An attempt by a Russian spy posing as a Brazilian to infiltrate the International Criminal Court (ICC), which investigates Russian war crimes, has drawn attention to a scheme dating back to the Cold War era and the Kremlin’s use of spies in various regions of the world. The Dutch Intelligence Service accused the man of attempting to take an internship position at the ICC using a false story that hid his ties to the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian Armed Forces’ General Staff, better known as the GRU.
According to mid-June information from the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD), the man, 36-year-old Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov, was arrested when he landed in the country in April to start the internship at the ICC. The man had developed an elaborate fake identity over 12 years as Brazilian Viktor Muller Ferreira, the AIVD said. The ICC has been investigating potential war crimes by Russia in its invasion of Ukraine, as well as the Russian-Georgian war in 2008.
“If the intelligence officer had succeeded in gaining access as an intern to the ICC, he would have been able to gather intelligence there and to look for (or recruit) sources, and arrange to have access to the ICC’s digital systems,” the AIVD said in a statement. The GRU has been blamed for cyberattacks in Georgia, Ukraine, and the United States, among others.
Dutch immigration agents detained the Russian while still at the airport and sent him to Brazil on the next flight out, where he was received by the Brazilian Federal Police and will be prosecuted for falsifying documents, British publication BBC reported.
The Russian spy’s resume available online — under his assumed Brazilian identity — states that he has a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, majoring in U.S. foreign policy. Investigations from English newspaper The Guardian indicated that university records show that a Viktor Muller Ferreira graduated from Johns Hopkins in 2020.
According to the AIVD, spies like Cherkasov are known to the Russians as “illegals” — intelligence officers who receive long and extensive training. “Because they present themselves as foreigners, they [‘illegals’] have access to information that would be inaccessible to a Russian citizen,” the AIVD stated. The Dutch institution further said that “‘illegals’ pose an extremely serious threat to national security, to the security of allies, and in this particular case, also to the security and integrity of the ICC. Awareness about these and other kinds of intelligence threats are of the utmost importance, especially in view of current international developments.”
According to German broadcaster DW, the Dutch have expelled more than 20 Russians accused of espionage since 2018. This includes four people accused in 2018 of hacking the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, two accused of spying in the high-tech corporate sector in 2020, and 17 suspected agents, accredited as diplomats, who were expelled after the invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
Espionage in Latin America
The espionage and infiltration of Russian agents also reach countries in Latin America. Colombia has already expelled three Russian citizens since 2020. The most recent case happened in March 2022, when the Colombian Army and Attorney General’s Office arrested Sergeí Vagin, a Russian accused of recruiting Colombians to infiltrate protests in the country.
“But the Russians also have electronic espionage in Latin America, with attempts to influence through social networks, through bots, in addition to the disinformation campaigns that are waged by Russians operating here,” Milton Deiró Neto, senior consultant at the Center for Defense, Security, and Space of Brazil’s Integrated Manufacturing and Technology Center (SENAI CIMATEC), and a doctoral student in International Strategic Studies at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, told Diálogo.
For the expert, these media mainly seek to disseminate anti-U.S. sentiment among Latin Americans. “In Latin America, Russia tries to structure an espionage network that is more related to knowing key actors and influencing these actors to try to undermine the partnerships and strategic alliances between Latin American countries and the United States,” Neto said. In his view, this issue “is a legacy of the Cold War era. Now, with Vladimir Putin, some of these Soviet precepts are being taken up again.”