A man the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) claims was behind an alleged attempt to smuggle nearly 400 kilograms of cocaine from Argentina to Moscow is claiming he is the victim of a set-up by U.S. intelligence and Argentinian police, Russian media report.
The claim made by Andrei Kovalchuk's lawyer on February 28 was a new twist in a bizarre case involving 16 pieces of luggage authorities say were left -- packed with high-quality cocaine with a street value of more than $60 million in Moscow -- in a storage area at the Russian Embassy school in Buenos Aires.
Argentina's security minister, Patricia Bullrich, said last week that 389 kilograms of cocaine were found inside the bags when they were seized in December 2016, following a tip from the Russian ambassador and three FSB officers. She called it evidence of "one of the most complex and extravagant drug-dealing operations that Argentina has faced."
The cocaine was replaced with flour and the luggage was flown in 2017 to Russia, where two men were arrested when they came to pick it up, Bullrich said. She said a suspect she referred to by the initial K had allegedly been in charge of buying the cocaine and getting it into the embassy.
The FSB said that a total of three suspects had been detained in Russia and two in Argentina in result of what both countries said was a joint operation, while the alleged mastermind -- later identified as Andrei Kovalchuk, a former technical worker at the Russian Embassy in Argentina who lives in Germany -- is wanted under an international arrest warrant.
Kovalchuk's lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, said on February 27 that his client had left his suitcases at the embassy in 2016 and they contained coffee, some alcohol, and other items -- but no cocaine.
On February 28, Russian state and independent media outlets quoted Zherbenkov as claiming that the operation was a provocation conducted by the U.S. intelligence services and Argentinian police in an attempt to discredit the Russian Embassy.
Zherebenkov did not provide evidence of the claim. He was quoted as saying that Kovalchuk was ready to come to Russia and cooperate with investigators in order "to prove his innocence and establish the truth."
Also on February 28, Berlin-based Russian-language television station RTVD showed a portion of an interview in which Konstantin Loskutnikov, whom RTVD identifies as a Russian businessman also known as "baron Konstantin von Bossner," says that Kovalchuk was introduced to him several years ago as a colonel in the Russian security services. There was no way to determine the veracity of the comment.
On February 23, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova criticized news reports she said suggested that the case "cast a shadow" on Russia's diplomatic corps.
"It's exactly the opposite," Zakharova said. "The success of this operation was ensured by the effective actions of the Russian ambassador and diplomatic personnel."
With reporting by TASS, Interfax, Meduza, and RTVD