Evgeny Buryakov claimed he worked for a Russian-owned bank in Manhattan as its deputy representative and his LinkedIn page said he belonged to several online groups that suggested a background in finance.
But that was just a cover story to hide his true affiliation when he arrived in the United States in 2010. The FBI said Monday that Buryakov was an agent under nonofficial cover, collecting economic information for the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service.
He was arrested and charged with conspiracy to act and acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government. Two other SVR agents, posing as official Russian representatives in New York, were forced to leave the country, their roles in the spy ring exposed in a detailed criminal complaint filed against Buryakov.
Both of the men who returned to Russia had diplomatic immunity, officials said.
Prosecutors said Buryakov, known by the diminutive Zhenya, rendezvoused dozens of times in Manhattan and the Bronx with his Russian handlers, Igor Sporyshev, a Russian trade representative, and Victor Podobnyy, an attache at the Russian mission to the United Nations.
Sporyshev and Podobnyy operated out of a secure office in Manhattan where they talked freely, unaware that FBI counterintelligence agents had bugged the facility, according to the complaint.
The FBI said the SVR agents used the office to communicate with headquarters — “Moscow Center” — to transmit and receive intelligence reports, along with information Buryakov gleaned in “confidential talks” as a banker. Part of Buryakov’s focus, according to the complaint, was information on U.S. sanctions and the development of alternative energy sources. Russia is a major oil and gas exporter, and the United States, working in tandem with the European Union, has imposed sanctions on Moscow for its annexation of Crimea and its role in the continued fighting in Ukraine.
The FBI said it discovered the SVR agents shortly after arresting sleeper Russian spies — known as “illegals” — in 2010. The group of 10 deep-cover agents, many of whom had created ordinary American lives, pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and were sent back to Russia as part of a spy exchange.
It is not clear why the FBI decided to bring charges now and whether it is hoping to use Buryakov as “trade bait.” Counterintelligence investigations take years and rarely end in charges. The accused spies are typically expelled with no fanfare or sent home in exchange for U.S. assets held overseas.
Buryakov appeared Monday in federal court in Manhattan. His attorney, Sabrina Shroff, said that he was being held without bail. She had argued that he was not a threat to flee, but the judge disagreed.
“This case is especially egregious, as it demonstrates the actions of a foreign intelligence service to integrate a covert intelligence agent into American society under the cover of an employee in the financial sector,” said Randall C. Coleman of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division.
Sporyshev and Podobnyy were recorded complaining about their work and the fact that they didn’t have secret identities.
Podobnyy said that when he joined the SVR, he didn’t expect to be James Bond or fly helicopters but thought he might be “someone else at a minimum.” The men lamented that the SVR had lost some of its luster but said that their colleagues in the Middle East and Asia still did good work, according to the complaint.
“Not everything has fallen,” Podobnyy says in one recorded conversation. He praised “Directorate S,” the SVR division in charge of nontraditional espionage, including sleeper agents.
“Directorate S is the only intelligence that is real intelligence,” Podobnyy says, adding that the United States was a difficult place to work because of the FBI.
“Look, in the States even the S couldn’t do anything. They caught 10 of them,” he said, referring to the 2010 arrests.
“They weren’t doing [expletive] here, you understand,” he tells Sporyshev. “Well, they studied some people, worked out some exits, but they didn’t get any materials.”
The complaint reveals that the SVR agents tried to recruit people working for major companies and young women with ties to a New York university.
In one instance, according to the complaint, Sporyshev asked for Buryakov’s help in crafting questions for a Russian news organization.
The FBI did not name the news organization, but the questions were related to the New York Stock Exchange. The FBI said it believed that SVR was directing the news organization to ask the questions.
Last year, the FBI said, Sporyshev told Buryakov in a telephone call that he needed help in researching the “effects of economic sanctions on our country.”
The FBI later covertly searched Buryakov’s computer at the bank and learned that he had searched the Internet for “sanctions Russia consiquences” and “sanctions Russia impact.”
Eventually, the FBI decided to run a confidential source against Buryakov. The FBI said these “meetings established Buryakov’s willingness to solicit and accept documents that CS-1 claimed he had obtained from a U.S. government agency and which purportedly contained information potentially useful to the Russian Federation.”