NEW YORK: A Russian banker pleaded guilty in New York on Friday to conspiring to act as an unregistered foreign agent, a year after he was arrested in a bust on an alleged spy ring.
The plea possibly saves Russia and the United States from divulging potentially sensitive information in the glare of a public trial, which had been scheduled to begin on April 4.
The murky case, which included the FBI planting covert recording devices hidden in binders, was akin to “a plotline for a Cold War-era movie,” said the chief US prosecutor for Manhattan, Preet Bharara.
US prosecutors say Evgeny Buryakov, 41, a burly man with cropped brown hair, worked undercover for Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence agency for years while posing as an employee for Russian bank Vnesheconombank in Manhattan and previously in South Africa.
Dressed in prison scrubs, Buryakov pleaded guilty in federal court to count one on an original two-count indictment that had also accused him of acting as an unregistered foreign agent.
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“I plead guilty, your honor,” he said, wearing black-rimmed spectacles and speaking in fluent but accented English.
Buryakov’s arrest was the first such case since 10 deep-cover agents, including Anna Chapman, were arrested in the New York area in 2010. They pleaded guilty and were part of a prisoner swap with Moscow.
“More than two decades after the end of the Cold War, Russian spies still seek to operate in our midst under the cover of secrecy,” said Bharara.
“Thanks to the work of the FBI and the prosecutors in my office, attempts to conduct unlawful espionage will not be overlooked.”
A second, more substantive charge of actually acting as an unregistered foreign agent was dropped. Prosecutors and the defense agree that a sentence of 2.5 years would be appropriate, and a fine of between $10,000 and $100,000.
Buryakov will be sentenced by federal Judge Richard Berman on May 25. The offense carries a maximum sentence of five years under US law.
US prosecutors revealed in court papers this week that the FBI eavesdropped on SVR agents for months with the help of tiny recorders planted in binders purportedly containing trade secrets and handed over by an undercover agent posing as an energy analyst.
The bugs allowed the FBI to listen as Russian spies received tasks from Moscow, gathered responses and fed information back to the SVR from January to May 2013, US prosecutors allege.
It also allowed them to hear the Russians complain about the humdrum nature of their work, far removed from the adventures of James Bond films.
Buryakov, who was arrested in January 2015, was accused of working with a trade mission official and another Russian attached to the UN mission in New York.
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US prosecutors say both those officials, Igor Sporyshev and Victor Podobnyy, worked for the SVR but had diplomatic immunity and are no longer in the United States.
The net closed in on Buryakov after he met numerous times in 2014 with an FBI source posing as the representative of a wealthy investor looking to develop casinos in Russia.
Buryakov allegedly served with the SVR in South Africa from 2004 to 2009, where he worked for the same bank.