Alleged Russia agent pleads not guilty to smuggling US tech, arms

Vadim Konoshchenok accused of multiple crimes for smuggling of US-made semiconductors and ammunition to Russia.

A Russian state flag waves on top of a hummer and sickle at the State Duma, lower parliament chamber, headquarters in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017. Russian lawmakers are mounting a fierce defense of President Donald Trump's national security adviser who has resigned, following reports that he has misled White House officials about his contacts with Russia. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
A Russian state flag on top of the State Duma, lower parliament chamber, headquarters in Moscow, Russia [File: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP]

An alleged Russian intelligence officer has pleaded not guilty in the United States to charges of violating sanctions, US export controls and money laundering for smuggling US-origin electronics and ammunition to Russia to help its war against Ukraine.

Russian citizen Vadim Konoshchenok, who was extradited on Thursday from Estonia to the US, entered the plea at a hearing in federal court in Brooklyn, New York, on Friday.

US Magistrate Judge Ramon Reyes ordered Konoshchenok to be detained pending trial after prosecutors called him a flight risk.

Sabrina Shroff, a US-based lawyer for Konoshchenok, declined to comment, and the Russian embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

Konoshchenok, 48, was detained by Estonian authorities in October 2022 while trying to cross into Russia carrying 35 types of semiconductors and electronic components, some of which were subject to US export controls. He was also accused of smuggling US-made ammunition commonly used for sniper rifles, according to charges filed against him.

“Konoshchenok has also been repeatedly stopped by Estonian border officials attempting to smuggle hundreds of thousands of American-made and export-controlled rounds into Russia, including 6.5 mm, 7 mm, .338 and .308 magnum rounds, which are commonly used by snipers, as well as military-grade .223 rounds,” the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York said in a statement.

“To date, over half a tonne [450kg] of military-grade ammunition linked to Konoshchenok has been recovered or interdicted before being smuggled into Russia,” the statement added.

Konoshchenok was allegedly a central figure in a seven-person smuggling ring, which included five Russians and two Americans who operated “under the direction of Russian intelligence services” to obtain US electronics and other goods restricted by US export controls.

He faces up to 30 years in prison for conspiracy, violation of export controls, smuggling and money laundering.

The US justice department’s Andrew Adams said Konoshchenok “allegedly provided cutting edge, American-developed technologies and ammunition to Russia for use in their illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine”.

According to prosecutors, the suspect told his co-conspirators in electronic communications that he charged a 10 percent fee for dealing in controlled items.

“Can’t do less. Sanctions,” he wrote, according to prosecutors.

Prisoner swaps

Konoshchenok’s extradition to the US comes as Washington seeks to negotiate the return of US citizens held by Moscow.

They include Paul Whelan, a corporate security official convicted in a Russian court of espionage, and Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who is facing charges of espionage.

The US denies either was involved in spying, but has been in negotiations to see if they could be swapped for Russians that it holds.

Last December, Washington traded jailed Russian arms smuggler Viktor Bout for US basketball star Brittney Griner, who was jailed in Russia months earlier on drug charges.

In April 2022, Russia released Trevor Reed, a former Marine imprisoned two years earlier for assaulting Russian police officers.

At the same time, the US freed a Russian pilot jailed for drug trafficking.

The US also holds Alexander Vinnik, a Russian money launderer extradited from Greece last year, and Vladimir Dunaev, a malware and ransomware hacker extradited from South Korea in 2021.

And Washington is seeking the extradition from Brazil of Sergey Cherkasov, an alleged Russian spy who attended graduate school in Washington under deep cover.

Konoshchenok’s prosecution comes as US authorities seek to ramp up enforcement of export controls and sanctions designed to hamper Moscow’s war in Ukraine.

His next scheduled court appearance is July 31.


Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies