Human Intelligence (HUMINT) insight: the curious case of a Russian spy who planned to infiltrate the Hague-based International Criminal Court
AT A TIME WHEN dozens of countries are routinely expelling record numbers of Russian intelligence officers, news of the unmasking of yet another Russian spy is barely newsworthy. However, the case of Sergey Cherkasov/Victor Muller is different. That is because, unlike the vast majority of Russian spies with blown covers, he did not operate under diplomatic protection. This is not necessarily uncommon —in fact, there are probably dozens of Russian case officers operating internationally without diplomatic cover. What is unusual is that one of them has been publicly unmasked. What is more, the case offers some interesting pointers for those interested in contemporary human intelligence (HUMINT).
According to the Netherlands General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD), which publicized the case last week, a man using a Brazilian passport attempted to enter Holland in April of this year. His passport had been issued under the name Victor Muller Ferreira, allegedly born to an Irish father and a Spanish-speaking mother in Niteroi (near Rio de Janeiro) on April 4, 1989. However, according to the AIVD, the man’s real name is Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov, a citizen of Russia, who was born on September 11, 1985. Based on the information released by Dutch intelligence, Cherkasov is an intelligence officer of the Main Directorate of the Russian Armed Forces’ General Staff, which is commonly known as the GRU.
The AIVD claims that the reason for Cherkasov’s visit to the Netherlands was to join the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, as a paid intern. He eventually planned to transition into full-time employment in the ICC, where he “would be highly valuable to the Russian intelligence services”. The AIVD reportedly notified the Dutch Immigration and
Naturalization Service, which detained Cherkasov upon his arrival at Amsterdam’s Airport Schiphol. The Dutch government declared the alleged GRU officer persona non grata and promptly expelled him back to Brazil “on the first flight out”.
Cherkasov’s Cover and Legend
Cherkasov arrived in Holland with a cover, a term that refers to a fake operational identity used for purposes of espionage. It is unlikely that his cover was natural, meaning that he is probably not Brazilian by birth —though it is possible that at least one of his parents was/is not Russian by birth. What is more likely is that Cherkasov’s cover is contractual, meaning that it was crafted especially for him by the GRU after he was hired as an intelligence officer. This likely happened as many as 10 years ago, when Cherkasov was in his early 20s.
The next stage in Cherkasov’s career required him to enter a cosmopolitan lifestyle, designed to introduce a degree of opaqueness into his personal history. According to information released by the AIVD, the alleged spy’s parents —indeed most of his extended family— were allegedly dead by the time he was in his late 20s. That would have shielded his cover with an extra layer of protection, since no family members would be around to contest his claims. Cherkasov worked as a travel agent in Brazil before moving to Ireland in 2014, where he majored in political science at Trinity College Dublin. He then went on to complete a Master’s degree at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, which he received in 2020.
Throughout that time, Cherkasov muddled his background, built his fake persona of a motivated political science student, and severed all ties to Russia. He also carefully curated his online profile via social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as through blogging on geopolitics. In doing so, he appears to have gone out of his way to express views critical of the Kremlin, while at the same time espousing pro-Western positions on a wide range of topics. It is worth noting that, based on information that has surfaced since his unmasking, Cherkasov’s contacts in Ireland, the United States and elsewhere did not suspect that he had any ties to Russia, let alone Russian intelligence.
The reason why Cherkasov managed to avoid suspicion by those around him was that he was able to craft a multi-level legend. The term refers to an entire universe of informational and physical artefacts that support one’s cover. These include an operative’s digital profile, as well as their biographical details, family life, educational history, personal interests, etc., that breathe life to their cover. Furthermore, building a legend encompasses the meticulous memorization of minute details, anecdotal stories and memories
of one’s life, as these have the ability to strengthen the authenticity —and therefore credibility— of one’s cover. This can be seen in Cherkasov’s draft autobiographical note, which the AIVD somehow managed to acquire, and which it publicized last week in Portuguese, Dutch and English.
Some observers referred to this document as “extraordinary”. That is true, but only in the sense that it has been made available to the public. In reality, this document is typical of the kind of detailed biographical sketches that deep-cover operatives are required to produce —usually in the language of their cover— while building their legend. The document appears to be an early biographical sketch produced by Cherkasov in the process of creating his fake identity. He would have shared this draft with his support operations officer, seeking detailed feedback. He would then have repeated this process until the information contained in the document was convincing even to someone who grew up in the very neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro that Cherkasov/Muller claims to have lived.
Just how that AIVD came to be in possession of this fascinating document remains unknown. There is also the question of just how the AIVD became aware of Cherkasov’s links with the GRU. Given that the spy lived in Ireland and the United States in the past several years, it is likely that operational carelessness on his part could have raised suspicions among people around him, thus triggering a counterintelligence investigation. It is also possible —though not likely— that his ICC internship application resulted in a detailed examination of his background by the AIVD, which is aware of attempts by foreign countries to embed spies on Dutch soil through the ICC and other international organizations based in Holland.
Perhaps the biggest question, which also remains unanswered, is why the Dutch did not arrest Cherkasov, choosing instead to send him back to Brazil “on the first flight out”. One would imagine it is not every day that a Western intelligence agency gets its hands on a deep-cover Russian operative. Cherkasov’s background, training and mission details would have been of interest to a host of Western government agencies. Did the Dutch already know everything they needed to know about him? Would it have been difficult to legally justify Cherkasov’s detention without exposing —and thus endangering— the source or information that led to his unmasking? Or could it be that the Dutch government did not wish to enter into a prolonged tit-for-tat contest of expulsions with Moscow, which might weaken its own intelligence presence inside Russia? These questions are among several that are unanswered, and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.