US indicts alleged Russian spy who tried to infiltrate ICC in The Hague

<span>Photograph: Peter Dejong/AP</span>
Photograph: Peter Dejong/AP

US authorities have released new details about an alleged Russian spy who attempted to penetrate the international criminal court in The Hague, using a false identity developed over a decade.

An indictment made public on Saturday accuses Sergey Cherkasov, who US intelligence believes is an elite “illegal” operative of Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency. Cherkasov posed as Brazilian citizen Victor Muller Ferreira over many years.

Cherkasov, in his cover identity, took a masters at Johns Hopkins University in US foreign policy and won an internship at the ICC. He was detained on arrival in the Netherlands last April when he presented his Ferreira passport.

Dutch intelligence later released his real name and some details of his cover story, but did not arrest him, instead deporting him back to Brazil. Last July, he was convicted there on charges of falsely obtaining and using Brazilian documents, and jailed for 15 years.

His attempted infiltration of the ICC has gained added significance after the court’s decision earlier this month to issue a war crimes indictment against the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Had Cherkasov succeeded in working at the court, he would potentially have been able to access the court’s email systems and other sensitive information.

Following his arrest in Brazil, Russia swiftly launched an extradition request, admitting the man in question was Sergey Cherkasov, but insisting he was a criminal fleeing drug charges in Russia, rather than a GRU operative. Trying to extradite operatives or assets on concocted criminal charges is a tactic that has been employed by Russian authorities before.

Related: ‘Wholly unremarkable’: the suburban couple in Sweden accused of spying for Russia

The 46-page US indictment is full of remarkable detail, including alleged messages Cherkasov sent to his handler when he won a place at Johns Hopkins (the name of the university is not mentioned in the document).

“We fucking did it, I can’t believe it, bro. We put ourselves on top of the hill, OMG,” reads one message.

Later, on receiving his US visa, Cherkasov wrote: “The work is done – we will go to the US. We will go there with a status of a fucking top-dude with the fantastic work perspectives, citizenship prospects.”

The indictment also lists the locations of dead-drop sites and hiding places suggested by Cherkasov to his handler, where he could leave communications equipment or messages. One was in a deserted area off a path in jungle terrain outside São Paulo.

Also included are messages allegedly sent by Cherkasov from jail in Brazil to a romantic partner, apparently aimed at asking the partner to remain loyal to him.

“Wow, I guess they don’t know that they are going against the plans and wishes of the fucking world-known, highly trained, fucking military, convict that is backed up by a damn atrocious intellegence [sic] organisation,” reads one message.

Releasing the detailed indictment publicly is probably a US attempt to pressure Brazil not to extradite Cherkasov to Russia, and may also indicate a competing extradition request from the US.

It may also be aimed at embarrassing the GRU, as it hints that Cherkasov may have been identified and watched for some years before his arrest, and contains a plethora of examples of surprisingly poor tradecraft.

In one example, Cherkasov appears to have travelled with a USB stick containing a document that summarised his “legend”, the back-story that illegals create for their cover identities, right down to the physical descriptions of distant relatives and an explanation for why he does not like fish.

Cherkasov is one of a number of suspected illegals with dubious South American identities to have been rounded up in recent months. Norway detained José Assis Giammaria, a “Brazilian researcher” who was working informally at the University of Tromsø. One colleague told the Guardian he had a “funny accent”.

Last week, the Guardian reported on a couple detained in Slovenia, who authorities in Ljubljana believe are illegals working for the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service. The pair posed as Argentinians and spoke Spanish to each other and their two small children.