In a Cold War-style spy scenario that replaces communist ideology with capitalist growth, the FBI arrested a Russian man on suspicion of posing as a Russian banker in order to dupe Americans into providing the Kremlin with intelligence on U.S. banks, possible sanctions and the energy industry.
Counterintelligence agents arrested Evgeny Buryakov, 39, also known as “Zhenya,” on Monday on charges of spying and attempting to recruit spies on U.S. soil — including using media outlets and reporters — as part of his work for SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence agency.
Two other Russian officials — Igor Sporyshev and Victor Podobnyy — were indicted Monday, but they have not been arrested and are not believed to be in the U.S.
U.S. officials say the three men are part of a Russian spy ring that has been operating in New York City — complete with drop-offs of “bags” in public parks — since 2012 or earlier to gather information that would help the Kremlin economically.
“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,” said Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.
“New York City may be more hospitable to Russian businessmen than during the Cold War, but my office and the FBI remain vigilant to the illegal intelligence-gathering activities of other nations,” he said.
In contrast to the Cold War Kremlin’s recruiting of upper-class Britons and left-wing ideological sympathizers, this ring operated pragmatically in its recruiting efforts.
Mr. Buryakov posed as an employee of a Russian bank in New York with recruitment targets “including several individuals employed by major companies, and several young women with ties to a major university located in New York City,” the charging documents state.
But the Kremlin’s men didn’t quite “get” the notion of capitalist exchange, U.S. officials said.
For example, Mr. Sporyshev and Mr. Podobnyy discussed attempts to recruit several New York City residents as intelligence sources but dropped their support of the individuals once the spying was complete.
“You promise a favor for a favor,” Mr. Podobnyy said in a conversation recorded by U.S. counterintelligence agents. “You get the documents from him and tell him to go [expletive] himself.”
The documents released Monday gave no immediate indication how successful the ring was in recruiting Americans.
The Russian was arrested at a time of increased tensions and increasingly open economic warfare between the Washington and Moscow over the Kremlin’s involvement in Ukraine, which reignited last week with a renewed offensive by pro-Russia rebels in the eastern part of Ukraine.
Moscow has denied Western charges that it has been arming the rebels, who accidentally shot down a Malaysian civilian airliner with an advanced Russian anti-aircraft missile.
But the U.S. and its NATO allies have rebuffed the Kremlin’s denials and imposed economic sanctions on their Cold War adversary in retaliation.
Despite Moscow’s bluster, economic indicators have shown that the sanctions — paired with the collapse in the price of oil and gas, Russia’s top export — has started to tank the nation’s economy. On the same day of the arrest, Standard & Poor’s downgraded Russia’s credit rating to “junk.”
“The attempt by foreign nations to illegally gather economic and other intelligence information in the United States through covert agents is a direct threat to the national security of the United States, and it exemplifies why counterespionage is a top priority,” said John Carlin, assistant attorney general for national security.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the government would use “every tool at our disposal” to identify and “hold accountable” foreign spies.
Mr. Sporyshev, 40, worked as a Russian trade representative until last year, and Mr. Podobnyy, 27, worked as an attache for the Russian Federation at the United Nations until 2013, Justice Department records show.
But both men, U.S. officials said, directed Mr. Buryakov in his spying endeavors then analyzed what he gathered and transmitted it back to Moscow.
Information from the Justice Department said the SVR told him to focus on, among other fields, possible U.S. sanctions against Russia and U.S. efforts to develop alternative energy resources.
Mr. Buryakov also helped create questions for intelligence gathering by workers at a “leading Russian state-owned news organization,” Justice Department officials said.
The organization “is sometimes used by Russian intelligence to gain access to and gather intelligence under the cover of the news media,” according to the complaint filed against Mr. Buryakov.
Analysts have said the media outlet in question, though never expressly stated by the Justice Department, is most likely RT, formerly called Russia Today, a Kremlin-owned English-language news channel that recently gained attention for a number of journalists quitting on air in protest over the station’s coverage of the Ukraine war.
According to court documents, the FBI observed the three men from March 2012 to September 2014 in 48 outdoor meetings, often surreptitious exchanges of information and notes that Mr. Buryakov had collected.
The FBI also said they have recordings of conversations between Mr. Sporyshev and Mr. Podobnyy that included direct discussions of their connections to the SVR, including talking about contracts, reimbursements and paid leave at the spy agency.
Monday’s arrest is the most recent case of purported Russian spies being caught on U.S. soil.
In 2010, the FBI caught and expelled 10 Russian agents, including some who were living in New York. Several of the spies were released as part of a prisoner exchange with the Kremlin.
One of the spies, Anna Chapman, become a minor tabloid celebrity in her home country, going on a propaganda tour to several Russian agencies as well as posing for that nation’s version of Maxim magazine.
She garnered attention on Twitter when she said she would be willing to marry former U.S. government contractor Edward Snowden. Recent reports show the situation may have been more serious, with Ms. Chapman trying to seduce Mr. Snowden to get him to reveal secrets about U.S. spying capabilities.
Mr. Snowden, a former contractor with the National Security Agency, sought asylum in Russia after his disclosure that the U.S. government was running a broad surveillance program of U.S. citizens. Several security advocates have warned that the move means Mr. Snowden’s information likely has wound up in Russian hands.