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Accused Russian spy allegedly collected U.S. info on Ukraine war before arrest

Washington — A suspected Russian intelligence officer who was arrested last year after allegedly trying to infiltrate the International Criminal Court was in the U.S. gathering information on U.S. foreign policy before his cover was blown, according to court documents filed Friday. 

Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov, who lived under the alias Victor Muller Ferreira, was charged in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, for acting as an illegal agent of a Russian intelligence service while he attended graduate school for two years in Washington. He also faces several fraud charges. 

Cherkasov has been imprisoned in Brazil for fraud since his arrest last April. Russia has been trying to extradite him, claiming that he is wanted in Russia for narcotics trafficking. The FBI suspects Russia is using the narcotics charges as cover to bring its spy home. 

Still photos from a 2017 video showing Sergey Cherkasov in the Moscow Airport.
Still photos from a 2017 video showing Sergey Cherkasov in the Moscow Airport. U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia court documents

Becoming Brazilian

The criminal complaint filed Friday reveals more details about Cherkasov's life undercover, from his time spent creating a false identity in Brazil more than a decade ago to applying for jobs in the U.S., including some that required a security clearance. 

In 2010, years before his arrest, Cherkasov assumed his new identity in Brazil after obtaining a fraudulent birth certificate, according to court documents. From there, he created a fictitious childhood. 

His supposed late mother was a Brazilian national and he spent a lot of time with his aunt, who spoke Portuguese poorly and liked showing him old family photos, according to a document that contained details of his cover that were found with him when he was arrested in Brazil. He attributed his distaste for fish — something peculiar for someone from Brazil — to not being able to stand the smell of it because he grew up near the port. 

After years of living with his new identity, Cherkasov was accepted to graduate school in Washington and received a U.S. visa. Court documents do not name the school, but CNN has reported he attended Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies. 

"There is no better and more prestigious place for us to be," he allegedly wrote to his handlers. "Now we are in the big-boys league."

The invasion of Ukraine

Near the end of 2021, Cherkasov was allegedly sending messages about U.S. policy on Russia's potential invasion of Ukraine to his handlers. 

"I was aiming to find out what are their advice to the administration," he wrote in one message after talking with his contacts at two think tanks. 

The messages to the handlers included details on his conversations with experts and information he had gleaned from online forums or reports about Russia's military buildup near Ukraine's border and NATO, court documents said. 

Cherkasov's next stop was an internship with the International Criminal Court in The Hague. 

"The ICC was of particular interest to Russia in March 2022, after it received numerous public referrals regarding human rights violations committed by Russia and its agents during its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022," the criminal complaint says. 

But Cherkasov was refused entry as he arrived to start the internship. He was arrested days later in Brazil for fraud. 

The criminal complaint does not say what tipped off Dutch intelligence to Cherkasov's alleged espionage. But it does say FBI special agents met in person with Cherkasov in 2022, though it does not detail under what circumstances. 

After his arrest, Brazilian authorities gave the FBI covert communications equipment recovered from remote locations in Brazil that Cherkasov had allegedly hidden before his departure to The Hague. 

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