Undercover Banker: Feds Bust Russian Spy Ring in New York
A three-man spy ring stands accused of carrying out economic espionage on behalf of Moscow.
On April 8, 2013, Victor Podobnyy sat down for a conversation with his boss, Igor Sporyshev, in the New York offices of Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, the SVR. Podobnyy had recently met a consultant who hoped to strike it rich in Russia’s oil industry, and Podobnyy hoped to pump him for information.
“He got hooked on Gazprom,” Podobnyy said. “It’s obvious that he wants to earn lots of money.”
Podobnyy, officially an attaché to the Russian mission of the U.N., had told the consultant that he would use his connections with Sporyshev, who worked as Russia’s trade representative in New York, to win contracts for the man. “This is intelligence method to cheat, how else to work with foreigners? You promise a favor for a favor,” Podobnyy told his supervisor. “You get the documents from him and tell him to go fuck himself.”
That conversation was captured by microphones belonging to the FBI, and on Friday the bureau announced that it had busted a spy ring run by Sporyshev and Podobnyy. According to a complaint unsealed in federal court in Manhattan, the two men allegedly conspired to carry out espionage and violated U.S. law by failing to register as foreign agents. According to the FBI, the two men directed the espionage activities of a third man, a banker named Evgeny Buryakov. (The conversations transcribed in the complaint and cited in this article were translated from Russian by the U.S. government.)
Buryakov, who was employed at a Russian bank not named in the complaint, is now in custody, facing charges of espionage on behalf of Russia. A LinkedIn profile matching his name, occupation, and city of residence lists his employer as Vnesheconombank. Podobnyy and Sporyshev, by virtue of the diplomatic protections offered by their positions at the U.N. and trade missions, respectively, remain free. According to the FBI, they have left the country.
“The arrest of Evgeny Buryakov and the charges against him and his co-defendants make clear that — more than two decades after the presumptive end of the Cold War — Russian spies continue to seek to operate in our midst under cover of secrecy,” U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement Monday. “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.”
Asked if the Russian government wished to respond to the espionage charges, Alexey Zaytsev, spokesman for the Russian mission to the U.N., said, “No, we are not commenting.”
The FBI investigation began in late 2010, a few months after 10 Russian “sleepers” pleaded guilty to acting as undeclared Russian agents in the United States, and appears to have deeply penetrated Moscow’s operation. That network included Anna Chapman, the voluptuous red-headed spy who captured the attention of the world’s media.
Podobnyy and Sporyshev — who are described by the FBI as employees of the economic directorate of the SVR — tried to gather information on possible sanctions against Russian firms and individuals, in addition to gathering intelligence useful to Russian businesses. To that end, the two men directed Buryakov, who is described as an agent working under “non-official cover,” to use his position in the financial sector to report on the scope and impact of sanctions against Russia during the spring of 2014. At that time, the United States and its allies were putting in place a sanctions regime in retaliation for Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.
As federal authorities disclosed the Russian scheme, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power and her Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin, clashed in the U.N. Security Council over the deepening crisis in Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists stand accused of having intentionally shelled civilians in the town of Mariupol, killing dozens.
Churkin accused the U.N. of focusing only on attacks on civilians in Ukrainian-government controlled territories, and downplaying attacks on territory that had come under attack by Ukrainian government forces. He said the Mariupol attack was taken out of its full context. “What possibly justifies a massive offensive against a civilian-populated town?” Power responded.
The spy ring described in Monday’s complaint reads less like John le Carré and more like the Keystone Kops. The FBI surveilled meetings between the SVR agents and Buryakov and intercepted several conversations using covert microphones. In an embarrassing turn for the SVR, the FBI was even able to penetrate the New York office of its Russian adversaries and place microphones there. At one point, Podobnyy and Sporyshev were recorded discussing the terms of their employment at the SVR, during which Sporyshev reveals that “everyone has a five-year contract.”
Indeed, the complaint raises questions about the quality of the intelligence collected by Buryakov. Around the time of an April 2014 phone call tasking Buryakov with gathering information on the “effects of economic sanctions on our country,” FBI agents found that Buryakov had executed a series of Internet searches on his office computer: “sanctions Russia consiquences” [sic] and “sanctions Russia impact.”
According to the complaint, Buryakov was also used by his handlers to feed questions to SVR agents posing as members of Russian state media. The agents were allegedly traveling to the New York Stock Exchange to learn information relevant to the Russian economy, and Buryakov was asked to supply relevant questions.
In another plot described in the complaint, Buryakov allegedly traveled as a representative of his bank to a conference in an unspecified country where he learned of a proposed agreement between a Russian corporation and an airplane manufacturer to purchase dozens of planes. Under the terms of the agreement, the planes would only be purchased if the airplane company built them in Russia. That plan was opposed by local unions, and Buryakov devised a plot to pressure the unions and secure the multibillion-dollar deal for Russia.
Intriguingly, the complaint also cites the use of a “confidential source” in the course of the investigation, a comment that could point either toward a U.S. informant inside the SVR or an attempt by U.S. officials to stoke paranoia about a possible traitor inside the Russian intelligence agency.
The complaint describes how the SVR agents, to avoid detection by U.S. authorities, relied on analog methods of communication. The agents discussed their work almost exclusively face-to-face and passed information to one another using handwritten notes. In their phone calls with one another, Buryakov and his handlers never explicitly discuss the exchange of information and only refer to the exchange of various items, such as tickets, hats, and umbrellas.
The complaint also hints at rumblings of discontent within the SVR. Sporyshev, the head of the latest New York crew, decried the sorry state of the SVR’s unconventional espionage branch, Directorate S, which is responsible for overseeing Russian sleepers and other operatives acting as bankers or other professionals.
In an intercepted conversation with Podobnyy, Sporyshev dismissed the achievements of the 10 Russian sleepers. “They got slapped with money laundry only because they were sending cash by mail. That is it.”
“They weren’t doing shit here, you understand. Maybe they had a directive not to do anything,” he said. “Well, they studied some people, worked out some exits, but they didn’t get any materials.”
The FBI also intercepted a conversation in which the two SVR agents express disappointment in their chosen line of work. “The fact that I’m sitting with a cookie right now at the … chief enemy spot. Fuck!” Podobnyy exclaims in the complaint. His work as a spy, he says, doesn’t compare to “movies about James Bond.”
“Of course, I wouldn’t fly helicopters, but pretend to be someone else at minimum,” Podobnyy is quoted as saying during a conversation with his supervisor in the SVR’s New York office.
New York City, which hosts a large Russian mission to the United Nations, has been the center of a sprawling Russian intelligence-gathering operations for decades. During the Cold War, the Soviets erected a massing listening station in their U.N. mission and built a complex for Russian diplomats in the Bronx and a beach mansion at Glen Cove on Long Island for vacationing diplomats.
“The rooftops at Glen Cove, the apartment building in Riverdale, and the mission all bristled with antennas for listening to American conversations,” Arkady Shevchenko, a former top-ranking U.N. official who defected to the United States in 1978, wrote in his book Breaking With Moscow.
Sergei Tretyakov, one of the top Soviet spymasters posted at the Russian mission to the United Nations from 1995 to 2000, detailed the SVR’s focus on recruiting informants and uncovering commercial and military secrets in Comrade J, a book written about him by former Washington Post reporter Pete Early.
“The SVR was not interested in anything that concerned UN politics, UN resolutions, or other political UN bullshit,” Early wrote. Soviets agents were “ordered to penetrate intelligence targets and recruit spies who could steal political, economic, technical, counterintelligence, and military secrets.”
But in recent years, federal agents have also honed in on Moscow’s low-tech spycraft. In June 2010, federal agents broke up the Russian network of 10 sleepers in American communities that included Anna Chapman. That operation was managed by two Russian intelligence agents posing as low-level Russian diplomats.
The other spy ring doesn’t seem to have produced much material of real value to Moscow, but it catapulted Chapman to a strange type of fame, including a modeling and television career. Chapman and her fellow spies’ ranks are now joined by Evgeny Buryakov, the undercover banker.
Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images
Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @EliasGroll