UPDATE: VINNIK EXTRADITION HALTED, SEE FOOTNOTE BELOW: 12.24.2019.
After 2.5 years of endless legal wrangling, relentless narratives of dubious origin pushed by Kremlin-linked media agents, and insinuations of revived Cold War intrigues, Greece has finally rendered a decision on the extradition of accused Russian crypto-launderer Alexander Vinnik.
On Friday, Greek Minister of Justice Konstantinos Tsiaras ruled that France – not the U.S. or Russia – will be the landing point for the 40-year-old suspect, who stands accused by the Northern District of California of laundering between $4-and-$9 billion worth of bitcoin through the now-defunct crypto exchange, BTC-e, from 2011 to 2017.
Numerous Russian cybercrime experts have speculated that BTC-e’s links to ‘Fancy Bear,’ a hacking group said to have ties to Russia’s GRU intelligence agency, is the x-factor driving U.S. efforts to get custody of Vinnik. The upshot is that Vinnik, known as Sasha WME in “the murky world of Moscow Web Money exchangers,” according to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, could be a major intelligence prize for the U.S.
Vinnik’s Greek defense attorney, Zoe Konstantopoulou, called the justice minister’s ruling tantamount to a “death sentence,” in a report published by Russian media outlet RIA Novosti.
In response to the ruling, Vinnik has initiated a new hunger strike, his second such protest where he renounced all food. Vinnik’s first strike lasted around 100 days and left him emaciated and malnourished to the point of needing medical attention.
RIA reports that the BTC-e suspect is “ready to die” if he is not sent home to Russia, where he is also facing criminal charges of defrauding his countrymen out of $12.4 million.
The Greek justice minister’s decision comes in the wake of conflicting extradition judgments by courts in Thessaloniki and Athens, where judges ruled to send Vinnik to Russia twice, and the U.S. and France each once. Tsiaras’s verdict is even more surprising in light of the fact that the U.S. rarely loses extradition battles for Russian cybercrime suspects in foreign jurisdictions.
The only known case that Shadow Banker was able to identify, where a competing Russian extradition request has prevailed over an American order, was the legal battle for alleged Amazon hacker Dimitry Zubakha. In 2012, Zubakha was arrested in Cyprus on a U.S. warrant. Vinnik’s Russian defense lawyer, Timofey Musatov, also defended Zubakha and managed to get the accused hacker extradited back home in December 2013.
While the French arrest order is decidedly not Russian, it still calls into question how vigorously the political installations in President Donald Trump’s Department of Justice fought to secure custody of Vinnik. More on that point later, but it’s also worth noting that the French charges are not exactly innocuous.
In France, Vinnik is wanted for allegedly defrauding 100 people in six French cities between 2016 and 2018. Specifically, this arrest order says that French victims accounted for a sizable haul of some €130 million of ransomware proceeds Vinnik allegedly laundered through BTC-e, according to a CNN Greece story.
Shadow Banker didn’t even bother reaching out to the Paris prosecutor’s office because it’s Saturday and they blew off Bloomberg, so what’s the point, right?
A Strategic Ménage à Trois?
Vinnik and other experts monitoring the case have surmised that the French extradition request – a directive issued by a European Union member state – was always a legal redundancy orchestrated by the U.S. to neutralize any chance of Russia repatriating Vinnik.
Because the French order came from an E.U. partner state, this request supposedly takes precedence over all other extradition requests under Greek law. In a courtroom interview earlier this year, Vinnik reportedly said “France is just another way, another link for my extradition to the U.S.”
But not so fast, says Pavel “Redeye” Vrublevsky, a notorious figure in Russia’s Internet economy, and one who has been denounced as a “cybercriminal” by infosec-threat analysts and journalists like Kimberly Zenz and Brian Krebs, respectively. The latter even wrote a book about the Russian cybercrime ecosystem in 2014, which featured Vrublevsky prominently as the chief antagonist.
“I find it slightly questionable that France is such a win for States,” Vrublevsky told Shadow Banker. “Mr. Malofeev, who was exposed in a recent BBC investigation as one of the key beneficiaries of BTC-e and WEX, has a serious footprint in France and is somehow related to certain people in power in France, according to media. Malofeev is one of the most prolific Russian monarchists and France represents the most significant European nation in Russian monarchist traditions.”
Vrublevsky’s characterization of Konstantin Malofeev’s influence in France is in line with the Carnegie Council’s, a non-profit that campaigns for ethics in global affairs. The charity identified Malofeev, who was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in 2014 for funding pro-Kremlin militants in Ukraine, as a primary “soft” powerbroker for Russian influence in Paris. Similarly, the Financial Times and other Western media outlets have reported extensively on Malofeev’s ties to France’s far-right-leaning National Front party.
A spokesperson for Mr. Malofeev did not immediately reply to Shadow Banker‘s request for comment on the scale of his footprint in France.
For more information about Malofeev and the whole BTC-e/WEX extortion scandal, reported first by BBC journo Andrey Zakharov, this piece Shadow Banker wrote for The Block is helpful. The link is paywalled, but if you throw Shadow Banker some bones on his Patreon page, he will gladly supply you with a PDF.
Zenz – ‘Redeye’ Feud
Meanwhile, Zenz, who gave a riveting talk on Russian security service infighting at the 2019 Black Hat hacker conference in Las Vegas, urges caution in relying on Vrublevsky as a source.
Citing his involvement as a key witness in a sensational Russian espionage trial, which resulted in the jailing of her friend, former colleague, and highly respected Russian cyber-cop Ruslan Stoyanov for treason against Moscow, Zenz said Vrublevsky has “a deeply compromising personal interest in spreading a certain narrative.”
Zenz accused Vrublevsky of fabricating the charges against Stoyanov, who she “know(s) is innocent.” As for ex-FSB Colonel Sergei Mikhailov, who previously led a hacking probe that put Vrublevsky in Russian prison nearly a decade ago and the two other accused Kremlin turncoats, Zenz said, “I don’t know the other men in the treason case well enough to say with confidence anything about them.”
At the Black Hat event in Las Vegas last August, Zenz also cited unconfirmed “rumors” that Vrublevsky was helping Russian banks find ways to evade U.S. sanctions. Vrublevsky strenuously denies these allegations.
The ex-con also challenged Zenz to prove that he is lying. Vrublevsky reiterated to Shadow Banker that he never misrepresented any of his testimony in Mikhailov’s and Stoyanov’s trials.
“I find her stalking of me – on a worldwide basis – very abusive,” added Vrublevsky.
MAGA’s Least Wanted?
While clarification from any law enforcement or government agency stateside or abroad is improbable, the links between Vinnik’s case and the 2016 DNC hack are obviously not lines of inquiry that will favor Trump’s reelection campaign in 2020.
Fresh off of his crushing victory over the tin-foil hat conspiracy known better in mainstream media as “the Mueller Probe” – which didn’t even bother to interview Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, the most consequential and available witness to alleged Russian meddling – the last thing the POTUS needs is to revive old and debunked “Russiagate” narratives.
This is especially true when the crypto-forensics evidence, not to mention Vinnik’s potential first-hand knowledge of Russian intel operations via BTC-e, could offer incontrovertible proof of interference by Russian security services.
For once, the American public might have in its possession, hard tangible evidence – not breathless speculation from rabidly partisan Obama and Clinton loyalists who never gave a damn about the truth.
Were Vinnik in U.S. custody, Rachel Maddow, Rep. Adam Schiff, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and all of the luminaries that collectively form the Twitter “Resistance” would have an absolute feeding frenzy with a new attack vector, with which to crucify 44.
Shadow Banker didn’t reach out to the Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigations Unit, nor did they contact the Federal Bureau of Investigation, nor any other DoJ agency because they don’t comment on active investigations, as a rule.
But ask yourself, if you were Trump, with your sights set on reelection, how hard would you be pushing your Attorney General to get Vinnik on U.S. soil?
STORY UPDATE: EXTRADITION HALTED
On Monday, December 23rd, the President of Greece’s Fourth Section of the Council of State, the country’s “Supreme Administrative Court,” issued a temporary injunction suspending the extradition of Alexander Vinnik.
Speaking to Greek news outlet Kathimerini, Vinnik’s lawyer, Ms. Constantopoulou said:
“Alexander has the right, the law, the international conventions and the constitution of our country. It has mechanisms capable of crushing human existence that do not account for either the Constitution, the international conventions or the Constitution of our country. Mechanisms that are now expected to be mobilized underground and clearly to overturn the judgment. Who will eventually prevail is something that concerns us all, if we want to be called human.”