July 13, 2024

US takes custody of Russian agent from Estonia

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The United States took custody Friday of an alleged Russian intelligence agent extradited from Estonia, as the Biden administration pursues possible prisoner exchanges for US detainees in Russia.

Vadim Konoshchenok was arrested in Estonia late last year as he sought to cross the border into Russia carrying semiconductors and US-made ammunition for sniper rifles, according to charges filed against him.

He 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.

US officials said more than a half-ton (450 kilograms) of US-origin ammunition was interdicted or seized from Konoshchenok’s operation.

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

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

Konoshchenok’s extradition to the United States 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 United States denies either was involved in spying, but has been in negotiations to see if they could be swapped for Russians that it holds.

“I’m serious about a prisoner exchange,” Biden said Thursday in Finland.

“I’m serious about doing all we can to free Americans who are being illegally held in Russia or anywhere else for that matter. And that process is underway,” he said.

Last December, the United States 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 United States 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.

pmh/md

©️ Agence France-Presse

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