He looked rather like a businessman in a hurry, clad in a tan trench coat and bounding up the stairs of the plane. As he neared the top, he turned and gave a wide wave, as if bidding farewell to friends. Though his behavior seemed unexceptional, even banal, that was no ordinary traveler boarding the Aeroflot jet at Dulles Airport last week. He was Vitaly Yurchenko, the Soviet KGB agent who had disappeared from a Rome street one sunny day last summer and turned up several weeks later as a defector in CIA hands. Identified initially as the fifth-highest official in the KGB, Yurchenko was touted as the most important catch in decades and a striking example of how Moscow's finest have grown disillusioned with the Soviet system. If CIA officials were to be believed, Yurchenko's defection had jolted the Kremlin.
Yet it was Washington's turn last week to be stunned. In an astonishing turnaround, Yurchenko, in effect, redefected to Moscow, leaving behind a furor of questions, doubts and recriminations that promise to echo for months. Did Yurchenko simply have a change of heart, one brought about by the dark gremlins haunting a homesick mind, or by despair over being spurned by a Soviet girlfriend living in Canada? Or was he an ingenious fake, his flight to the U.S. and subsequent reversal shrewdly planned by the Soviets to humiliate the Reagan Administration and to glean secrets from debriefing sessions with the CIA? Either way, Yurchenko's flip-flop deeply embarrassed CIA Director William Casey and his agency. "You've either got a defector who was allowed to just walk away under circumstances I can't accept or you have a double agent planted on the U.S.," said Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. "No matter what, something is wrong."
The saga of Yurchenko was played out against a backdrop of defection politics that further taxed the Administration. In Afghanistan a Soviet soldier who had sought refuge at the U.S. embassy in Kabul finally left in the company of the Soviet Ambassador last week, but only after the embassy had been ringed by hundreds of Soviet and Afghan troops for five days and its electricity and phone lines cut off. In New Orleans, a dispute continued to simmer over the fate of Miroslav Medvid, the Ukrainian sailor from a Soviet grain freighter who jumped ship twice, only to be returned both times. After Ukrainian-American groups protested that Medvid had been pressured by the Soviets into retracting his request for asylum, Republican Senator Jesse Helms took the extraordinary step of issuing a subpoena for Medvid to appear before a Senate committee (see following story).
The aborted defections prompted Ronald Reagan to suggest that they might be a "maneuver" by the Soviet Union on the eve of the Geneva summit. "Coming as they do together," he told reporters, "you can't rule out the possibility that this might have been a deliberate ploy." But, Reagan candidly admitted, "there is no way we can prove or disprove it." As for Yurchenko, the President acknowledged that he was genuinely confounded. Said Reagan: "I think it's awfully easy for any American to be perplexed by anyone who could live in the United States and would prefer to live in Russia."