Signage is seen at the United States Department of Justice headquarters in Washington, D.C., August 29, 2020.
Andrew Kelly | Reuters
WASHINGTON — The Justice Department unsealed a federal indictment Tuesday charging two American citizens and five Russian nationals with operating a sophisticated international smuggling network that obtained sensitive U.S. military technology and ammunition on behalf of the Kremlin.
The network was allegedly set up in 2017 to evade U.S. sanctions and export controls in place at the time. Further sanctions were imposed on Russia by the Biden administration following its invasion of Ukraine in February.
Three of the seven defendants are in custody, the Justice Department said in a statement. They include a suspected officer in Russia’s intelligence service, Vadim Konoshchenok, who was arrested in Estonia last week at the request of the United States. The two U.S. nationals, Alexey Brayman and Vadim Yermolenko, were taken into custody on Tuesday.
“With three of the defendants now in custody, we have disrupted the procurement network allegedly used by the defendants and Russian intelligence services to smuggle sniper rifle ammunition and sensitive electronic components into Russia,” said Attorney General Merrick Garland.
The network allegedly operated as recently as late November, when the Justice Department says Konoshchenok was stopped on the Estonian-Russian border with “approximately 20 cases containing thousands of U.S.-origin bullets, including tactical rounds and .338 military sniper rounds.”
Cut off from military suppliers in the United States and Europe, Russia has struggled to produce enough ammunition to equip its soldiers in Eastern Ukraine.
According to the newly unsealed indictment, members of the so-called “Serniya network” created dozens of front corporations to disguise millions of dollars in payments for the military technology. Once goods had been purchased, they were allegedly routed through multiple countries in Europe, Asia and North America before arriving at their ultimate destination in Russia.
A letter from prosecutors Tuesday requesting bail standards for the two U.S. based defendants emphasized the gravity of the crimes alleged.
“The charged offenses are extremely serious.” wrote U.S. Attorney Breon Peace. “The defendants are charged with participating in a transnational fraud, money laundering and sanctions evasion scheme controlled by a foreign power that is actively engaged in armed conflict.”