In this July 6, 2018, file photo, an exterior view of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters is seen in Washington.
CNN  — 

US officials have deported a key player in the Russian cybercriminal world who was sentenced to nine years in US prison in 2020 for his alleged role in a scheme that defrauded Americans of millions of dollars, according to the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

ICE officers put Aleksei Burkov, 31, on a commercial flight out of New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport on Monday, ICE spokesperson Dani Bennett told CNN.

Russian authorities took Burkov into custody after he arrived Tuesday at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport, according to Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs. In Russia, Burkov is accused of bank card fraud and of trading confidential financial data, activity that allegedly took place between 2008 and 2015, Ministry of Internal Affairs spokesperson Irina Volk said in a statement.

A key player

It’s one of the biggest developments in a cybercrime case since President Joe Biden urged Russian President Vladimir Putin in June to crack down on hackers operating from Russian soil following a series of ransomware attacks on US companies.

Before his arrest in 2015, US officials had seen Burkov as a key player in Russia’s cybercriminal underworld, where he allegedly ran a website that facilitated more than $20 million in credit card fraud. He also ran an invitation-only web forum that served as a meeting point for “elite cybercriminals,” according to the Justice Department.

After being extradited from Israel to the US in 2019 and standing trial, Burkov was sentenced by a federal judge in June 2020 to nine years in prison for identity theft, money laundering and other alleged crimes.

Burkov had until recently faced more than three additional years in US prison, according to his original sentence, which included time spent in custody. But following a court filing that remains sealed, Burkov was released from Bureau of Prisons custody on August 25 and transferred to ICE custody, US officials said.

“This was not a [prisoner] exchange,” Justice Department spokesperson Nicole Navas Oxman said in a statement to CNN. She declined to comment on the details of the case, referring questions to ICE.

It’s unclear what Burkov’s legal fate will be in Russia. The Russian Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

Gregory Stambaugh, an attorney for Burkov during his US trial, did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

Burkov’s return to Russia is only the latest step in a long-running legal and geopolitical drama.

Extradition fight

After Burkov’s 2015 arrest in Israel, US and Russian authorities lobbied to extradite him. In an apparent last-ditch effort for leverage in the case, Russian authorities in April 2019 arrested an American-Israeli woman for allegedly carrying marijuana in the Moscow airport. The Israelis nevertheless proceeded with Burkov’s extradition to the US, and he appeared in federal court in Virginia in November 2019.

His deportation comes as US officials are skeptical that Russian authorities will curtail the activities of Russia-based cybercriminals, who allegedly forced a major US pipeline operator to shut down for days in May. FBI Deputy Director Paul Abbate said September 14 that there had been “no indication” that Moscow had cracked down on ransomware groups.

It’s not the first time that the cybercriminal case of a young Russian man has caused friction between Moscow and Washington.

Police in the Czech Republic in 2016 arrested Russian national Yevgeniy Nikulin at the behest of US authorities, who accused him of hacking the professional networking site LinkedIn in 2012. After the Czech government extradited Nikulin over the objections of Russian officials, a US judge in September 2020 sentenced him to more than seven years in prison.

“Russia is known to use many tools to prevent its citizens from being extradited to the United States to face criminal charges,” Shane Stansbury, a former assistant US attorney in the Southern District of New York, told CNN. “It should not come as a surprise that filing a competing extradition request is one of those tools.”