No simulation A Russian video game developer bought F-16 fighter jet manuals on eBay. He might face up to 10 years in a U.S. prison.
Russian video game developer Oleg Tishchenko is being tried in the United States. He worked on high-precision flight simulators for 15 years and purchased documentation about various airplane models online to better understand his models. Now, Tishchenko faces criminal charges for one of those purchases. Among other crimes, he has been accused of conspiring against the United States. If convicted, he may face a sentence of more than 10 years in prison.
A lifelong interest
42-year-old Oleg Tishchenko of Moscow is “an airplane geek,” two of his former colleagues told Meduza. The software developer is particularly fascinated with the inner workings of military planes. Tishchenko turned that hobby into a career: he studied at the Moscow Aviation Institute with a major in control systems, informatics, and electric utilities. In 2004, he started working as a software developer for the Russian company Eagle Dynamics.
Eagle Dynamics was founded in Moscow in 1991. It manufactures computer games — specifically, it sells high-precision flight simulators that model both Russian airplanes like the SU or MiG models and their foreign counterparts. The company’s best-known product is the popular video game series Digital Combat Simulator.
According to Tishchenko’s former colleagues, he was one of the company’s best programmers. To “broaden his knowledge,” he constantly bought up user’s manuals for various planes on the Internet. One of Tishchenko’s former coworkers said that, on occasion, he would even spend all his spare cash on the manuals and have to borrow money from other Eagle Dynamics employees.
The F-16 manual
The charges against Oleg Tishchenko indicate that on June 22, 2011, he posted on a forum for Digital Combat Simulator fans asking for help with his next eBay purchase. This time, it was a set of pilot instructions and user’s manuals for American F-16 Fighting Falcon jets. Tishchenko explained to the forum’s users that the seller could only ship the purchase within U.S. borders; he asked for someone who could send the instructions on to Russia.
Meduza was able to locate an archived copy of the discussion. It indicates that other users strongly warned Tishchenko that shipping the papers might be legally questionable. The developer pushed back against their advice, saying that he had bought similar instructions on eBay many times without a hitch. He also wrote that at the time of the discussion, the manuals in question were more than 20 years old and no longer in active use.
Oleg Tishchenko wrote that he was an Eagle Dynamics employee and said he needed the instructions, which included details about the fighter jet’s internal functions, to “understand how stuff works” and use that knowledge to develop a simulator. Eagle Dynamics does indeed plan to release simulator for the F-16.
Ultimately, a user with the handle “Moby” agreed to help Tishchenko and send the purchase to Moscow. The middleman turned out to be 60-year-old Texas resident Kenneth Edward Sullivan. Once other forum users made clear that Sullivan may have broken the law, he wrote, “If I get busted can you send me hack saw???”
Five years later
Oleg Tishchenko was indicted in absentia in 2016. The charges against him included conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States, violating the Arms Export Control Act, and smuggling goods out of the country. Tishchenko’s indictment indicated that the materials he received were related to U.S. defense capabilities, meaning that only government-licensed individuals can export them. Such licenses are only issued if the export in question serves global peace and security aims and the shipment is in the interests of the United States. Exporting defense-related materials to Russia is prohibited altogether, as it is for Belarus, North Korea, Iran, and any countries with which the U.S. has an arms embargo.
In March 2016, prosecutors received new documentation relevant to the case. At that point, a Department of Homeland Security special agent contacted Tishchenko in the forum, posing as a potential seller of American airplane documents. This time, the indictment said, Tishchenko wanted to buy instructions for A-10, F-35, and F-22 jets.
Once again, the video game developer explained that he wanted to buy the instructions to produce more accurate flight simulators. He wrote that it would be simply impossible for a Russian software development company to purchase the manuals directly from the U.S. government and that it was highly unlikely that any of the other developers at his company would see the documents in question.
The indictment also indicates that Tishchenko did not keep the instructions he bought to himself; instead, it says, he sold them to users in other countries. In 2016, eBay warned the Russian citizen that his lots were “legally dubious.” Nonetheless, instruction manuals for fighter jets are still sold on the site.
Arrested in Georgia
Oleg Tishchenko’s acquaintances told Meduza that, apart from his obsession with airplanes, the developer was also an enthusiastic dancer, and he followed that hobby to a salsa festival in Georgia in early 2019. There, Tishchenko was arrested on the American government’s request and extradited to the United States. The U.S. does not have an extradition agreement with the Russian Federation.
Tishchenko was arraigned in March of 2019. After he pleaded not guilty, the developer was jailed in Weber County, Utah. The local television station KUTV suggested that his location might be related to the fact that the state’s Hill Air Force Base houses F-16 fighters. Tishchenko is being represented by a state-appointed attorney who has already asked for two of the five charges against him to be withdrawn, arguing that the developer never came to an agreement with the undercover agent.
Tishchenko’s friends and colleagues told Meduza that his family is unable to help him. His mother is no longer living, and he is not on speaking terms with his father. Tishchenko is unmarried and does not have a long-term partner. His acquaintances have also gotten no word of any help from Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry. Tishchenko’s brother Alexey told Meduza that he is in touch with Oleg and hopes his employer will be able to help. “But I’m not sure they’ll be able to get him out,” Alexey said.
Eagle Dynamics, where Tishchenko has worked for around 15 years, has not yet commented on the situation. A company representative told Meduza that the firm would soon publish an official statement. Several of the company’s employees clarified that Eagle Dynamics is investigating all possible means of helping Tishchenko in court.
The video game developer is scheduled to go on trial in the U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City on August 19. He may face more than 10 years in prison if convicted. Prosecutors removed the charges against Kenneth Edward Sullivan after Sullivan entered into an agreement with the court whose conditions have yet to be revealed.
Translation by Hilah Kohen