A Russian spy tried and failed to secure an internship at the international criminal court (ICC) using the false identity of a Brazilian citizen that he had built up over more than a decade, according to Dutch intelligence.
Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov, 36, accused of being an agent of Russia’s GRU military intelligence, flew to the Netherlands in April believing he had succeeded in an extraordinary attempt to gain inside access to the war crimes court, using the false identity of Viktor Muller Ferreira, 33.
However, Cherkasov had already been found out by western intelligence officers. When he arrived to take up his position, he was detained by Dutch immigration officials and sent back to Brazil, marking failure after years of preparation.
At the time, the ICC had begun to investigate alleged Russian war crimes in Ukraine. Had Cherkasov succeeded he would have obtained access to the court’s email systems and might have been able to copy, tamper with or destroy documents or evidence submitted.
The spy had developed an elaborately constructed false identity over many years, marking him out as one of Russia’s prized program of “illegals” – a spying program that dates back to the cold war and has been extensively revived under Vladimir Putin.
Western sources fear the Ukraine crisis has prompted the GRU and other Russian agencies to take a more aggressive and potentially reckless attitude to their espionage operations, as Moscow has been dramatically isolated by the west since the invasion of Ukraine.
Erik Akerboom, the director general of the Dutch intelligence agency, said: “It clearly shows us what the Russians are up to, trying to gain illegal access to information within the ICC. We classify this as a high-level threat.”
The Dutch said that Cherkasov now faced court proceedings from the Brazilian authorities, although there was no immediate comment from Brazil on the case.
Illegals are Russian agents who are given false credentials from another country and tasked with building up a fake identity over many years, keeping it secret from partners and children, with a view to eventually reaching a position of influence.
Dutch intelligence published what it said was Cherkasov’s cover story, a short document originally written in a somewhat ungrammatical Portuguese, that it believed dated back to 2010.
The document, also translated into English, is a short summary, probably written by the spy himself, of his early life, known in the espionage community as a “legend” – and was probably intended to be memorised.
It suggests that Cherkasov arrived in August 2010 to look for his estranged father in Rio de Janeiro, who may have been taken in by the long-term deception.
“My farther [sic] came across as a very friendly and open person but to my surprise I blamed him for the deaths of my mother and aunt and all the difficulties and humiliations I had to suffer in my life,” the document says.
It concedes that the would-be spy “had forgotten Portuguese”, but after the meeting with the father, Cherkasov, alias Ferreria, decides to remain in Brazil “to learn the language and restore my citizenship”. According to the document, Cherkasov then moved to the Brazilian capital, Brasília, when he would have been 25.
But there are some details which suggest the spy was not obviously Brazilian. At school, the false backstory claims, “my fellow pupils used to joke about my looks and accent”. The document continues: “Even though I looked like a German, they called me ‘gringo’. That is why I did not have many friends.”
It also notes that Ferreira hates fish, “contrary to most other Brazilian people who enjoy all the sea has to offer”, because he disliked the “stench of fish” from a port near a home where he supposedly grew up.
There is other baffling incidental detail, claiming that he had a “real and honest crush” on his school geography teacher; that a garage where he worked had a poster of “a young Verónica Castro … replaced by one of Pamela Anderson”, and that he regularly visited “the only nightclub that plays trance music” in the capital, accompanied by its address.
The ICC thanked the Dutch for exposing the spy but gave few other details of the incident.
“The international criminal court was briefed by the Dutch authorities and is very thankful to the Netherlands for this important operation and more generally for exposing security threats,” spokesperson Sonia Robla said in a statement to AFP.
There was no immediate reaction from Russia.
The Dutch have a history of exposing Russian intelligence operations on their soil, and particularly in The Hague, where dozens of international courts and organizations are based.