WASHINGTON, March 11 (UPI) -- A Russian citizen pleaded guilty Friday to a conspiracy charge for illegally working on behalf of Moscow intelligence in the United States, the Department of Justice said.
Evgeny Buryakov entered the plea in federal court in New York City on Friday, just weeks before he was scheduled for trial on the conspiracy charge, Justice officials announced.
Buryakov, 41, a pseudo-employee of a Russian bank in New York, conspired to work as a non-official cover operative of the Russian Federation without gaining prior authorization from the office of then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder four years ago.
The Justice Department said Buryakov began working as an agent for Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service in 2012 -- posing as an employee of the Russian bank Vnesheconombank while working as a NOC operative under the guise of private citizenship inside the United States.
Such non-official agents are permitted to operate within the United States, but are required by federal law to provide prior notification to the Attorney General. That did not happen in Buryakov's case.
"Foreign nations who attempt to illegally gather economic and other intelligence information through espionage pose a direct threat to U.S. national security," Assistant Attorney General John P. Carlin said Friday. "The National Security Division will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to identify and hold accountable those who illegally operate as covert agents within the United States."
If it sounds as if Buryakov was engaging in clandestine activity on U.S. soil, as you might expect to see in a Cold War-era spy movie, U.S. Attorney of the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara said, that's because he really was.
"An unregistered intelligence agent, under cover of being a legitimate banker, gathers intelligence on the streets of New York City, trading coded messages with Russian spies who send the clandestinely collected information back to Moscow," Bharara said. "This sounds like a plot line for a Cold War-era movie, but in reality, Evgeny Buryakov pled guilty today to a federal crime for his role in just such a scheme.
"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."
Buryakov also worked with at least two other agents of the SVR over the last four years, officials said. They were also charged with conspiracy but were not arrested because they no longer reside in the United States.
In January 2015, following Buryakov's arrest, the Russian government denied that any of the three were involved in gathering intelligence for Moscow during their time in the United States.
The Justice Department, though, rejects Russia's claim -- saying the agents were instructed by Moscow to gather intelligence on various matters, including potential U.S. sanctions against Russian banks and American efforts to develop alternative energy resources.
Buryakov, who will be sentenced May 25, faces a maximum of five years in prison.