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He opened both his laptop and the hotel minibar and read his email while downing tiny bottles of whiskey until he passed out.

The next day, January 19, 2001, Popov and an FBI escort boarded a TWA flight to the US. He’d left behind his parents and everything else familiar to him, but in the US he would be more than a dutiful son and student.

Popov felt trapped in Zhytomyr, in his life of middling scams and looming violence. A straitlaced family man with the air of a 1950s sitcom dad, Hilbert looked every inch a Fed, with an earnest gaze and neat brown hair combed into a crisp part.

January 2001, Maksym Igor Popov, a 20-year-old Ukrainian man, walked nervously through the doors of the United States embassy in London.

While Popov could have been mistaken for an exchange student applying for a visa, in truth he was a hacker, part of an Eastern European gang that had been raiding US companies and carrying out extortion and fraud.

When the plane landed, though, it was clear the arrangement was going to work a little differently. When agents finally got the logs translated three months later, they angrily pulled Popov from his comfortable safe house and threw him in a small county jail to face charges for his past cybercrimes. Prosecutors around the country were lined up to indict him.

The once-friendly FBI agents threw Popov in an isolation room, then returned an hour later with a federal prosecutor, a defense attorney, and a take-it-or-leave-it offer: Popov was going to be their informant, working all day, every day, to lure his crime partners into an FBI trap. There seemed no escape from a future of endless jail cells and anonymous American courtrooms.

A wave of such attacks was portending a new kind of cold war, between the US and organized criminals in the former Soviet bloc, and Popov, baby-faced and pudgy, with glasses and a crew cut, was about to become the conflict’s first defector.

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