Three Russian citizens were charged Monday in connection with a Cold War-style Russian spy ring that spoke in code, passed messages concealed in bags and magazines, and tried to recruit people with ties to an unnamed New York City university, authorities said.
The defendants were directed by Russian authorities to gather sensitive economic intelligence on potential U.S. sanctions against Russian banks and efforts here to develop alternative energy resources, according to a complaint filed in federal court in Manhattan.
Prosecutors say one defendant, Yevgeny Buryakov, posed as an employee in the Manhattan branch of a Russian bank. He was arrested on Monday in the Bronx, where he lived with his Russian wife and two children.
At an initial court appearance, Assistant U.S. Attorney Adam Fee portrayed Buryakov as a professional spy skilled at duplicity.
"His life here, your honor, really is a deception," the prosecutor said.
Buryakov, 39, arrived in the United States in 2010 and had a work visa. His lawyer, Sabrina Shroff, lost an argument for bail after a magistrate judge agreed with the government that he had an incentive to flee since his cover was blown.
The two others named in the complaint, Igor Sporyshev and Victor Podobnyy — described as Buryakov's handler — held low-level diplomatic positions. They were protected from prosecution because of their diplomatic status and are believed to have returned to Russia.
Between March 2012 through as recently as mid-September 2014, the FBI observed Buryakov and Sporyshev meeting 48 times in outdoor settings, the complaint says. Several of the meetings "involved Buryakov passing a bag, magazine or slip of paper to Sporyshev," it says.
In intercepted telephone calls made to set up the meetings, the pair spoke about sharing tickets to movies or sporting events, or needing to deliver items like books or hats but were never observed doing that, the complaint says.
They also "discussed their attempts to recruit U.S. residents, including several individuals employed by major companies, and several young women with ties to a major university located in New York City," it says.
The investigation recalled a 2010 case resulting in the arrest of 10 covert agents who infiltrated suburban America using fake names. All 10 pleaded guilty in federal court in Manhattan to conspiracy charges and were ordered out of the country as part of a spy swap for four people convicted of betraying Moscow to the West.
The case was announced Monday by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara and FBI officials.
The Russian Foreign Ministry and the Foreign Intelligence Service could not immediately be reached for comment on the case. Alexey Zaytsev, spokesman for Russia's U.N. Mission, said: "We don't have any comment now."
The new case demonstrates "our firm commitment to combating attempts by covert agents to illegally gather intelligence and recruit spies within the United States," Holder said in a statement.
Bharara added that the charges "make it clear that — more than two decades after the presumptive end of the Cold War — Russian spies continue to seek to operate in our midst."