The US Department of Justice unveiled charges Friday against a Russian man accused of studying for years under an assumed Brazilian alias at a Washington university, who later tried to join the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
He was caught soon after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, when trying to move to the Netherlands and take up an internship at the court, which is now seeking President Vladimir Putin's arrest.
The US indicted Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov on multiple offenses that took place during the roughly two years he spent in the US.
Many of the charges are fraud-related and pertain to Cherkasov's effort to secure his visa, a Virginia state driving license and other documentation under the assumed Brazilian identity Viktor Muller Ferreira.
US Attorney Matthew M. Graves said, "When foreign adversaries, such as Russia, send undercover operatives into the United States, we will find them and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law."
What does the indictment say?
The indictment portrays Cherkasov as one of Russia's "illegals," the name given to a notorious network of sleeper agents posing as American citizens under non-official cover in the US.
Ten such "illegals" were arrested in a major 2010 operation.
The US charges Cherkasov operated as an agent for Russian intelligence services from 2012 to 2022 mostly in Brazil under his new identity. The Netherlands earlier had named the GRU military intelligence agency.
He spent roughly two years between 2018 and 2020 in the US on an international studies master's degree program at Johns Hopkins University. He began the application process to study there in 2017.
The US accuses Cherkasov of fraudulently though successfully applying for university admission, a visa, a bank account, a Virginia state driving license and other documentation under his alias.
"Cherkasov further made connections to persons of interest in the United States" while maintaining a line to his Russian intelligence service handlers, the indictment states, adding, "Cherkasov obtained information about US persons that he passed" onto those handlers.
The Justice Department also said that the suspect "continued to use his connections" at university "to obtain information about US foreign policy" and pass it on to Russian intelligence in 2021 and 2022.
Russia also prosecuted him after cover was blown
This could set the stage for a battle with Russia over securing the 39-year-old's extradition. However, Friday's indictment did not make clear when or if the US would seek his extradition.
Cherkasov was arrested in Brazil in April 2022 after being detained and deported from the Netherlands for using fake identity papers as he came to The Hague to try to take up a job at the ICC.
A few weeks later, in September, Moscow formally requested that Brasilia extradite Cherkasov to Russia, alleging that he was wanted there on narcotics charges.
ICC now seeking to prosecute Putin
The culmination of Cherkasov's decade undercover in the Americas was to use his qualifications and presumed Brazilian identity to seek employment at the International Criminal Court.
By the time of his arrest last April it already seemed highly probable that the ICC would be investigating Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
The Netherlands said in June that had Cherkasov become an ICC intern as planned, he would have access to the organization's systems and would have been able to gather intelligence there. The Dutch said he might even "have been able to influence criminal proceedings of the ICC."
The ICC issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin this month over the alleged abduction of Ukrainian children.
Russia is not a signatory to the court and does recognize its jurisdiction or cooperate with its investigations.
Former President Dmitry Medvedev said that any ICC member state looking to follow through on the arrest warrant against Putin while he was still president would be risking an act of war.
msh/ar (AFP, AP, Reuters)