When the news broke earlier this week that the US had arrested a Russian national in the Northern Mariana Islands, it largely flew under the radar, registering mostly in local media like the Saipan Times. But on Saturday, the story of the arrest of Dmitry Makarenko, a resident of Vladivostok who was arrested a few days after Russia took Paul Whelan - a suspected US spy who had been traveling in Moscow - into custody, reached a broader audience when Russia's Foreign Ministry acknowledged the arrest in a statement.
The arrest has raised questions about whether the US intends to use Makarenko as a bargaining chip for Whelan, whose cover story has been called into question amid speculation that his arrest wasn't simply retaliation for the US's arrest and the subsequent guilty plea of Maria Butina.
Butina famously admitted to infiltrating the NRA at the direction of Kremlin insiders with the intention of establishing a communication back channel between Moscow and the US.
According to the statement, the Russian Embassy in Washington is seeking access to Makarenko, and has demanded an explanation for his arrest.
According to the Saipan Times, a newspaper in the Marianas, which was one of the few news organizations to initially cover Makarenko's Dec. 29 arrest by federal agents in Saipan, Makarenko has been implicated in a scheme to illegally export "defense articles" without a license from the US State Department. He participated in the scheme in partnership with another Russian who had been living in Florida's Broward County, and who had helped procure the equipment for export. This co-conspirator had been sentenced to 26 months in prison last June.
According to court filings cited by the Saipan Times, the two men allegedly exported items including night-vision rifle scopes, monoculars and ammunition primers between April and November 2013.
According to records filed with the U.S. District Court for the NMI, a grand jury sitting in the Southern District of Florida returned an indictment against Makarenko, also known as Dmitryi, on June 15, 2017, charging him with one count of conspiracy to export defense articles without a license, and two counts of money laundering.
Makarenko is being accused of attempting to export military-grade night vision and thermal vision devices, and ammunition primers to Russia.
Makarenko’s co-defendant, Vladimir Nevidomy, had already pleaded guilty in Florida and was sentenced to 26 months in prison last June.
Beginning April 2013 and continuing through in or around November 2013, in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties, in the Southern District of Florida, and elsewhere, the defendants, conspired to export defense articles from the U.S. to Russia, without having first obtained a license or written approval from the State Department DDTC.
It was the purpose of the conspiracy for the defendants to unjustly enrich themselves by exporting defense articles from the U.S. to Russia and to evade the prohibitions and licensing requirements of the AECA and ITAR and detection by the U.S. government.
The co-conspirators would use email to communicate between Russia and the United States.
Makarenko would place an order for defense articles including night-vision rifle scopes, monoculars, and ammunition primers from Nevidomy.
Nevidomy would procure the defense articles from U.S. vendors and receive the defense articles in Broward County, Florida.
Nevidomy would then allegedly ship the defense articles from the U.S. to Makarenko in Russia without obtaining the required licenses from the State Department’s DDTC.
Russia's statement on Makarenko's arrest comes just two days after Whelan was officially indicted on espionage charges in Moscow. While US media pundits have accused Russia of arresting Whelan solely for the purposes of bargaining for Butina's release - despite President Vladimir Putin's claims that he had "never heard of her" before she was apprehended in the US - others have pointed out that there's an abundance of circumstantial evidence to suggest that Whelan was, indeed, a spy.
Not much is known about Makarenko's operation has been publicly disclosed. Though as his case moves forward, we imagine we'll learn more about his business - including exactly who was buying these weapons, according to the US government.