The FBI has arrested a Russian man as a spy, breaking up a trio of agents who allegedly sought to recruit New Yorkers into the service of the Kremlin’s foreign intelligence service.
Federal officers arrested 39-year-old Evgeny Buryakov – “aka Zhenya” – in the Bronx on Monday and charged him with conspiracy to gather intelligence on behalf of Russia. Igor Sporyshev, 40, and Victor Podobny, 27 – both of whom have left the US – were charged in absentia with the same offence, the office of prosecutor Preet Bharara confirmed.
At an initial court appearance on Monday, assistant US attorney Adam Fee portrayed Buryakov as a professional spy skilled at duplicity. “His life here, your honor, really, is a deception,” the prosecutor said.
Buryakov’s lawyer, Sabrina Shroff, lost an argument for bail after a magistrate judge agreed with the government that he had an incentive to flee since his cover was blown. Shroff argued the married father of two deserved bail, calling the charges “merely allegations”.
, the three Russians’ alleged mission was to recruit Americans and gather “economic intelligence” – meaning secrets of everything from bankers’ plans to US policy details and the workings of major US industries.
They were also accused of helping a “leading Russian state-owned news organisation” gather information which would help the SVR.
The complaint does not identify the news organization, but the complaint adds: “The news organization has been publicly identified by former SVR agents as an organization that is sometimes used by Russian intelligence to gain access to and gather intelligence under cover of the news media.” In recent years the Kremlin has made a push into western countries with state organs such as RT and Sputnik launching English-language versions and opening bureaus around the world. The Russian government also controls news outlets such as Tass and RIA Novosti.
In court, prosecutor Adam Fee said Buryakov had previously worked in a different country as a banker for Russia’s intelligence service, the SVR.
In 2010 the FBI broke up a similar “deep cover” spy ring, , and had for years lived in east-coast suburbia under false names. The mission of the “illegals” ended with between the US and Russia, which were then on comparatively friendlier terms under the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev. The Kremlin welcomed the Russian spies home as heroes, instantly elevating one, the auburn-tressed Anna Chapman, to the status of celebrity and fashion icon.
The officials charged on Monday were not impressed by their sleeper cell predecessors. Podobny told one of his colleagues: “They weren’t doing shit here, you understand.”
The latest arrests are likely to put further strain on US-Russian relations, which are already at of the cold war – largely due to Russia’s in east Ukraine.
complaint, Buryakov worked as a “deep cover” agent for the SVR. He entered the US as a civilian and posed as an employee in a Russian bank in New York, while reporting to Sporyshev and Podobny “using clandestine methods and coded messages”.
While in the US, Sporyshev and Podobny were both protected by diplomatic immunity – the former a trade representative and the latter an attaché to Russia’s permanent mission to the UN – but also named as SVR agents in the complaint. Sporyshev and Podobny “acted as covert intermediaries” for Buryakov, presumably reporting back to SVR superiors in Moscow.
A Evgeny Buryakov is listed as a “deputy representative” at Vnesheconombank (the Russian Development Bank), according to LinkedIn, but a representative there refused to confirm that he was the man who had been arrested. Vnesheconombank is not a commercial bank but a state-owned institution that works to “improve the competitiveness of the Russian economy”.
Mark Galeotti, an expert in Russian security services at New York University, said the latest arrests showed that “to the Russians, as it was to the Soviets, the intelligence services are sort of the Swiss army knife of the state. They’ve always got a tool.”
Galeotti said that the spies’ interest in economic information was part of a Russian shift to gain an advantage – or at least “make up for a shorftall” – with the west financially and technologically. “To think that you could find assets that can help you understand the secrets of modern finance doesn’t really make sense,” Galeotti said, “but for Putin there’s not really anything the security services can’t do.”
The complaint details how FBI surveillance teams watched the three men at as they slipped “a bag, magazine or slip of paper” to each other in outdoor locations, and how the Russians held brief phone calls – eavesdropped by the FBI – about delivering a “ticket”, “umbrella” or “hat” to one another. The justice department notes in wonder how only once did the men actually discuss going to a movie, but never actually attended or spoke about another event that would require tickets.
Instead, conversations intercepted by the FBI show that the two Russian officials talked openly about recruiting Americans, including employees of unnamed major companies and “several young women with ties to a major university located in New York”. Podobny even explained how he went about recruiting Americans, telling Sporyshev that he courted a New York consultant with “cheating, promising favors and then discarding the intelligence source”.
“This intelligence method to cheat,” Podobny says, is to “promise a favor for a favor. You get the documents from him and tell him to go fuck himself.”
Of that same consultant, Podobny says: “I think he is an idiot and forgot who I am.”
Podobny explicitly states in a recorded phonecall that he works for the SVR, and even expresses their disappointment that spycraft was not what they dreamed of. Podobny told his colleague, “The fact that I’m sitting with a cookie right now at the … chief enemy spot. Fuck! Not one point of what I thought then, not even close.”
He then mutters something regarding “movies about James Bond”, and concludes sadly: “Of course, I wouldn’t fly helicopters, but pretend to be someone else at a minimum.”
The two officials even discussed terms of their SVR employment, according to the complaint, talking about how “everyone has a five-year contract” and how travel for their families may be covered by “our SVR” payment plans.
Sporyshev on the other hand complained about women he tried to recruit as sources. “I have lots of ideas about such girls,” he tells Podobny, but these ideas are not “actionable”. “In order to be close you either need to fuck them or use other levels to influence them to execute my requests.” He ends by advising Podobny: “So when you tell me about girls, in my experience, it’s very rare that something workable will come of it.”
In 2014 Buryakov met with an FBI source posing as a representative of a would-be casino mogul interested in the Russian gambling scene. Buryakov pressed the source for a range of economic information “far outside the scope of his work as a bank employee” and took fake US government documents that supposedly had information about sanctions against .
Buryakov, the only member of the trio in US custody, could face a decade in prison on the counts of conspiracy to act as a foreign agent.
In a statement, Bharara said it was clear that despite the 20 years since “the presumptive end of the cold war – Russian spies continue to seek to operate in our midst under the cover of secrecy”. Bharara said the presence of a Russian banker in New York, although mundane, would not disguise espionage from the FBI.
Attorney general Eric Holder said the US would find foreign agents in the US “no matter how deep their cover”.
The Russian foreign ministry and intelligence service could not immediately be reached for comment on the case on Monday. Alexey Zaytsev, spokesman for Russia’s UN Mission, said: “We don’t have any comment now.”
Vnesheconombank did not respond to requests for comment.