On Monday, Federal prosecutors in New York charged three Russian citizens with being spies.
While it's moderately shocking to see undercover agents unmasked, the most surprising thing about this story is not that the three were spying on the US, but how ineffective they apparently were at it. Of course, it's possible that they gathered more sensitive information than is revealed or hinted at. But if the three accused spies never discovered anything more significant than what is detailed in the complaint, then Russia should ask for its money back.
According to federal authorities, 39-year-old Evgeny Buryakov posed as an employee of a Russian bank, but was actually gathering economic intelligence for Russia's foreign intelligence service. He allegedly passed information to Igor Sporyshev, who was officially an employee of the Russian Trade Representative, and Victor Podobny, who was attached to the Russian mission to the UN.
Buryakov is charged with acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, which carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison. He was arrested in the Bronx on January 26.
Sporyshev and Podobny are charged with conspiring with Buryakov and aiding and abetting his crimes. However, they both had diplomatic immunity, and have apparently already returned to Russia.
Those are the legal charges. But what did the men actually do? Here are some excerpts from the complaint, which details the escapades and misadventures and bizarre comments — and not very much spying — of the three alleged Russian spies.
Even the spies thought spying wasn't that cool
Ever wonder what spies talk about when they're alone? If you guessed "how disappointingly uncool it is to be a spy," then congratulations! You're right.
According to the complaint, Sporyshev and Podobny spent much of an April 10 2013 meeting complaining about their jobs. Podobny sighed that, while he didn't really think he would be flying helicopters like "James Bond," he was disappointed that he didn't even get a fake identity.
Sporyshev agreed. "I also thought that at least I would go abroad with a different passport."
Spying, man: not all it's cracked up to be.
Covert Russian agents "weren't doing shit" in the US
Sporyshev's low opinion of Russia's spies wasn't limited to his own mission. When Podobny tried to say that Directorate S — the agency responsible for running deep-cover sleeper agents in foreign countries — was the "only intelligence that is real intelligence," Sporyshev shut him down with a terse "it was."
Sporyshev insisted that Directorate S agents can't get anything done these days. That includes the 10 "illegals" who were discovered in the U.S. in 2009 and deported: according to Sporyshev, "they weren't doing shit here."
Attempts to recruit sources yielded "an idiot" and some unhelpful ladies
The alleged spies' attempts to recruit American sources seems to have yielded little more than a "an idiot" and some girl trouble.
Sporyshev's description of his attempts to gain information from women who worked at New York financial institutions sound suspiciously like internet dating. He was excited that one woman, referred to only as "female-1" in the complaint, had given him a "positive response without any feelings of rejection." But more generally his luck with the ladies was not so good. "I have lots of ideas about such girls," he told Podobny, "but these ideas are not actionable because they don't allow to get close enough:"
Their luck with men wasn't much better. "Male-1," a striving young businessman working as a consultant in New York, was eager to find lucrative business opportunities in Russia.
The only problem? He was too dim a bulb to handle email correspondence, which didn't bode well for his value as an intelligence source. "I think he is an idiot and forgot who I am," Podobny groused.
Poorly spelled Google searches
Nor does it seem like Buryakov's work for the intelligence services was of sterling quality.
According to the complaint, on March 14, 2014, Sporyshev asked Buryakov to help research the effect of economic sanctions on Russia. To fulfill that request, Buryakov resorted to ... poorly-spelled Google searches.
"A covert physical search of Buryakov's computer revealed that, around the time of this telephone call, Buryakov conducted the following internet searches: 'sanctions Russia consiquences' [sic] and 'sanctions Russia impact.'"
"Gathering intelligence" = suggesting questions to journalists?
On May 21, 2013, Sporyshev appears to have called Buryakov to ask him to help a "news organization" come up with some questions about American stock exchanges. Boryshev had 15 minutes to come up with something "interesting to us" — "us" being, presumably, the intelligence service.
He sort of managed it. In a second call 15 minutes later, he asked for information about three topics: the mechanisms of how exchange traded funds, or ETFs, are used to destabilize markets; "what they think about limiting the use of trading robots"; and "the potential interest of the participants of the exchange to the products tied to the Russian Federation."
Figuring out how a particular type of security could be used to destabilize markets is probably the sort of thing a spy ought to learn, though "having a journalist ask publicly" is perhaps not the optimal strategy for acquiring powerful economic sabotage strategies.
But the question about trading robots suggests that these spies just needed to get out more. Having lived in New York for seven years, I can confirm that there is a consistently high level of ambient mansplaining about high-frequency trading — there's really no need to seek it out.
Attending business meetings
Using his cover as a bank employee, Buryakov traveled to another country to meet with an airplane manufacturer in order to support a potential deal between that company and a state-owned Russian corporation. According to the complaint, Buryakov met with executives from the manufacturer, and then passed on the information obtained in those meetings to Russian intelligence.
That definitely doesn't seem very honest. But again, it's a little hard to believe that this information could have been terribly sensitive if the company was willing to to reveal it in a business meeting with a banker.
The highly sensitive information obtained? That the company's management "viewed Russia as a promising market for airplane sales."