Unearthing Moscow's moles
How the FBI claims to have caught Putin's spooks in New York
HOW American sanctions might bite on Russian banks is a matter of great interest to the Kremlin. So Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR, asked one of its undercover agents in New York to find out, prosecutors claim. Evgeny Buryakov was outwardly an executive at Vnesheconombank, a Russian state-owned financial agency. But in real life he was allegedly “Zhenya”—working with two Russian intelligence officers who doubled as diplomats, also in New York.
Mr Buryakov's mission involved collecting economic intelligence and spotting potential sources. It has ended in disaster. On January 26th news broke of his arrest by the FBI. He faces trial and, if found guilty, up to 15 years in prison. His alleged colleagues have left America.
What gave the FBI its first clue? Was it good surveillance, a cryptographic breakthrough, success in penetrating the Russian spy service or sloppy tradecraft by Vladimir Putin's spooks? The FBI's evidence suggests a lengthy period of observation. The three men communicated with brief phone messages, consisting of unremarkable exchanges about “tickets” and other everyday items, and handed over secret material with “brush contacts”—spy jargon for exchanging bags, folded newspapers and the like during fleeting encounters.
It is not clear whether Mr Buryakov's alleged colleagues were told to go by the authorities, or fled when they realised that they were under surveillance. The FBI appears to have bugged the secret part of a Russian diplomatic mission in New York—part of the evidence includes the two colleagues grousing about their un-James-Bondlike working conditions. But the strongest evidence seems to have come when Mr Buryakov fell foul of an FBI sting operation, based on someone posing as a potential investor in a Russian casino. Mr Buryakov has made no public statement, and his employer(s) could not be reached for comment.
A previous round-up of undercover Russian “illegals” in America in 2010 ended in a spy swap in Vienna reminiscent of the cold war. Mr Buryakov may be hoping for that—though that was in a different era, when the American authorities sought to play down the threat from Russia in the hope of preserving sort-of-amicable relations. But these days America has little reason to pretend to be friends with Mr Putin.