A Russian spy exposed by Dutch intelligence after trying to secure an internship at the International Criminal Court (ICC) using the fake identity of a Brazilian man, spent four years studying political science at Trinity College Dublin as part of his covert operation, it has emerged.
Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov (36), who stands accused of being an agent of Russia’s GRU military intelligence, travelled to the Netherlands in April using a Brazilian passport in the name of Victor Muller Ferreira and under the impression he had succeeded in his efforts to infiltrate the war crimes court based in The Hague.
His arrival was to coincide with the beginning of ICC investigations into alleged Russian war crimes in Ukraine. Had Mr Cherkasov succeeded, he would have had ready access to the court’s email systems and might have been able to copy, tamper with or destroy documents or evidence submitted.
But he unwittingly was walking into a trap, and his true motives for seeking the job had been exposed by western intelligence officers. When he arrived to take up his position, he was detained by Dutch immigration officials and sent back to Brazil, where he is set to face legal proceedings.
The link with Ireland dates from 2014, when he started studying for a degree in political science at Trinity College in Dublin, studies he successfully completed in 2018.
One of his former classmates in Trinity described the man as a “bit of a recluse”, who was known as an “elusive” person on the course. The man had presented himself to people as a mature student from Brazil, he said.
“He did his work, as far as I recall … I don’t recall him being part of any societies or socialising,” the classmate said.
Another former classmate similarly said the spy was a “bit of an unknown” while studying at Trinity, but appeared to have been a “nice guy”.
“I chatted to him a few times as he was in some of my lectures. He was quite friendly but not going out of his way to chat to anyone,” he said.
“He was really into motorcycles. He would tell me briefly he had gone motorcycling around Ireland on the weekends,” he added. “I don’t recall him coming to any social events or society events … I couldn’t even get him to go for a coffee.”
Cold war scheme
According to his CV — available online — while living in Dublin he also worked at the International Study Centre for just over a year. The CV says he spent just over a year between 2014 and 2015 working as a “student co-ordinator and teacher assistant”.
His profile, set up in 2007, reflects little of his time in Ireland. After graduating, he moved to Washington DC.
He had spent years developing an elaborate false identity and — according to sources — would have been one of Russia’s prized programme of “illegals”, an espionage scheme dating from the cold war that has been revived extensively under Vladimir Putin.
Illegals are Russian agents with false credentials who are 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.
“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,” said Erik Akerboom, the director general of the Dutch intelligence agency.
Dutch intelligence also published the spy’s cover story, which was said to have been written in a somewhat ungrammatical Portuguese dating from 2010, four years before he came to Ireland to study.
The document, also translated into English, is a short summary of his early life, known in the espionage community as a “legend” to be memorised by the operative.
It suggests that Cherkasov came to Rio de Janeiro in August 2010 to look for his estranged father, who may have been taken in by the long-term deception.
It says the would-be spy “had forgotten Portuguese” but after the meeting with the father, Cherkasov, alias Ferreria, decided 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.
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,” spokeswoman Sonia Robla said in a statement.
There was no immediate reaction from Russia. — Additional reporting Guardian