Russians suspected of trying to recruit bankers to spy for Moscow in 'a classic case of espionage'

Igor Sporyshev and Viktor Podobnyy were a case study in bumbling incompetence, according to the FBI and US prosecutors

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The Independent US

Moscow Centre is the home of the Russian intelligence service, the SVR. The last time most Americans heard the acronym was in July 2010 when the US convicted 10 of its agents, including redhead real estate agent Anna Chapman, who had been working undercover in the US.

They were returned to Russia later that year in a prisoner swap. The episode seemed like the last gasp of the Cold War. Not so.

Today, another tale of Russian spooks emerged, described by the former CIA analyst Mark Stout as a “classic case of espionage”. This time New York was its setting. The pair were, it is claimed in a criminal complaint written by the FBI, running a third undercover agent for Moscow Centre. The claims originate with the FBI, so you’d expect it to make the Americans look good and the Russians not so much. Even so, the extent of the alleged Russian bumbling is something to behold.

Igor Sporyshev and Viktor Podobnyy were, until recently, a Russian trade representative and an attaché to Russia’s mission to the UN in New York respectively. Both were charged on Monday with conspiracy under America’s espionage laws. So too was the man they are accused as running on behalf of their real bosses at the SVR, Evgeny “Zhenya” Buryakov. His real job was at a Russian bank in Manhattan, named as state-run Vnesheconombank.

It is not just that the criminal complaint accompanying the charges makes the two handlers look like clots. They also appear to have approached their job with remarkable incompetence.

Both recently returned to Russia and are thus beyond the reach of the US Justice Department. They are not beyond the SVR, however, and Siberia might be in their futures.

First, they underestimated the counterespionage skills of the FBI, who, as the complaint says, rarely had them out of its sight (and earshot) from early 2012 until the latter part of last year when they left for home. Their conversations inside an SVR office in Manhattan were recorded, their phone conversations were bugged and physical meetings with Mr Buryakov were video-recorded.

The case against them has three main elements. Prosecutors say they violated any privileges of diplomatic immunity by conspiring with Mr Buryakov, who had no diplomatic status as a bank employee in New York; they conveyed the fruits of his espionage, which was mostly economic in nature, to Moscow Centre; and they also sought to recruit other individuals in New York similarly to spy for their country down the road.

Finding willing recruits was a challenge for them. Their targets included female students at a certain place of learning that we now know from the complaint was New York University. “I have lots of ideas about such girls but these ideas are not actionable because they don’t allow to get close enough,” Mr Sporyshev is heard lamenting in one overheard conversation.

Also captured were both men moaning about the SVR and its failure to give them better covers in New York. Mr Podobnyy is heard to wonder why their lives aren’t more like James Bond’s. “I wouldn’t fly helicopters, but pretend to be someone else at a minimum.” Mr Sporyshev, concurs saying he always “thought that at least I would go abroad with a different passport”.

They are also heard agreeing that the operation involving the 10 who were caught in 2010 had yielded little of help to Russia.

Their handling of Mr Buryakov, by contrast, might have been helpful. According to the complaint, he wormed his way as a representative of his bank into conversations about an impending multibillion-dollar deal between Russia and an unidentified aircraft manufacturer outside the US and offered a strategy for Moscow to overcome objections to it by unions in that country. 

On one occasion, it claimed that he also supplied his masters with questions that an unnamed Russian news organisation should be asking in an interview about the New York Stock Exchange designed to elicit useful information for the SVR.

But that was when the men really blundered. Instead of following their usual protocol of only exchanging information in face-to-face meetings in public places in the city, on this occasion they were in a hurry and allegedly told Mr Buryakov, using his real name no less, to supply his thoughts on the NYSE interview within 15 minutes on the telephone – the FBI-bugged telephone.

What really sank them was when Mr Buryakov took the bait from an FBI agent posing as a representative of an investor curious about building casinos in Russia. As part of their talks the faux businessman offered to hand over US Treasury documents containing alleged tidbits about impending US sanctions on Russia.

Too good to be true, and indeed Mr Sporyshev, according to the complaint, mused aloud that it looked like “some sort of a set-up. Trap of some sort.” But instead of shutting Mr Buryakov down, he gave him rope. “You will look and decide for yourself,” he told him.

Taking the Treasury documents is surely Mr Buryakov’s biggest regret as he sits in a New York jail now wondering what happens next. That could be one more US-Russia prisoner swap and a quick ticket back to Moscow where the top brass at the SVR would then decide what to do with him.

The Russian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said: “No proof to back up the charges has been presented.

“One gets an impression the US authorities have decided to resort to their favourite tactic of unfolding spy scandals.”