Did Russian Spies Use Diplomatic Cover to Run a Global Cocaine-Smuggling Operation?
After a massive embassy drug bust, a trial is being held in secret, the Kremlin seems to be lying, and sources believe Russian agents are covering up the involvement of officials.
This is a joint investigation by The Daily Beast and the Dossier Center.
Six men await trial in Moscow and Buenos Aires, charged with operating one of the craziest, most ambitious narco-trafficking rings in history. Russia’s embassy in Argentina was the storage depot and Russian government transport was intended to move a cartel-sized consignment of virtually uncut cocaine from South America to Moscow. It was a transnational crime that astounded and confused the world, not least because authorities allege it was carried out by a small but resourceful cabal including one dirty embassy employee, one corrupt cop, and one charismatic chameleon who used some of the most secure Russian state real estate to store and smuggle $60 million worth of drugs.
According to the official narrative, they did it all right under the noses of innocent diplomats and intelligence officers—and they would have gotten away with it without the plucky joint police work of Russian and Argentinian law enforcement. But what if that neat conclusion, which will soon be presented in court, is intentionally incomplete, a whitewash designed to protect more senior officials in the Russian government?
The Daily Beast, in collaboration with the London-based Dossier Center, has obtained the documents from both the Russian and Argentinian investigations of the notorious 2018 cocaine bust, including hundreds of hours of telephone wiretap recordings, reams of witness and suspect interrogation transcripts, and nearly 10,000 pages of police and intelligence case files. These files were leaked to the Dossier Center from two separate sources, including one in Argentina connected with that country’s investigation who believes these forensic materials cast doubt on the alleged involvement in the affair of two indicted Argentines. The other source is close to the Russian investigation. All told, both sets of files show gaping holes, contradictions, discrepancies and implausible conclusions, which often border on the ludicrous.
At best, these documents suggest a staggering level of incompetence, with credible leads not followed up and government officials credibly implicated in the course of the joint investigation not investigated or prosecuted. At worst, they paint a darker picture of a coordinated, hemisphere-spanning coverup designed to protect those government officials and possibly other unnamed co-conspirators higher up in the food chain in Russia.
One U.S. federal drug enforcement agent who spoke on the condition of anonymity thinks that all indications point to the latter. “According to our information, some members of the Russian embassy in Argentina... were aware of drug-related activities and were associated with the drug mafia. At some point there was a leak. The Argentinian authorities found out about the cocaine and contacted the embassy, after which the Russian side decided it was safer to ‘find’ the drugs. The scandal was resolved at a diplomatic level and no real investigation was conducted by Argentina.”
But that’s not the public line of the Argentinian government.
On Feb. 22, 2018, Patricia Bullrich, Argentina’s national security minister, lit up Twitter. She posted to her official account videos of the seizure of almost 400 kilograms of cocaine from the Russian embassy in Buenos Aires. “The investigation lasted more than a year, both in Argentina and Russia, and together we detained 6 members of this group that planned to transport a cargo worth more than 50 million euro,” one of Bullrich’s tweets read.
The extraordinary location and sheer volume of the narcotics uncovered made this an explosive international story. It became an even bigger news event when Bullrich announced that Ivan Bliznyuk, the liaison officer at the Institute of Public Security, Buenos Aires’s police academy, had been arrested in connection with the same drug case. Yet the evidence for his participation in the drug-running syndicate rests almost entirely on the word of a Russian embassy security official, who, by his own admission, adopted a see-no-evil approach for several months to the presence of 12 strange suitcases stored on embassy grounds.
Bliznyuk and a fellow Argentine, the U.S. drug enforcement agent said, “were detained in order to deflect suspicion from the embassy and [Russian] Foreign Ministry officials who used diplomatic channels for smuggling and were the drugs’ real beneficiaries.” An officer in Argentina’s Federal Intelligence Agency agrees that there were other embassy staff members involved, and adds that they likely had connections to Russian intelligence owing to the tradecraft and planning involved in the abortive scheme.
At the center of this complex web of alleged criminality sits the main defendant in the case, Andrei Kovalchuk. He claims he is the victim of a vast conspiracy and ran afoul of the very intelligence organs he had faithfully served for years—the organs of two countries, in fact, Russia and Germany. “My misfortunes began,” he wrote from a prison cell in Berlin where he awaited extradition to Moscow, “after the operation to join the Crimea to Russia in 2014, in which I took part, for which I was awarded a medal for this operation, which is located here, in Berlin.” Kovalchuk’s lawyer insists his client has helped nab terrorists, mobsters, and gun-runners from Lower Saxony to Düsseldorf. He denies all of the charges.
At once a cipher and a changeling, Kovalchuk is full of fantastical tales about himself and his various clients, cronies and accomplices but this much can be solidly established: He maintained lasting relationships with a series of security officials in various countries, as well as employees of the Russian Foreign Ministry. He had an excellent working knowledge of the layout and protocols of Russian missions, not to mention the protocol for wrapping and diplomatic parcels. And he allegedly seconded a host of Russian government vehicles and aircraft to move not just drugs but jewelry, clothes, and pharmaceuticals across national borders. Based on the Argentine and Russian indictments, we are invited to believe that all of this was arranged privately by Kovalchuk with a little cash and a lot of cognac, cigars, and candies courtesy of a burly and hirsute business associate, a camera-friendly Russian exile in Germany who’s taken to calling himself a “baron.”
An international man of mystery requires manifold identities. Over a remarkable 20-year career, Kovalchuk has passed himself off not only as a spook, but also a diplomat, a Gazprom representative, a shrink, a philanthropist, and a man of leisure. Yet in spite of all his extraordinary Moscow connections, this Ukrainian-born grifter was never even a legal Russian citizen; all of his passports, the case files show, were invalid. Thus the main perpetrator sitting in pretrial detention in Moscow is technically stateless.
Did Kovalchuk spy for the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service, or was it the GRU, its military service? Both deny he was one of theirs. “Kovalchuk is a man of intelligence, perhaps retired, but still serving the Russian government,” a source in Argentina’s Federal Intelligence Agency told us.
That would certainly explain why the functionaries in the Russian Foreign Ministry clearly implicated in the case files as Kovalchuk’s blackmarket handmaids were never investigated or suspended or fired from their jobs. In fact, they all seem to have been untroubled by this scandal, all, that is, save the one who committed “suicide” outside his Moscow apartment three weeks after the cocaine was discovered at the embassy in Buenos Aires. Kovalchuk is also being tried in closed Russian court, a dispensation normally reserved for minors, sex offenders or those for whom publicized due process risks compromising matters of national security.
Both the Russian and Argentinian governments have failed to account for how Kovalchuk, a man of limited financial resources, acquired eight-figures worth of high-purity marching powder or to determine its ultimate beneficiaries. At times, the investigators simply failed to follow up on obvious leads, such as investigating the possible involvement of the Sinaloa drug cartel as the manufacturers of the cocaine or following up on a Dutch phone number said to belong to the intended buyer or recipient of it.
Still another curiosity of this affair is why Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the National Security Council, the former director of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, and one of the most powerful strongmen in Vladimir Putin’s inner sanctum, flew to and from Argentina, allegedly on the same Russian government plane used in the sting operation that snared Kovalchuk. And why did the Kremlin then deny that his aircraft (and possibly also Patrushev himself) had been involved in this drug-trafficking story?
Whoever Andrei Kovalchuk is, or was, before his name appeared in bold multilingual print, his alleged coke-smuggling plan required a network of well-placed fixers and mules. He found his first alleged courier in an embassy.
The First Mule?
In 2012, Ali Abyanov, the head of the administrative and economics department at the Russian embassy in Buenos Aires, said he received a call from someone who introduced himself as Andrei Kovalchuk, a security officer at the Russian embassy in Berlin.
According to the case files, Kovalchuk told his ostensible colleague that he’d be traveling to Argentina in the middle of the year and would very much like to meet. Abyanov later told Russian investigators that he didn’t know why this person had called him or why he wanted to meet him but he consented anyway. Kovalchuk must have made an excellent first impression because Abyanov agreed to drive him back to Buenos Aires International Airport by diplomatic car. Once they arrived at the airport Kovalchuk removed his luggage from the vehicle—all but one suitcase weighing between 25 and 30 kilograms. The heft, he told Abyanov, owed to the gustatory contents: wine, coffee grounds, and cookies.
According to Abyanov’s interrogation, Kovalchuk then gave the property manager $1,000 and asked if he wouldn’t mind mailing the suitcase to Russia on Kovalchuk’s behalf at a later date. Abyanov said he took his new acquaintance’s word at face value and never opened the parcel.
Around the end of year, Kovalchuk allegedly called Abyanov and told him it was time to send his package: a Russian cargo plane scheduled to fly to Moscow out of Montevideo, Uruguay, was leaving at the end of 2012 and his stuff should be on it. Abyanov couriered the suitcase to Montevid, then submitted it as cargo on the departing flight.
The Argentinian Connection
The following year, 2013, Kovalchuk visited Argentina three times, now with an entirely different occupation. No longer a former security officer attached to the embassy in Berlin, he was now an employee of Gazprom, the Russian state-owned gas company. On one of these three trips, Kovalchuk met Nikolai Shelepov, the first secretary of the Russian embassy in Argentina, whose job is that of assistant head of security for the ambassador, a job often filled by an intelligence officer. They went to a cafe and Kovalchuk said he’d come to town to check on the “feasibility of Gazprom acquiring a historic building in the center of Buenos Aires,” according to Shelepov, who said Kovalchuk also boasted of his many contacts in the Russian Foreign Ministry.
Shelepov was also sufficiently impressed with his vouched-for compatriot. He decided to introduce Kovalchuk to Ivan Bliznyuk, the liaison officer of the Institute of Public Safety, the point of contact for international relations at the Buenos Aires police academy. Bliznyuk is an Argentine of Russian heritage; he had three children but lived on a modest state wage and he “dreamed of finding a job with Gazprom,” according to Shelepov. As part of our investigation, we wrote to Bliznyuk about his role, and he confirmed that Kovalchuk had passed himself off as a Gazprom employee who needed a keyed-in local to help buy “a building in Buenos Aires for their headquarters... That’s why Shelepov invited me for a beer at a bar and introduced us to each other there.”
According to the case files, Kovalchuk returned to Argentina in 2014, Abyanov told investigators, and handed off two more suitcases to his mule. He again told Abyanov they were filled with wine, coffee and cookies, only this time he had a special set of shipping instructions, as Abyanov recalled: “to pack the suitcases specially with paper, string and wax seal. Usually, this is how diplomatic mail is packed, which is not subject to inspection.”
Kovalchuk is alleged to have paid $1,000 per suitcase. Abyanov might not have been the snooping type but nor was he under any illusions as to why he was so handsomely compensated, $1,000 goes a long way in Argentina. He sent them from Montevideo to Moscow aboard a Russian military transport plane.
In his testimony to Russian investigators, Abyanov contradicted himself as to what he suspected he was transporting for Kovalchuk. First, in 2017, he said, he believed the packages contained “prohibited” items but in a separate interrogation, in 2019, he said he never suspected Kovalchuk was anything but above-board owing to his familiarity with “everyone at the embassy” and his frequent attendance at embassy receptions.
The Policeman’s Ball
At the invitation of the Russian Interior Ministry, a delegation of police officers from Buenos Aires, including Bliznyuk, traveled to Moscow. After the official ceremonies concluded, the guests decided to take a trip to St. Petersburg, and Bliznyuk was tasked with organizing the excursion. He asked Shelepov back at the embassy about how best to conduct a guided tour for the Spanish-speaking delegation of police officers , who are known as gendarmes in Argentina, through Russia’s cultural capital. Shelepov thought of Kovalchuk, the well-connected Gazprom rep, who was only too happy to help.
He linked Bliznyuk up with one of his old friends and business associates from Germany, Baron Konstantin von Bossner. Konstanin Loskutnikov, as he was born, is a bearded bear of a man with more than a passing resemblance to Robbie Coltrane’s ex-KGB mafioso Valentin Zukovsky in the James Bond films. He owns a Berlin-based company, Bossner, which hawks chocolate, hand-rolled Nicaraguan and Dominican cigars, ostrich and python purses, crocodile shoes, Georgian wine, and its own signature brand of cognac, Bossner X.O. All of these products, the company website notes, are “designed to cause joy and positive emotions.”
Bossner is as devoted to God as he is to bespoke leather accessories; he founded the Russian Orthodox Benefactors Club, a German-registered charity, in 2010, and was awarded the Order of Honor in Germany earlier this year for his philanthropic work.
According to the investigative files, the Baron made sure Bliznyuk showed the Argentinian cops a good time. They were feted with Bossner staples—cognac, chocolate and cigars— and taken on a boating trip along the rivers and canals of Russia’s most European city. Kovalchuk at times portrayed himself as a representative of the Bossner company, someone who came into these many “samples” of booze and cigars, which he’d share with grateful officials and influencers from many nations. A letter from Bossner’s Russian Orthodox Benefactors Club, signed by Bossner, shows that Kovalchuk was an official representative of the Berlin-based charity. According to the wiretap transcripts, Kovalchuk even asked Bossner’s wife if she’d become his son’s godmother, an honor she accepted. Bossner, however, maintained throughout his Interior Ministry interrogations that he had no substantive relationship with Kovalchuk, whom he portrayed as a huckster and schnorrer, eager to lap up those free “samples” of the exile’s finest luxury goods as an advance on investments which never came.
“Several years ago [Kovalchuk] was brought to my office by a high-ranking employee of Gazprom in Germany and introduced as a colonel, the head of the special services, who deals with consulates in Europe, Asia, Latin America and other rubbish,” Bossner told Germany’s OstWest TV in 2018. “Mr. Kovalchuk, like many others, tried our products, smoked our cigars, drank our cognac, then, over the years… asking for one sample, [then] another sample, [he told us] he will try to find a client, that he flies around to the whole world that he will try to organize the sale of our products, and naturally wants to make money on this. We are always open to any kind of cooperation, so it often comes from us samples of cigarettes and cognac, but not a single deal, not a single contract was concluded.”
A New Hiding Place, a New Friend
Kovalchuk flew back to Argentina three times in 2015, according to travel records. On his third trip, adhering to a now-established tradition, he gave Abyanov two suitcases and $2,000. Abyanov said he hid these away in a car garage attached to the embassy school where the diplomats sent their kids, awaiting Kovalchuk’s notice of when and how they should leave the country.
In February 2016, a delegation of Russian policemen flew to Argentina as part of a kind of exchange program following the highly successful Argentinian delegation from the year before. Kovalchuk was in town and attended a reception in honor of the visiting officers at the Russian embassy. Abyanov said he introduced him to Oleg Vorobiev, the new first secretary and embassy security chief, who had replaced Shelepov. No longer a Gazprom rep, Kovalchuk was presented as a security official attached to the Russian Foreign Ministry.
Kovalchuk relayed greetings to Vorobiev from his predecessor Shelepov, now back in Moscow. Vorobiev and Kovalchuk struck up a friendship and started to communicate. In March 2016, Kovalchuk told the security chief he’d been appointed the Berlin representative of Rossotrudnichestvo, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s cultural outreach arm, according to Vorobiev. (Vorobiev later told investigators that he never asked for nor saw a business card from Kovalchuk, even as the latter’s occupation morphed throughout their relationship.)
An Impossible Score
Kovalchuk returned to Argentina several more times in the spring and summer of 2016, always stopping by the embassy, and, checking in to see Abyanov and Vorobiev, according to their statements to investigators.
According to the Russian case files, including Abyanov’s statement to investigators, sometime in the middle of 2016, Kovalchuk gave 10 suitcases, all supposedly filled with wine and semiprecious gems, to Abyanov, who moved them to the same garage in the embassy school where he’d stowed the previous two. He asked another embassy employee to pack these suitcases as diplomatic mail. Abyanov then moved all 12 suitcases from the garage to a little-used utility room in the school. It was a seemingly ideal hiding spot, among broken tables, chairs, old computers and other junk.
Each of the 12 suitcases, as would later be discovered, were filled with 30 briquettes of nearly undiluted cocaine, with each briquette containing a little over a kilogram. The value of 389 kilograms, the possible total weight in Kovalchuk’s alleged consignment, is around $60 million.
Drug enforcement experts from multiple countries said that such a sizable score cannot have been purchased from local drug dealers. Kolvachuk, they said, would have needed a longstanding and trusted relationship with high-level narco traffickers to acquire and move that kind of volume. Neither the Argentinian nor Russian investigators tried to uncover the supply chain or find out how Kovalchuk, an alleged Russian spy, who had no significant sources of wealth, ended up with drugs worth tens of millions of dollars.
Three types of cartel stamps—a star within a star, a horseshoe and the initials “LG”—were found on the briquettes. The first two are typically associated with the Sinaloa Cartel. Nothing in the Argentinian or Russian documents we have pored through indicates that this piece of evidence was investigated.
The Second Mule?
On July 19, 2016, Abyanov’s embassy contract expired. A new property manager, Igor Rogov, took his place.
Sometime during the month-long handover period, Abyanov says he told his successor about the presence of 12 boxes in the utility room, adding that he didn’t know what they contained but that they all belonged to Kovalchuk.
Rogov didn’t know who Kovalchuk was and asked Abyanov about him. “Abyanov answered me that Kovalchuk is a person ‘from the center,’ that is, from the Russian Foreign Ministry,” Rogov told Russian investigators. “Abyanov spoke very well of Kovalchuk and said that Kovalchuk had visited Argentina many times and knew many people, including the embassy staff.”
Several months went by. Then, in a Skype chat, Rogov said Abyanov asked him to send the suitcases to Moscow by special military plane, which was due to arrive at the Montevideo airport in early December 2016. Rogov needed help for the job. “I unsuccessfully turned to one or another embassy employee,” he told investigators, “eventually reaching the military attaché and even the Ambassador Viktor Koronelli."
Koronelli had been ambassador since 2011, a year before Kovalchuk first made contact with Ali Abyanov. And yet, in spite of Kovalchuk’s frequent appearances at the embassy, Koronelli told investigators that he’d only met him once, in March 2016. It was at the request of Abyanov, who’d introduced Kovalchuk as a representative of the Russian Orthodox Benefactors Club, an employee, in other words, of Bossner’s charity. Kovalchuk took that occasion to name-drop several mutual friends and acquaintances, according to Ambassador Koronelli’s statement to investigators. Koronelli added that he never bothered to check on his interlocutor’s bona fides.
“It’s incredibly easy to check on someone’s credentials from an embassy,” said Jan Neumann, a former FSB officer from Directorate K, the same financial crimes unit tasked with investigating the Kovalchuk case. Neumann defected to the United States in 2008 and became a CIA and FBI informant. “You put a call into Moscow. If the person you’re checking on claims to have been posted to another Russian mission, Moscow then calls that mission to verify he’s legit. All of this takes minutes. And it’s simply not possible that the head of security in the embassy in Argentina didn’t check on Kovalchuk. It’s a necessary protocol.”
Koronelli’s term as ambassador to Argentina ended in June 2018, about four months after the cocaine scandal was publicized. Koronelli is now Russia’s ambassador to Mexico; he declined to comment on this story.
According to the transcript of an Argentinian wiretap of Bliznyuk, Koronelli quarreled with Kovalchuk, a fact Koronelli did not recount to Russian investigators after saying he’d only met Kovalchuk once, casually, at the embassy. This conversation, dated Oct. 11, 2017, has never before been made public and undercuts Koronelli’s claim of a one-off encounter with the alleged primary drug smuggler. It also complicates the two Argentinian defendants’ role as alleged accomplices, as it suggests that Kovalchuk hadn’t paid Bliznyuk or Alexander Chikalo as part of the scheme.
Bliznyuk: Sanya [Alexander], we from Andriukha [Kovalchuk], neither I nor you, have not received a penny in all this time.
Chikalo: Not once, nothing.
Bliznyuk: Especially since the suitcases are at the embassy. First, the embassy issues... well, he [Kovalchuk] had a fight with Koronelli.
Bliznyuk: Yes, the new ambassador will arrive soon.
A New Exit Strategy
For some reason, Kovalchuk allegedly changed his cocaine exfiltration scheme, and sped up the timeline. Instead of letting Rogov dispatch the suitcases by special military plane in December, Kovalchuk flew back to Argentina on Nov. 25 to retrieve the items himself. When he arrived, he spent a day roaming the city but stayed clear of the embassy, usually one of his first ports of call. It’s not known what he got up to that day, nor with whom, but the 24-hour interregnum cost him dearly.
On Nov. 25, the day Kovalchuk touched down at Buenos Aires International Airport, Rogov finally told Vorobiev about the suitcases, according to Rogov’s testimony to Russian investigators. Vorobiev, he said, decided to check on their contents. He found the briquettes. “Vorobiev ripped the packaging off one of them, and we saw a compressed white powder inside,” Rogov said in his interrogation. “We realized that it could be drugs.”
Vorobiev then notified Ambassador Koronelli, according to the Russian case files. Koronelli phoned the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow. The 9th Division of the K-Directorate of the Economic Security Service of FSB and the 14th Division of the Main Drug Control Directorate of the Interior Ministry opened an investigation. Except the Russian government hasn't kept the story of how it unfolded straight.
Most of the files from the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office indicate that the suitcases of cocaine were officially “found”—meaning through a purposive search for them, not an accidental discovery—on the evening of Dec. 8, 2016, when, at the direction of the Foreign Ministry, embassy staff reopened them. The staff did so, according to these files, in the presence of FSB representatives who had flown to Buenos Aires from Moscow after Koronelli alerted the Foreign Ministry. And yet, in one FSB document the suitcases are recorded as having been “found” on Dec. 4 and opened the next day. That document makes no mention of FSB representatives from Moscow being present for this earlier unveiling. A similar discrepancy concerns the total weight of the evidence.
Depending on which document you’re looking at, the 12 suitcases contain amounts of cocaine ranging from 357 to 389 kilograms, a shortfall of 32 kilograms, or $5 million worth of cocaine. (The true weight may never be known: In August 2018, the Argentinians burnt all the cocaine in accordance with what they say were the protocols of evidence destruction.) “Under the Federal Rules for Evidence, the date discrepancy and the weight discrepancy would potentially jeopardize any criminal prosecution of those responsible,” the U.S. drug enforcement agent said. “The evidence is not exact and the drug amount and weight need to be verified and weighed by a laboratory and a clear chain of custody must be intact. The Argentinian-Russian case reeks of evidence mishandling... of the investigation and prosecution.”
On the evening of Dec. 13, Koronelli had a meeting with Patricia Bullrich, the Argentinian security minister, formally briefing her about the presence of hundreds of kilos of cocaine in the Russian embassy. At the same meeting, according to the case files, Vorobiev suggested to his Argentine counterparts that one of the smugglers was likely Ivan Bliznyuk, the point-man at the Argentinian police academy.
On Dec. 14, a special operation was launched by the Argentinian gendarmerie to catch the domestic side of this narco-trafficking ring. The 12 suitcases were removed from the embassy and loaded onto a pickup truck and driven to a police facility. They recorded the procedure. There, the cases were opened, and the drugs were weighed. The officers then swapped the cocaine for a mixture of sand and flour, repackaged in bags rather than briquettes, and resealed everything as it had been.
The suitcases were then returned to the embassy, where the gendarmes installed three cameras on the school premises. GPS systems were allegedly placed inside suitcases.
Argentinian law enforcement opened their own criminal investigation and tapped Bliznyuk’s phones as well as those of Chikalo, a close friend and sometime neighbor in Buenos Aires. These wiretaps soon established that both men were in constant communication with Andrei Kovalchuk. So Russian authorities subsequently tapped Kovalchuk’s phones.
The Smuggler’s Dilemma
The alleged main actor in what was now a seemingly compromised smuggling ring is accused of spending the next year or so attempting different exfiltration schemes. One, for instance, involved bringing Russian cadets to Argentina on a trip bankrolled by the fun-loving Bossner, the idea being that the cadets would fly home with undeclared cargo, easily explained away as souvenirs or somesuch. For various reasons, all of Kovalchuk’s alleged gambits fizzled.
Then, on Oct. 11, 2017, he notified Vorobiev and Rogov he was coming back to Buenos Aires himself, unaware they were now part of a government plot to catch him.
The FSB and Interior Ministry investigators weren’t quite ready to close the net.
Instead, they ordered Rogov to leave town on a business trip to the coastal city of Mar del Plata, leaving Kovalchuk without his only keymaster for the embassy school utility room.
We know what happened when Kovalchuk arrived in Buenos Aires because we have the wiretaps of Bliznyuk and Chikalo discussing it on Oct. 11.
Kovachulk, Bliznyuk said on the phone, had asked him to move suitcases he’d left at the embassy in exchange for $10,000. Bliznyuk told Chikalo that Kovalchuk had said the cases contained “sea lion skins” from Uruguay that could be sold at high prices in Russia and Germany. Judging from their conversation, Bliznyuk and Chikalo clearly thought Kovalchuk was untrustworthy and suspect; Bliznyuk told his friend he’d have no part in Kovalchuk’s nutty scheme.
We also know what Bliznyuk did next, based on another wiretap: he immediately called Vorobiev on Oct. 12, a day after his conversation with Chikalo, to tell the embassy security chief about Kovalchuk’s solicitation and the presence of suspicious parcels on embassy grounds, which Bliznyuk said probably contained “forbidden elements.”
Vorobiev was now part of the sting operation to catch Kovalchuk and so he played dumb, casting doubt on the story. But on that same call Vorobiev asked Bliznyuk if the latter intended to help Kovalchuk, to which Bliznyuk answered, “Can’t do it and that’s all. Why would I mess with this?”
The Latvian Deception
As Kovalchuk allegedly saw it, he was running out of time and willing or available intermediaries to get his drugs out of Argentina. Investigators claim that Kovalchuk first turned to a familiar pretext: the largesse of Baron Konstanin von Bossner when it came to spoiling friendly foreigners. According to this stratagem, an embassy car would drive to the airport to collect Bossner’s cognac and chocolate intended for the Argentinian policemen from the St. Petersburg delegation. The “gifts” would be flown to Buenos Aires from Berlin, where Bossner’s office was, on a private jet. For the return flight, Kovalchuk’s “sea lion skins” and the supposed paraphernalia of diplomats—in reality, the drugs—would allegedly be loaded onboard. Except the jet wasn’t flying directly to Berlin. First it would land in Riga, Latvia, where Kovalchuk allegedly said he had cronies who’d move the goods past customs without any problem. Flying on to Berlin would then mean facing no inspection hurdle owing to the European Union’s Schengen area of unrestricted travel across borders.
One of Kovalchuk’s business partners in Moscow, Ishtimir Khudjamov, said he was asked to help with the operation. On Oct. 14, 2017, Khudjamov flew to Berlin and picked up a box of cognac and sweets from Bossner’s office. To justify the stopover in Riga on the way back, Khudjamov said he picked up something else: three Latvian nationals who weren’t told of their real role as decoys in a drug-running operation. Instead, Khudjamov told the Latvians to pose as a technical crew attached to Zvezda, the Russian Defense Ministry’s TV station. All they knew was that they’d be delivering the gifts to Argentina, then transporting things on the way home. (Khudjamov now pleads innocence and ignorance to being a narcotrafficker at all; he told Russian investigators that Kovalchuk had claimed the return cargo was a rare and expensive brand of coffee beans.)
The problem was Rogov was still away on his concocted “business trip” when the Bossner presents were due to arrive. And, as the property manager was still the only one who could access the utility room in the embassy school, investigators allege Kovalchuk couldn’t retrieve his drugs on time. On Oct. 18, the jet left Buenos Aires, light of the cognac and chocolate, but also any coke.
Although it was a bust, the plan demonstrated Kovalchuk’s well-honed tradecraft.
Less than a month later, on Nov. 8, Kovalchuk called Rogov and Vorobiev and told them he’d be back in Argentina in two days. This time Rogov wasn’t told to feign a work excursion. With Vorobiev's permission, he met Kovalchuk and told him the suitcases could be shipped aboard a Russian government aircraft the following month.
Around the same time, Kovalchuk spoke to Khudjamov, according to Argentinian wiretaps. They discussed “200 kilograms” without specifying the substance (although we can probably guess) which were somewhere in Uruguay. Kovalchuk said he wanted that consignment flown out of Buenos Aires on the Russian plane.
He was finally in luck, or so it may have seemed. On Nov. 13, his suitcases found themselves entered onto the manifest. His luggage was supposed to be transferred by RA-96023, a newish Ilyushin-96 long-haul airliner operated by Russia’s Special Flight Detachment, the property, no less, of Russia’s Presidential Administration used most frequently by Nikolai Patrushev.
Patrushev is one of the most influential members of the Kremlin inner circle and a decision-maker when it comes to Russian foreign policy. He succeeded Vladimir Putin as director of the FSB when Putin was appointed prime minister of Boris Yeltsin’s government in 1999. Patrushev is now Secretary of the National Security Council and RA-96023 is so associated with his overseas jaunts that it’s colloquially known in Russia as “Patrushev’s plane.”
On Feb. 27, 2018 Yelena Krylova, the spokesperson for Russia’s Presidential Affairs Directorate, denied that the aircraft was involved in the “cocaine case.” “Journalists made conclusions based on inaccurate information—in this case, photographs that can be easily falsified thanks to modern technology,” Krylova said. Her denial, however, contradicts what’s in the Argentinian case file, according to which the FSB informed Buenos Aires as early as Nov. 17, 2017 that Patrushev’s plane was to be used for the special operation. The plane number 96023 is clearly visible not only in the photographs publicly released by the Argentinian gendarmerie but also in the video, uploaded on their official YouTube channel on Feb. 23, 2018.
The Argentinian files also confirm that RA-96023 was indeed used “during the visit” of Patrushev to Argentina, suggesting that’s how the Russian official got there and back.
Yet someone in the Russian government doesn’t want this fact to be publicly acknowledged. Shortly after Russian media reports surfaced about Patrushev’s plane possibly being used in a covert drug bust, the website with the relevant flight data, russianplanes.net, went offline. Moreover, the creator of that website removed the russianplanes.net group from VKontakte, a popular social media network, as well as his personal VKontakte page and a sister portal, russianships.net, dedicated to tracking seafaring vessels. “I just took it all and deleted it, maybe something didn’t work out right there,” the website operator, identified as “Kiba,” said in an interview with independent Russian outlet Mediazona. “I’m a little tense now, so I went and removed it, I don’t want to set anyone up.”
Patrushev’s plane was scheduled to arrive from Moscow on Dec. 4, delivering Patrushev for one of those jaunts, a visit to Argentina. It was scheduled to return to Moscow with the national security secretary on board on Dec. 6. This is the conveyance Kovalchuk allegedly thought wise to transport almost 400 kilos of high-grade cocaine across multiple time zones.
On Nov. 15, Kovalchuk and Khudjamov left Argentina.
Shortly before departing, Kovalchuk spoke to Rogov and made a few final touches to his plan. He allegedly asked him to remove from the suitcases the name of the Russian diplomat they ostensibly belonged to: Alexander Nezimov, the deputy director of the consular department of the Foreign Ministry. Kovalchuk allegedly instructed Rogov to simply write Kovalchuk’s Russian telephone number on the cases and use the abbreviation “CD,” likely standing for “Corps Diplomatique,” which is carried by all diplomatic licenses overseas.
On Dec. 4, Vorobiev drove the suitcases filled with sand and flour to Buenos Aires International Airport and loaded them onto Patrushev’s Ilyushin. There is every indication, based on both the public record and the Argentinian case files, that Patrushev was on board the plane when it departed Argentina for Russia, making the former FSB director and one of Putin’s most trusted national security advisers a party to the sting operation.
“A Close Partnership”
On the morning of Dec. 7, Patrushev’s plane touched down in Moscow. So did the suitcases allegedly belonging to Kovalchuk, which were sent directly to an FSB storage facility. The next day the FSB called Kovalchuk’s telephone number, scrawled on the cargo. He picked up; the FSB officer on the other end introduced himself as a courier from the Foreign Ministry and asked about the pickup. Kovalchuk said his associate Vladimir Kalmykov would come to collect the parcels.
On Dec. 9, Argentinian gendarmes arrived in Russia to assume their role in the special operation to snatch the smugglers.
On Dec. 12, Kalmykov and Khudjamov arrived at a Foreign Ministry facility to take custody of the suitcases. They were immediately arrested by the FSB.
According to documents from the Prosecutor General’s Office, the intended recipient of the suitcases could be in Belgium or the Netherlands. Yet no attempt was made to look for them. Moreover, a Dutch mobile phone number allegedly affiliated with the ultimate beneficiary of the cargo was never investigated.
On the evening that Kalmykov and Khudjamov were nabbed, Ali Abyanov, the former property manager of the embassy in Buenos Aires, was also arrested at his apartment in Moscow.
Kovalchuk wasn’t, however, as he was abroad.
According to a source in his company at the time, he remained remarkably calm. When his friends advised him to flee to a country with no extradition treaty with Russia, he insisted he had nothing to worry about.
On Dec. 19, Moscow declared Kovalchuk a wanted man at home and internationally. Interpol issued a “red notice” for his arrest.
Despite the arrests of Kalmykov, Abyanov, and Khudjamov in Russia, the Argentine suspects remained at large for several months.
Ivan Bliznyuk even took a vacation with his wife to Italy before he and Alexander Chikalo were arrested in late February 2018. Bliznyuk, in fact, was taken into custody at the airport as he returned home. A day later, Bullrich, the national security minister, issued the statement about the discovery of cocaine in the Russian embassy.
Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson of the Russian Foreign Ministry, followed suit the next day, announcing an 18 month-long joint operation to disrupt a narcotrafficking syndicate.
“As the investigation discovered,” Zakharova’s statement read, “the cargo belonged to a former maintenance worker who had by that time completed his fixed term employment contract,” referring solely to Abyanov. “This experience serves as further evidence of the close partnership that has developed between our countries in different areas, including law enforcement.”
On March 1, Kovalchuk was arrested in Germany. A month later Berlin received a request about his extradition to Russia. Several days after filing that request, however, Russia’s Federal Migration Service found that Kovalchuk was not, in fact, a citizen of the country. All three of his Russian passports had been issued illegally, a wrinkle which didn’t interfere with his extradition proceedings. On July 27, Kovalchuk was flown to Moscow from Germany and was immediately remanded to the Matrosskaya Tishina detention center.
The Argentines burnt all the cocaine the following month. According to Bliznuyk’s lawyer, they did so without a court order and in a civilian crematorium when a gendarmerie crematorium would have typically been used for such purposes. As of this writing the Argentinian prosecution has yet to provide Bliznyuk’s counsel with evidence of a proper court order for the evidence destruction.
Actions in Buenos Aires should also have repercussions in Moscow. According to the Russian Criminal Procedural Code, evidence must be stored until a court order to destroy it is in force. Thus, the cases against Kovalchuk, Abyanov, Kalmykov and Khudjamov is set to be heard without the main evidence against them in existence.
Germany, too, has questions to answer as to how and why it sent one of these defendants to Russia.
Kovalchuk is a “stateless person,” according to Sergey Safonov, a senior prosecutor of the criminal and judicial department of the Moscow prosecutor’s office. And yet, the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office consistently referred to him as a citizen of the Russian Federation in several requests made for his extradition. Alexander Hamburg, one of his lawyers in Germany, said Kovalchuk was extradited through an accelerated procedural mechanism that robbed him of the necessary time to file an appeal.
The Talented Mr. Kovalchuk
The criminal case against Andrei Kovalchuk gives him no nationality; it simply states he was born in Hertz. It does, however, note that on his various passport applications, Kovalchuk filled in Form No. 1P as having no definite place of residence and no form of employment—yet he was still granted three different Russian passports.
Hertz is in the Chernivtsi region of Ukraine; Kovalchuk was born there in 1968. In 1986 he was drafted into the army in Kaliningrad; two years later he graduated from the 75th paratrooper school in Kirov, and then served for a year as a technician at the aviation school in Barnaul. He was officially discharged from the Soviet military in March 1989 for unknown reasons.
His whereabouts and his activities disappeared into a black hole for about 10 years until he turned up in Germany in the late ’90s. Kovalchuk registered for a correspondence course in psychology at St. Petersburg State University. He stopped his higher education after only a few classes, according to the university’s psychology department chief, who said there was a rumor circulating at the time that Kovalchuk might have been arrested.
According to the testimony of his friend Vadim Zhmurov, Kovalchuk next claimed to work as a security officer at the Russian embassy in Berlin in 2000.
Witnesses interrogated by the Interior Ministry say that in the mid-2000s Kovalchuk lived in Amsterdam with his sister Irina Kuzmenko and her daughter Anastasia. There he met his first wife, Nadezhda Sorokina. In 2006, the entire family relocated to Germany, where Kovalchuk and Sorokina rented an apartment in the building used by Rossotrudnichestvo, the Russian Foreign Ministry science and cultural arm.
At some point in his Berlin period, Kovalchuk is accused of beginning to move goods through diplomatic channels. Irina, his sister, owned Irgotrade GmbH, a cargo transportation company registered in Berlin, which Kovalchuk allegedly used to embark on his smuggling career. On several occasions, his ventures were foiled. In August 2011, employees of Irgotrade tried to ferry 3.7 tons of goods, including 216 kilograms of silver, medicine, jewelry, and clothing, from Latvia to Russia. All of the freight, the company claimed, belonged to Sergei Sedykh, an employee of the Russian Foreign Ministry. Sedykh’s signature was even on the declarations presented to Latvian border guards, who confiscated the contraband and impounded the vehicle. In Russia, two criminal investigations were opened. A customs official was arrested and the jewelry company listed as one of the intended buyers of the cargo was ordered to pay a fine of about $47,000.
Sedykh denied all responsibility. He said he hadn’t given anyone a power of attorney to move items on his behalf, nor had he filled out a declaration and signed any documents. He couldn’t say how the driver of the car had got a copy of his diplomatic passport. He didn’t have to: Sedykh was neither investigated nor fired from his job at the Foreign Ministry. He’s not alone in this respect; officials caught helping Kovalchuk with his illicit schemes have often mysteriously been given the all-clear by the Russian authorities.
Friends in High Places
A trio of high-ranking officials in the Consular Department of the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow—Alexander Dudka, Lev Pausin and Alexander Nezimov—all facilitated Kovalchuk’s alleged contraband business, according to their own testimonies contained in the Russian case files. All of them—individually or collectively—accorded Kovalchuk privileged information about the movement of special government transports; issued him passes to roam around sensitive ministry facilities; introduced him to others who would act as fixers; and provided him with other material assistance in what they must have at least suspected was a blackmarket business.
To Dudka, the chief adviser of the Consular Department, Kovalchuk was a self-declared technical officer for Rossotrudnichestvo in Berlin, the Foreign Ministry’s cultural outreach agency. He told Russian investigators that he met Kovalchuk in Berlin in 2011 while on a “business trip.” Then, in December 2017, shortly before the dozen suitcases of flour and sand arrived in Moscow, Dudka said Kovalchuk asked him to find a diplomatic vehicle to transport “12 boxes” from Russia to Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. Dudka subsequently gave Kovalchuk the relevant schedules of Foreign Ministry vehicles driving along those routes.
Despite his admission that he allowed Kovalchuk to requisition government vehicles for alleged international smuggling, Dudka is still employed at the Russian Foreign Ministry.
Kovalchuk named Alexander Nezimov, the deputy director of the Consular Department, as one of his “bosses,” without specifying what he meant by that term. “Goodbye, no comments,” Nezimov said when reached for comment on this story.The other alleged boss, Peter Polshikov, was the chief adviser of the Latin American Department of the Foreign Ministry. He was found dead in Moscow in December 2016, three weeks after the discovery of the cocaine in the embassy. Polshikov had been shot in the head; an automatic pistol was found next to his corpse, outside his apartment. Authorities ruled it a suicide. Polshikov’s neighbors recalled that before his death he had been acting strangely and had stopped communicating with his friends.
The ‘Spy’ Who Loved Many
Kovalchuk serially and convincingly posed as an intelligence officer, the Russian case file states, either attached to the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service, or the GRU, its military intelligence service. But the official Russian report concluded he was really neither. “In the light of these events, relevant inquiries were made to those institutions and agencies, the responses of which indicated that Kovalchuk is not an employee of the Russian Foreign Ministry, is not an employee of any law enforcement agency of Russia, and is not a representative in foreign institutions of Russia. Kovalchuk used his cunning and ingenuity for his personal, selfish purposes, in most cases achieving the results he needed.”
Several of his contacts still maintain he was a spy. Sergey Borshchev at the Nakhimov Naval School of the Russian Ministry of Defense, the school that sent the Russian cadets to Argentina, thought Kovalchuk was an officer of the SVR. “According to Kovalchuk,” Borshchev told investigators, “he often came [to Russia] to work in the Russian Foreign Ministry, to meet with top officials of the Ministry, as well as to the SVR. Also, I had no doubts about his service, since he would often bring gifts from the SVR: calendars, key rings and other gifts with the symbols of the SVR.”
Russian army officer Mikhail Kazantsev met Kovalchuk in 2011 when Kovalchuk’s nephew was serving in Kazantsev’s unit, 3641. Kazantsev told investigators that, in 2015, Kovalchuk offered him an opportunity to transport “goods other than food” from Germany to Russia using diplomatic channels. Kazantsev, too, believed Kovalchuk was a Russian intelligence officer and even claimed to have seen his SVR ID: “I believed Kovalchuk, as he spoke very convincingly, and when we met, he once showed me an ID card of an officer of the SVR, where his photograph was, and the rank of colonel was indicated. I would like to clarify that I perceived this document as genuine and not a fake.”There is plenty of circumstantial evidence to suggest that Kovalchuk may have been entangled in some way with Russia’s vast national security apparatus. In his pretrial sessions in Moscow, media and relatives of all the defendants were removed from the courtroom to maintain secrecy. According to the Russian Code of Criminal Procedure, a closed trial is permitted if the case concerns minors, sexual inviolability or state secrets, or if an open hearing may threaten the safety of the participants in the process. Regarding the “cocaine case,” as it’s commonly known in Moscow, there was no hint of the first two preconditions; only the last two could have plausibly served as grounds to keep the press and families out of the courtroom.
Out of the Embassy, Into the Shadows
Jan Neumann, the FSB defector, said he sees one of two likely scenarios for what really happened, based on plot holes and elisions in the Argentinian and Russian investigations. “The first scenario: Russian intelligence was tracking a narcotrafficking network from South America to Russia and the whole sting operation was compromised, possibly through leaks. So they hastily covered everything up with this elaborate show involving Patrushev’s plane.
“The second scenario: Russian intelligence was using one of its agents and his narco-trafficking network in South America to finance its own clandestine operations. It’s not uncommon for the Russian services to engage in questionable behavior to keep a ‘black budget’ going for something highly classified and sensitive.”
If scenario two is closer to the reality, we may never know what that “something” is or was intended to be.
In any event, the shadow cast over this remarkable crime saga far exceeds any light that’s been shone on it by two separate governments. As we’ve seen, wiretaps show that Ivan Bliznyuk and Alexander Chikalo talked freely with each other about how they hadn’t received any money from Kovalchuk in all the time they knew him; they described him as a chancer and liar who tried to convince them that his 12 suitcases contained sea lion skins, not drugs.
If Bliznyuk and Chikalo were his witting accomplices, as Argentine prosecutors argue, then why would Kovalchuk have lied to them about the material he was trying to export? And why did Bliznyuk, who declined Kovalchuk’s alleged offer of $10,000 to help move the suitcases, quickly alert Vorobiev, the embassy security official, to their presence on embassy grounds? It was Blizynuk, the evidence in the wiretaps shows, who blew the whistle on a drug-smuggling operation he declined to be a part of. Yet he and Chikalo nevertheless await trial on narco-trafficking charges.We still don’t know who, exactly, Andrei Kovalchuk is or who he worked for. Is he the Slavic George Jung, a charismatic and unlikely cocaine smuggler who managed to suborn diplomats and cops with smooth talk, mutable covers, and modest bribes? Was he an asset or officer of one of Russia’s spy agencies? A con man? A patsy? Or he is that postmodern commonplace in Vladimir Putin’s “mafia state”: a forbidding combination of all of the above?