The trio may have been “deep cover” spies. But the alleged Russian agents operating in New York City were hardly masterminds—more Elmore Leonard stumblebums than Ian Fleming supermen. Over the past two years, they spent their time fantasizing about wooing coeds—and sometimes working in cahoots with a Russian state-owned news organization. But the accused operatives got into trouble when they cozied up to an FBI informant who posed as a deep-pocketed developer keen on building casinos in Russia.
The bust-up of an alleged Russian spy ring, detailed in a federal criminal complaint released Monday, is the first in the United States since a gang of 10 agents was arrested in 2010 and shipped back to Russia in a spy-swap reminiscent of the heady days of the Cold War. And as was the case with that earlier crew, the odd, sometimes lame, behavior of the accused agents raised almost as many questions as it answered.
The 2010 ring, which worked in several states and had assimilated into American middle-class life, tried to gather intelligence on a range of topics, from U.S. foreign policy to lobbying to minerals mining. One of its members, who went by the name Anna Chapman, became a minor celebrity upon her return to Russia and was given a TV show.
Justice Department officials on Monday harkened back to the earlier spies—sometimes known as “The Illegals,” because of their lack of official cover stories—and warned that the Russian intelligence service still considers the United States a prime target.
“More than two decades after the presumptive end of the Cold War,” said Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, “Russian spies continue to seek to operate in our midst under cover of secrecy.”
The FBI arrested Evgeny Buryakov, an alleged Russian intelligence officer who posed as an employee in the Manhattan office of a Russian bank and went by the codename Zhenya. He was left holding the bag as his purported conspirators, Igor Sporyshev, who worked as a trade representative of the Russian Federation in New York, and Victor Podobnyy, who was an attaché to the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations, are no longer in the United States and, in any event, have diplomatic immunity from prosecution.
Bharara said that the two diplomats had purposely sought out Buryakov because of his profession. “Indeed, the presence of a Russian banker in New York would in itself hardly draw attention today, which is why these alleged spies may have thought Buryakov would blend in. What they could not do without drawing the attention of the FBI was engage in espionage,” Bharara said.
The trio didn’t know that FBI agents had their hooks into them from the beginning, after bugging their phones and offices in the Bronx and Manhattan. The eavesdropping evidence presented by the FBI includes a lexicon of code words the spies used and chronicles a litany of hush-hush meets and note-passing.
The two diplomats, Sporyshev and Podobnyy, initially seemed disgruntled as spies. In a conversation recorded on April 10, 2013, they fantasized about playing out sexier roles and wished they had a more exciting mission.
“The fact that I’m sitting with a cookie right now at the [sic] chief enemy spot. Fuck! Not one point what I thought then… not even close,” Podobnyy says at one point, wishing his job looked more like a James Bond movie.
His pal Sporyshev wasn’t thrilled by the life of a spook either.
“I also thought that at least I would go abroad with a different passport,” he said.
But the pair also spent time dissing their predecessors, the so-called Illegals whose case inspired the FX series The Americans. They’d failed to collect much useful information but were greeted to a hero’s welcome when they came home to Russia, the two complained.
“Putin even tried to justify that they weren’t even tasked to work. They were sleeper cells in case of martial law,” Podobnyy said, bemoaning how Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed to inflate the Illegals’ work into something far grander than what it was. The Illegals engaged in a number of ill-fated attempts to spy on U.S. business, trade associations, and consulting firms, but ultimately came up with little information of value, according to officials and others familiar with their case. Several of the spies claimed to be Canadian or French but spoke with obviously Eastern European or Russian accents.
But the Russian trio’s own tradecraft also seemed less than stellar. An initial attempt to recruit two female students in New York went south, with Sporyshev evincing a misogynistic side when complaining that trying to turn women into spies was hopeless.
“I have lots of ideas about such girls but these ideas are not actionable because they don’t allow to get close enough,” he said. “And in order to be close you either need to fuck them or use other levers to influence them to execute my requests. So when you tell me about girls, in my experience, it’s very rare that something workable will come of it.”
The pair was more successful in finding a banker, Buryakov, who was willing to become an intelligence source. Buryakov claimed to have inside information on alternative-fuel resources in the United States. That was a subject that some of the Illegals had also been after, according to individuals who are familiar with the details of their case.
In discussing their new agent, Podobnyy and Sporyshev rarely used email or telephones, and when they met they used code words, such as “movie tickets” or “schoolbooks” to refer to the objects of their conspiracy.
Far from acting as sleeper agents, the trio seemed to have been in contact with higher ups back in Russia. At one point, they were contacted by their chain of command for a last-minute assignment by a “Russian state-owned news organization” to prepare questions for one of their journalists to submit to New York Stock Exchange personnel during an interview.
The alleged spies were given only 15 minutes to come up with questions that could cull valuable information about the intricacies of financial trades. In a sloppy break with their standard operational security, Sporyshev called Buryakov and asked him for advice. Buryakov managed to float two self-serving questions, including whether the NYSE is going to be “limiting the use of trading robots.”
The criminal complaint doesn’t name the news organization. But the state-owned channel RT hosts a number of business news programs, several of which reported on the New York Stock Exchange around the time of the conversation recorded in the complaint, in May 2013. One month after the phone call between Buryakov and Sporyshev, for example, Prime Interest host Bob English interviewed trader Ben Willis from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, and the two talked about high frequency trading and robot traders. In the interview, English asks, “Do you think there is still a role for humans to capture back what was lost a few years ago with electronic trading?” While the interview shouldn’t be tied to Buryakov, the line of questioning isn’t so far off from the ones suggested to Sporyshev in May.
The spying spree finally came to its end in the summer of 2014, when the trio were propositioned by a self-described investor who wanted to develop casinos in Russia. The scheme immediately drew red flags among the group, with Sporyshev offering that the proposal felt “like some sort of set-up.”
But despite his misgivings, Sporyshev didn’t stop Buryakov from meeting with the supposed investor, who was, in fact, an FBI informant.
For six hours on Aug. 28, Buryakov and the informant met in the anemic gambling metropolis Atlantic City. The informant, who claimed he had a well-placed source in the U.S. government, handed Buryakov documents that were labeled “Internal Treasury Use Only” and contained a list of Russians who were essentially blacklisted from doing business with the United States.
The valuable document earned the informant another meeting that day, when he offered Buryakov another official document that contained “a list of Russian banks… on which to impose sanctions,” according to the criminal complaint.
Buryakov asked his new friend to bring him more information on “sanctions, specifically when more sanctions will be imposed… and which entities will be named in future sanctions.” The document was immediately messengered in-person by briefcase to Sporyshev’s Bronx house and referred to in conversations as “schoolbooks.”
The “schoolbooks” were dropped off—and the feds moved in. And now Buryakov, the only member of the trio still in the country, is behind bars.
-- with additional reporting by Brandy Zadrozny
UPDATED 1/29/15 with additional information about the news agency working with the alleged spies.