‘A brilliant conman’ New investigative report suggests officials aren’t digging too deeply to find those responsible for smuggling cocaine through Russia’s embassy in Argentina
In February 2018, the Argentinian and Russian authorities carried out a joint raid against drug traffickers, arresting six people who managed to hide almost 400 kilograms (880 pounds) of cocaine at Russia’s embassy in Buenos Aires. Drug trafficking, it turned out, had become part of the embassy’s logistics: The suspects caught in the raid had planned to move the cocaine using the Russian Foreign Ministry’s own transport system. For more than two years, investigators have scratched their heads, unable to explain how this criminal enterprise burrowed so deeply into Russian diplomacy. In a new investigative report, journalists at former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Dossier Center studied the case files compiled by Argentinian and Russian officials, witness testimonies, and 402 hours of wiretapped conversations to reconstruct the events of the drug delivery. The reporters learned that the smuggling operation’s true organizers and beneficiaries remain unidentified to this day.
A mysterious Russian national with rumored affiliations
In November 2016, the logistics manager of Russia’s diplomatic mission in Buenos Aires — a man named Igor Rogov — stumbled upon 12 suspicious suitcases hidden in an ambassadorial storeroom. He opened the bags and found inside briquettes packed with a white powder. Rogov informed his superiors in Moscow about the discovery and, a couple of weeks later, he told the Argentinian government, as well. That’s how the two countries began their cocaine-smuggling joint investigation.
Two years later, intelligence agents from Russia and Argentina arrested six people, including the smuggling operation’s supposed ringleader, Andrey Kovalchuk — a mysterious Russian national with multiple passports whom embassy officials believed was an influential state security official.
According to journalists at Dossier Center, however, officials have failed to identify the people who organized the cocaine shipments, and Russian investigators have been unable even to determine who Kovalchuk really is — a security official, a drug dealer with connections to Russia’s national-defense infrastructure, or a talented opportunist who spent years concocting a reputation for himself within Russia’s Foreign Ministry.
Investigators have identified Kovalchuk’s accomplices as Ali Abyanov (the former logistics manager of Russia’s embassy in Argentina) and two Russians living in Buenos Aires (police officer Ivan Bliznyukov and ship mechanic Alexander Chikalo), both of whom held senior positions at the “Russian Orthodox Patrons of Art in Latin America Foundation.” Officials also charged the Russian nationals Vladimir Kalmykov and Ishtimir Khudzhamov with agreeing to accept the cocaine shipment in Moscow.
Arrests began in late 2017 and continued into March 2018, when Kovalchuk was the last of the six suspects to be apprehended. All this time, he “insisted that there was nothing to worry about” and ignored advice to flee to a country without an extradition treaty with Russia, a source in Kovalchuk’s entourage told Dossier Center.
After graduating from a paratrooper school in Kirov, Kovalchuk began a career in the military, which he abruptly abandoned in 1989, at the height of Perestroika. The next 10 years of his life are a mystery, says the Dossier Center, but by the turn of the century, Kovalchuk started introducing himself as a figure within Russia’s Foreign Ministry. According to testimony from his friend, Vadim Zhmurov, Kovalchuk called himself “a psychologist at Russia’s embassy in Germany.” Journalists were unable to corroborate this claim, though they did access records showing that he enrolled in a few months of psychology classes at Russia’s embassy in Berlin. Kovalchuk reportedly stopped appearing at these lessons because he was jailed.
For the past 20 years, Kovalchuk lived in Amsterdam and Berlin and often traveled to Russia. After charging him with drug-smuggling, officials determined that he used phony passports to make these frequent trips. Dossier Center obtained documents from the Interior Ministry’s Migration Department showing that Kovalchuk’s passports were issued in violation of standard procedures. In fact, the records say he is not even a Russian citizen.
In 2014, Kovalchuk joined a public group known as “the Commission Against Corruption.” Several witnesses told investigators that he showed them a certificate documenting his membership in this organization. The “Commission,” according to its website, was founded in 2004 “to help state and law-enforcement agencies in the fight against crime and corruption.” The group was led by a man named Vladimir Mamaev, identified in some reports as a “lieutenant general.” In an interview in 2012, Mamaev claimed that the Commission was working together with the Kremlin. In 2018, Russia’s Supreme Court dissolved the organization.
In his case testimony, Kovalchuk’s stepson recalled that his stepfather always carried an oval-shaped badge in his wallet “from some state security agency,” as well as a badge “with a black bat” (the bat is considered the emblem of Russian military intelligence).
With just his membership in a curiously named organization and a pair of widely sold commemorative badges, Kovalchuk was able to convince his stepson, his closest associates, and even his accomplices in the alleged cocaine-trafficking racket that he was a Russian state security officer with the rank of colonel or lieutenant colonel.
According to the case files assembled in Russia, Kovalchuk visited military bases and embassies, cultivated relationships with a wide array of soldiers and diplomats, and got help from embassy workers in Argentina with sending cargo — all long before the 12 suitcases of cocaine were ever discovered.
A drug dealer with contacts
According to Russian officials, Kovalchuk befriended people who could help him move contraband through the Foreign Ministry’s transport system. Based on the case materials, he established such relationships with at least five state security officials and diplomats. In their testimonies to investigators, these officers described Kovalchuk as a “brilliant conman” who for years successfully passed himself off as a state security insider, bragging about his contacts in Russia’s Foreign Ministry and giving away cigars and souvenirs emblazoned with the Foreign Intelligence Service’s seal and emblem.
Kovalchuk usually presented himself as an officer from the Foreign Ministry, the Foreign Intelligence Service, or Russia’s Military Intelligence, though representatives from all three agencies told investigators that he’s never worked for any of them. Kovalchuk wore other hats, as well. Members of Russia’s diplomatic mission in Buenos Aires said there were rumors that he was employed by either Gazprom or Rossotrudnichestvo (Russia’s Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Humanitarian Cooperation), says Dossier Center.
In the spring of 2017, Kovalchuk tried to organize a trip to Argentina for cadets at St. Petersburg’s Nakhimov Naval School. According to journalists at Dossier Center, the visit would have allowed him to add 12 suitcases of cocaine to the students’ luggage. Alexey Surov, the academy’s director, says Kovalchuk introduced himself either as a military intelligence officer or a foreign intelligence agent. “After dinner, this man called me a car to bring me to my hotel. The vehicle’s inferior quality [...] gave me doubts about the veracity of his claims that he worked in intelligence, but the man explained that he couldn’t ‘stand out,’ hence the nature of his equipment,” Surov told investigators.
Using his grabbag of clandestine services souvenirs, Kovalchuk managed to convince at least one naval school instructor that he worked for Russia’s intelligence community. “I didn’t question it since he was always bringing gifts from the Foreign Intelligence Service: calendars, keyrings, and other gifts with the agency’s symbols. I even congratulated him on Military Intelligence Day,” instructor Sergey Borshchev admitted in case testimony.
Stanislav Prokhin served in a Russian military unit that was responsible for the Foreign Ministry’s international shipments. In testimony, he recalled that Kovalchuk once introduced himself as a “Russian embassy ‘adviser’” and asked to send 30 boxes “with children’s gifts” aboard a special flight to Buenos Aires.
Meanwhile, former Interior Ministry trooper Mikhail Kazantsev says Kovalchuk called himself a colonel from the Foreign Intelligence Service. “He was constantly telling some story from his days in the agency,” Kazantsev told investigators. “In 2015, Kovalchuk [...] offered to help export any kind of goods (except food) from Germany to Russia [...]. Officers at designated customs checkpoints wouldn’t inspect the containers Kovalchuk and I would have sent from Berlin, so he reasoned that any goods could be transported in these containers.”
The case files include testimonies from three high-ranking officials in the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Consular Department who accepted gifts from Kovalchuk and shared information about diplomatic special transport routes.
Alexander Dudka, a senior adviser at the Consular Department, says he thought Kovalchuk was a technical officer at the Russian Center for Science and Culture (one of several dozen such offices operating around the world as part of Rossotrudnichestvo). Dudka issued him a pass to enter the Foreign Ministry’s building for meetings where the two discussed plans to build an Orthodox church in Argentina and arrange medical treatment in Germany for one of Dudka’s relatives. Dudka testified that Kovalchuk asked him in December 2017 to procure a diplomatic vehicle to transport “12 boxes” from Russia to Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands.
Dudka introduced Kovalchuk to Lev Pauzin, the deputy director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Consular Department, who in turn acquainted him with another deputy director, Alexander Nezimov. It was through this latter contact whom Kovalchuk later gained access to Russia’s embassy in Buenos Aires, according to testimony by Nikolai Shelepov, a former adviser to Russia’s ambassador in Argentina. Before sending the 12 suitcases of cocaine to Russia, the smugglers even planned to add baggage tags with Nezimov’s initials.
Shelepov described Kovalchuk to investigators as “a conman” who “bragged about his contacts” at the Foreign Ministry and “used the names of well-known figures in the intelligence community to win trust.”
Despite this colorful record and four years of investigation, Andrey Kovalchuk largely remains a mystery. The Foreign Intelligence Service and Military Intelligence Agency formally deny any ties to the man, but at least one source in Russia’s intelligence community told Dossier Center that these denials can’t be trusted entirely. The agencies, after all, have the right to conceal information about their employees and assets.
The diplomatic supply chain
According to Dossier Center, Russian investigators declined to track down the cocaine shipment’s intended recipients, and officials never determined if it was the only such cargo sent from the embassy in Argentina.
Based on case files, Kovalchuk repeatedly asked embassy staff to send parcels by diplomatic mail. The embassy’s logistics manager, Ali Abyanov, says he mailed a “very heavy suitcase” for Kovalchuk in 2012 by a “Russian cargo plane” from the airport in Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital. When he first met Abyanov, Kovalchuk introduced himself as an “adviser” from the intelligence community.
Abyanov sent Kovalchuk’s suitcases to Russia through Uruguay on several occasions, each time earning a thousand dollars. He says he never checked to see what was inside the bags. “There’s evidence of previous shipments from Montevideo. [...] The batch of drugs discovered in December 2017 wasn’t the only one. These deliveries seemed to be well-rehearsed,” a source in German intelligence who monitored Kovalchuk’s supply chain told Dossier Center.
According to the investigation’s case materials, Kovalchuk and the other suspects also discussed a mysterious Uruguay-bound shipment of “200 kilograms” (440 pounds). The cargo wasn’t identified, but the suspects allegedly planned to send it together with 12 suitcases of cocaine. Kovalchuk supposedly had high hopes for the freight. “Honestly, [if we pull it off], I’ll dance the mazurka in my office. I’ll down an entire bottle of whiskey myself,” he allegedly told the other men.
Investigators in Argentina and Russia did not try to determine the origins or the ultimate fate of the “200 kilograms” in Uruguay, Dossier Center reports.
“Embassy staff knew about the trafficking”
Argentinian investigators say Kovalchuk bought the exceptionally pure batch of cocaine (the drugs recovered were 88-percent pure, whereas the purity of most cocaine distributed in Europe rarely exceeds 40 percent).
It would have cost several million dollars to acquire this drug supply. In the case files it reviewed, Dossier Center found no explanation for where Kovalchuk acquired so much money. A purchase like this wouldn’t have been easy, either. A source in law enforcement told Dossier Center’s journalists that it takes a long time to build the necessary relationships with suppliers to buy 400 kilograms of premium cocaine. The source speculates that Kovalchuk maybe could have managed the deal if, for example, he was part of a larger group of smugglers.
According to Dossier Center, investigators in Argentina and Russia have not tried to identify who was supposed to receive the shipment or who could have overseen such a large-scale smuggling operation out of Latin America. The money needed to rent the private plane that Kovalchuk hoped to use to deliver the cocaine to Europe, for example, came from certain “Belgians,” and the shipment’s final recipient might be someone with a Dutch telephone number, based on the case materials.
Investigators have also apparently declined to explore the fact that staff at Russia’s embassy in Argentina knew about the drug trafficking. “According to our information, some Russian embassy employees, such as [then] Ambassador [Viktor] Koronelli, knew about drug-related activities and had ties to the drug mafia,” a source at an international anti-drug agency told Dossier Center. “Bliznyukov and Chikalo were made the pawns of certain representatives of the embassy and of Moscow,” the source said, referring to the police officer and ship mechanic arrested as Kovalchuk’s accomplices. “They were arrested to clear the scheme’s real beneficiaries: the embassy and ministry officials who used their diplomatic channels for smuggling.”
“According to Kovalchuk, some of the cocaine was meant for State Duma deputies and Federal Assembly members,” former Interior Ministry trooper Mikhail Kazantsev told investigators.
Andrey Kovalchuk and his alleged co-conspirators deny any involvement in cocaine shipments. Russia’s Foreign Ministry did not answer Meduza’s questions about whether officials at the embassy in Buenos Aires had prior knowledge about drug trafficking or whether Ambassador Koronelli or other embassy officials have been implicated in drug smuggling. “The criminal investigation into drug smuggling from Argentina to Russia is pending before Russia’s judicial authorities, and Russia’s Foreign Ministry, as a federal executive agency, has no right to offer any comment here,” spokespeople for the ministry said.
Translation by Kevin Rothrock