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A Russian Spy and the Arrest of Evan Gershkovich

  • April 15, 2023
  • Clayton Rice, K.C.

Brazilian citizen Victor Muller Ferreira was ecstatic when he received his student visa. “Man, I got it,” he said in an electronic message. “Now we are in the big-boys league.” But Ferreira wasn’t his real name and he wasn’t from Brazil. He was Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov, a Russian spy originally from Kaliningrad exclave who had spent ten years polishing his Ferreira persona. “When are you guys ready to see me?” he asked his handlers. The Russian Intelligence Service was poised to slip an agent deep into the U.S. security establishment.

1. Introduction

On March 24, 2023, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C. filed a criminal complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia charging Mr. Cherkasov with acting as an illegal agent of the Russian Intelligence Service (RIS) using a Brazilian cover identity. (here) The indictment asserts that Mr. Cherkasov used his cover to apply for admission to graduate programs at universities in the United States, to apply for visas, to fraudulently open bank accounts and to obtain a driver’s license in the Commonwealth of Virginia. (here) To obscure intelligence gathering missions, the RIS creates false identities for its covert agents, typically called “illegals”, who reside outside Russia in long term “deep-cover” assignments. The false identities include personal histories known as the agent’s “legend”. The cornerstones of a legend are fraudulent identification documents that allow agents to assume identities as citizens or residents of the countries to which they are deployed.

2. The Legend

On October 27, 2009, a birth certificate in the name of Victor Muller Ferreira was issued in Brazil. It states that Mr. Ferreira was born on April 4, 1989, and his birth mother was a Brazilian national. On March 23, 2010, according to Brazilian government records, a death certificate for his birth mother was issued and did not list any children. The criminal complaint states that Brazilian law enforcement has confirmed that no supporting documents for Mr. Ferreira’s birth in Brazil are known to exist. On June 13, 2010, Mr. Cherkasov used a Russian passport to enter Brazil for the first time. On September 30, 2010, Mr. Cherkasov obtained official Braziian identification documents in the name of Ferreira and began using that name in Brazil and elsewhere. He then applied for and obtained a Brazilian passport using the Ferreira alias. On April 16, 2011, Mr. Cherkasov used his Russian passport to enter Brazil a second time but Brazilian authorities have no record of him leaving the country.

3. Admission to Graduate School

The criminal complaint alleges that Mr. Cherkasov applied for admission to numerous educational institutions in the District of Columbia and elsewhere in the United States. The institution he attended is identified by a pseudonym but has been widely reported to be the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. (here) The complaint asserts that he used his Ferreira cover identity in the application materials and presented documents showing his financial resources including bank records from the Bank of Ireland. He completed the Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status attesting to his financial responsibility. Known as Muller, and liked by fellow students and faculty at SAIS, he was described in a CNN report as “[g]regarious, smart, and often seen toting a helmet for his beloved motorcycle”. But his “muddled accent” caught the ear of a few classmates. On one occasion, a fellow student asked him: “Are you Russian?”  He brushed it off saying he was from Brazil. (here)

4. The Cherkasov Arrest

On March 31, 2022, Mr. Cherkasov departed Brazil traveling as Victor Muller Ferreira en route to The Hague, Netherlands, to begin an internship with the International Criminal Court (ICC). But he was denied entry at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport after the Dutch intelligence agency (AIVD) alerted immigration officials. He was declared an “undesirable alien” and sent back to Brazil. The Dutch officials did not disclose how they identified him. The incident occurred while investigations have been undertaken by the ICC into allegations of war crimes committed by Russia since its invasion of Ukraine in 2022 as well as the Russian-Georgian war in 2008. “If this person had gotten the chance to really work at the I.C.C., he could have gathered information, could have spotted sources (or recruited them) and could have gained access to the digital systems,” the AIVD said in a statement. (here)

On April 3, 2022, Mr. Cherkasov was arrested when he arrived in Brazil and charged with identity theft and fraud. He was carrying numerous electronic devices including a hard drive that contained a document written in Portuguese that summarized his Ferreira legend. The document listed his assumed parents’ names, nationalities, and places of birth, as well as his father’s residence and mother’s burial location. Brazilian authorities concluded he was a Russian intelligence officer. A thumb drive contained emails indicating he hid electronic equipment in remote locations in Brazil before departing for The Hague. The criminal complaint asserts that the placement of the communications equipment, in a “dead drop” location where a handler can retrieve the material, is consistent with tradecraft used by illegals. Messages left by Mr. Cherkasov discussed hiding places for equipment off a trail in a jungle area near São Paolo, Brazil.

On May 11, 2022, the Chargé d’Affaires for the Russian Federation Consulate in São Paulo responded to a notice of the arrest issued by the Brazilian government and confirmed that the individual with the Ferreira Brazilian passport was a Russian citizen. Russia then sought extradition of Mr. Cherkasov in the Brazilian Supreme Federal Court based upon criminal conduct he allegedly committed in Russia. The Russian extradition request claimed that Mr. Cherkasov was involved in narcotics trafficking in 2011 and 2013 in Russia. According to the criminal complaint, the FBI has no evidence he was involved in drug trafficking. (here and here) On July 1, 2022, Brazilian media reported that he was sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment by a federal court for using forged government documents. (here)

5. Russia Arrests Evan Gershkovich

On March 29, 2023, Evan Gershkovich, a respected reporter for the Wall Street Journal, was arrested during a trip to the Urals city of Yekaterinburg. Russia’s FSB security service said Mr. Gershkovich was “collecting classified information about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military industrial complex.” (here) Many observers immediately accused Moscow of engaging in “hostage taking” by arresting a high profile reporter who might be used as leverage in a potential prisoner exchange. High profile arrests of foreign nationals in Russia are often designed to boost an “exchange pool” of prisoners that Russia can swap for its nationals arrested abroad. U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner was exchanged last year for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. The Wall Street Journal vehemently denied the espionage allegations brought against Mr. Gershkovich. “We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family,” the Journal said in a statement. (here)

In his most recent piece for the WSJ Mr. Gershkovich reported on Russia’s faltering economy and how the Kremlin was having to deal with “ballooning military expenditures” while maintaining social spending. Reporters Without Borders, an international non-governmental organization, said Mr. Grshkovich was in Yekaterinburg to cover the Wagner Group, the Russian paramilitary organization involved in some of the heaviest fighting in Ukraine. (here) Having worked previously for the AFP news agency and the Moscow Times, Mr. Gershkovich has covered Russia for the Wall Street Journal for over a year. At this early stage it is difficult to assess what the driving motive is behind his arrest. Russian President Vladimir Putin “could be playing to his domestic audience to reinforce the message that the West is plotting to weaken Russia, or he could be looking for a bargaining chip to win concessions from the West, including possibly securing the release of Russians charged with spying abroad.” (here)

6. Conclusion

On April 5, 2023, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinkin said Mr. Gershkovich was “wrongfully detained” by Russia and the State Department was working “very deliberately but expeditiously” to conclude a formal assessment whether the journalist meets “agency criteria” that would trigger a government effort to secure his release. “I’ll let that process play out,” Mr. Blinkin told reporters following a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels. (here) A determination of wrongful detention would enable the government to provide support to Mr. Gershkovich’s family, a process that has been impeded by Russia’s refusal to allow U.S. diplomats to visit him in prison. The Biden administration is also seeking the return of Paul Whelan, the Canadian-born former U.S. Marine, who is serving a sixteen year sentence on espionage charges. The administration attempted to secure Mr. Whelan’s freedom last year in the same exchange for Ms. Griner but was unsuccessful.

It didn’t take long for the process to play out. Earlier this week the State Department confirmed that Mr. Gershkovich had been designated as “wrongfully detained”. Wrongful detention is a classification created by the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 2020. (here) The designation will have the effect of transferring Mr. Gershkovich’s case to the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs that can draw on the expertise of experienced hostage negotiators. (here) Michael Crowley, a White House correspondent for The New York Times, said the designation makes it practical for the Biden administration to consider a prisoner exchange that would be less likely in the case of an American citizen “deemed to have committed a genuine criminal offense in another country and to have been convicted after a fair judicial process.” (here) So then, who makes the next move?

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