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Fleeing Russian spy told wife to "be calm"

MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Russian spymaster was convicted of treason in absentia Monday for betraying 10 U.S.-based agents in one of Moscow's most embarrassing intelligence failures since the Cold War.

"Mary, try to take this calmly: I am leaving not for a short time but forever," Colonel Alexander Poteyev wrote in a text message sent to his wife as he fled Russia, and read out to the Moscow military court. "I did not want this but I had to. I am starting a new life. I shall try to help the children."

The unmasking of the Russian spy ring last June, just days after President Dmitry Medvedev's Washington summit with Barack Obama, was a major embarrassment for the Kremlin which has sought to improve ties with the United States.

A judge at the court, meeting in closed session, said Poteyev, a colonel in Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), had inflicted "significant damage to Russian security," Interfax news agency reported.

The judge, who was not named in the local media reports, said that Poteyev had passed details about how Moscow finances and communicates with its spies working abroad to the Central Intelligence Agency.

Poteyev, deputy head of the SVR's "S" department that oversees "deep cover" spying operations, was sentenced to a 25-year prison term. Court materials were classified as "secret."

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB spy, said last year that traitors come to a bad end and a Russian newspaper quoted Kremlin source as saying a hitman had been sent after the man who betrayed Russia's spying operation.

The unmasking of the spy ring made Poteyev one of Russia's most senior turncoats in decades and weakened Foreign Intelligence Service chief Mikhail Fradkov, a former prime minister.

All 10 Russian agents arrested in the United States pleaded guilty and were deported to Russia in a swap for four people imprisoned in Russia for contact with Western intelligence agencies.

As deputy director of deep cover operations -- spies known as "illegals" because they operate with false identities with no diplomatic cover -- Poteyev had access to almost all the secrets about Russia's spying operations in the United States.

Such was the damage to the reputation of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service that Russian media reported that it was having to fight off attempts to fold it into the powerful Federal Security Service (FSB), the main successor of the Soviet-era KGB.

Poteyev, who had received state awards including a medal for "impeccable service," fled Russia by traveling to Belarus where U.S. intelligence agents spirited him back to the United States.

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Ralph Boulton)

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