ladder, they relented, allowing him to lean it against the fence and climb up to pluck Frizbee out of the tree. Looking down from the ladder, cat in hand, Zablauskas watched as children and mothers inside the compound stared up in disbelief. “Their security folks know exactly who every single person is in the neighborhood,” he says, “and they were watching me. It was the most I had ever seen of…the friendly neighborhood spies.”
For more than 40 years, Moscow’s diplomats have called this heavily guarded structure home, and Zablauskas is far from the first to suspect the Russians have used it for espionage. Intelligence analysts say that in the U.S., wherever there are Russian diplomats, there are also likely Russian spies. And the Bronx residency is no exception. In the 1980s, for instance, Arkady Shevchenko, a former Soviet defector, wrote in his book Breaking With Moscow that “the apartment building in Riverdale [the residency] and the mission…bristled with antennas for listening to American conversations.”
Russian diplomatic buildings have come under increased public scrutiny in the past year. After the U.S. accused the Kremlin of meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the Obama administration closed several Moscow-owned compounds, saying Russia had used them for intelligence purposes. When the Donald Trump administration took over, the U.S. further retaliated as Congress passed new sanctions against Moscow, prompting Russian vows to expel hundreds of American diplomats back home. That led the U.S. to another reprisal, this time closing Russia’s consulate general in San Francisco, along with two other buildings, one in Washington, DC, and the other in New York.
The residency in Bronx, however, remains open, even though former U.S. and Russian intelligence officials suspect Moscow used it as part of the 2016 election operation. Steve Hall is one of them. He is a retired chief of Russian operations for the CIA who oversaw the agency’s clandestine service in Moscow until last year. “It would be very likely that some of the activities that are now coming to light from the 2016 election cycle were indeed authored or supported by the Russian mission,” he says. “Not only in New York but also Washington and perhaps other places as well.”
Complex operations require a safe haven, Hall says, somewhere people can live and communicate over a secure line back to Moscow. “If you’re doing cyberoperations,” he says, “you have to have a place where that equipment, those computers and those systems, can function.”
A former Russian intelligence operative, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the subject’s sensitivity, agrees. “If an officer records an asset speaking during a private meeting, they may use this building to send that [conversation] back to Moscow, who will tell them if that asset is lying to them or is an informant.” He adds that the facility’s privacy and its close proximity to the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan make it the perfect place to host introductory meetings and other intelligence-related conversations.
“What the Russians do in the United States is what you saw in 2016—they recruit and run assets,” says Naveed Jamali, a former double agent for the FBI who worked against Moscow in the 2000s. “They’re looking for people who are upwardly mobile with access, who may be able to influence policy.”
Former FBI officials, who also asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record, say New York is the perfect location for Russia to recruit such assets and conduct intelligence operations. Moscow has an abundance of diplomatic facilities in the city, which allows it to protect more spies under diplomatic immunity than anywhere else in the country. The more diplomats Russia can place in a region, the easier it is to expand intelligence operations without American scrutiny. “Anywhere that there’s a Russian consulate,” says Jamali, “it is safe to assume that there are Russian spy handlers.”
And if the U.S. ever tried to raid or shut down the facility, the former Russian operative claims, the residency—like other diplomatic facilities—is equipped with an incinerator to destroy sensitive documents. “If you were wondering why the annex in San Francisco had a cloud of black smoke above it [recently], it’s because the U.S. was inspecting the building [the next day],” he says.
Former FBI officials say the bureau is well aware of what Russian diplomatic installations can be used for and routinely monitors each post—especially as the FBI continues its probe into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Moscow during the 2016 race. That could include occupying some of the homes in the area, as it did when it rented a cottage next to a Russian compound on Long Island, which the Obama administration shuttered last year. Some of the homes surrounding the Bronx residency are owned by untraceable limited liability companies, though it remains unclear if they have any connection to the bureau.
“It would not surprise me if there were nearby locations the FBI would use in support of its counterintelligence mission against the Russians,” says Hall. “That would certainly be my expectation.”
For Zablauskas, the man who lives across the street from the residency, that means his neighbors may not just be spies. They may also be feds. None of which seemed to frighten his feline, who died more than a decade ago.
“It certainly wasn’t Frizbee’s first time attempting to defect to the Russians,” he recalls of his cat’s arboreal antics. “But that day was the farthest she ever got.”