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Russian Spy Scandal Pulls Back Curtain On Often Humdrum World Of Espionage

Judge Sarah Netburn (left) listens to defense attorney Sabrina Shroff as Yevgeny Buryakov (right) sits in court in New York on January 26.

This week's announcement that the FBI had charged three Russian citizens with spying on the United States threatens to send an even deeper chill through already frosty Moscow-Washington ties.

Some Russian espionage experts say that's too bad -- especially since the spies didn't do anything of particular value.

Yevgeny Buryakov, 39, a private citizen who reportedly spied for the Kremlin's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), was arrested on January 26 and charged with recruiting Americans and gathering "economic intelligence" while working at a New York branch of Russia's state-owned Vnesheconombank.

Two other Russian citizens -- 40-year-old Igor Sporyshev and Viktor Podobny, 27, who both held diplomatic passports -- were charged with the same offense, despite no longer being in the United States.

The FBI, in its formal complaint, says the three men were seen exchanging small slips of paper and recorded in phone conversations with coded references to "tickets" and "umbrellas." Phone intercepts also capture the men speaking openly about attempts to recruit university and business employees to serve as intelligence sources.

Despite the Cold War shiver Buryakov's capture has sent through the United States, it's not clear the men were ever successful -- or satisfied -- with their jobs. Phone records appear to show Podobny complaining of being duped into professional spying by James Bond movies, adding wistfully that he never even got to "pretend to be someone else."

Historian Boris Volodarsky, a U.K.-based veteran of Russia's GRU military intelligence service, describes the scandal as a tempest in a teapot. "It's clear they weren't sitting in the White House stealing America's political secrets," he says. "They also weren't sitting in secret institutes stealing technological information. They weren't sitting in the CIA like [U.S. spy] Aldrich Ames and reporting on spies working for the CIA. And so on.

"It's a very minor case," Volodarsky concludes. "But they're spies, they were engaged in actions directed against the United States, and as a result a case was opened against them."

Business As Usual

U.S. investigators began to encircle Buryakov after he met with an FBI source posing as the representative for a casino mogul looking to invest in Russia. Buryakov reportedly asked for information and documents, some related to U.S. sanctions, that fell far outside his normal purview as a banker.

Prosecutors say Buryakov, Podobny, and Sporyshev were all members of a larger spy ring similar to the "deep cover" group of 10 Russian agents, including the soon-to-be-celebrated Anna Chapman, broken up in 2010.

In fact, says Oleg Gordievsky, a former KGB colonel who served as a double agent for the British Secret Intelligence Service in the 1970s and '80s before defecting to the United Kingdom, even a single arrest can involve months of complex investigation work on the part of the FBI.

Buryakov's arrest "was preceded by a lot of intelligence work, gathering information about the group's illegal activities in the United States," he says. "The fact is, there are more than 400 foreign intelligence officers operating on the territory of the United States, the majority of them in New York."

Gordievsky adds that he's spoken on numerous occasions to investigators with both the FBI and CIA about the preponderance of Russian spies in the United States. "I asked why they didn't arrest all the Russians -- why did they let them stay? They said that the majority of them don't do any harm -- they just live, collect their pay from the Russian government, and don't do anything in particular," he says.

If convicted, Buryakov could face a decade in prison. Moscow -- whose anti-American rhetoric has mounted steadily as the war in Ukraine and Russia's economic woes continue -- has dismissed the case and vowed reciprocal action.

Grigory Pasko, a former naval officer and journalist who was jailed for espionage after providing Japanese media with evidence of Russian nuclear dumping, says the scandal is certain to simmer for days, if not weeks.

"First of all, everyone across the board has already yelled about it in our wonderful State Duma," he says. "Second, it's simply our tradition. Third, you can't not respond, because then everyone will think you're a wimp. And fourth, these kinds of people are always available. There's a list of, say, 25 people; they'll pick the three names at the top and out they go."

Daisy Sindelar contributed to this story