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Alleged Russian spy studied at Johns Hopkins and won internship at ICC

The International Criminal Court above is investigating possible Russian war crimes in Ukraine. (Piroschka Van De Wouw/Reuters)

Dutch authorities made a surprise announcement Thursday that they had refused entry to a Russian spy posing as a Brazilian national to infiltrate the International Criminal Court. Authorities speculated that the man was seeking to gain access to information relating to the ICC investigations of alleged Russian war crimes.

“He was sent back to Brazil on the first flight out,” the counterespionage agency of the Netherlands said of the events, which took place in April.

But social media accounts tied to the alleged Russian intelligence officer also showed that he studied at top academic institutions in Europe and the United States, including the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, a key place of study for future foreign policy elites.

The FBI Washington Field Office said Thursday it could not confirm or deny whether there was an investigation into the individual. The first public details of the plot instead came from the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service, known as the AIVD.

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The agency released a statement Thursday laying out the extraordinary details of the case. It said a 33-year-old man purporting to be a Brazilian national named Viktor Muller Ferreira flew to the Netherlands from Brazil to start an internship at the ICC in The Hague, but his real name was Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov, and he was a 36-year-old Russian intelligence officer.

Cherkasov, posing as Muller Ferreira, “used a well-constructed cover identity by which he concealed all his ties with Russia in general and the GRU in particular,” according to the agency, using the acronym for the Russian intelligence directorate. The agency released copies of a document detailing his elaborate cover identity.

That four-page document, apparently written by the spy himself in a bid to memorize the details of his cover story, included long descriptions of a complicated family history and mundane details about rent in different cities, crushes on schoolteachers and a favorite trance music nightclub in Brasília.

The original document was written in Portuguese and included notable grammatical mistakes. Dutch authorities redacted some of it to remove information that could identify people not involved in Cherkasov’s intelligence activities. “This was a long-term, multiyear GRU operation that cost a lot of time, energy and money,” Dutch intelligence agency chief Erik Akerboom told Reuters.

Jill Rosen, director of media relations at Johns Hopkins, said records showed that a man with a slightly different first name, Victor Muller Ferreira, had enrolled at the School of Advanced International Studies in 2018 to pursue a master’s degree.

The man majored in “American foreign policy,” Rosen said, and had graduated in the spring of 2020 after two years of studies in Washington. Social media accounts also showed that Cherkasov completed a degree at Trinity College Dublin before that.

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Dutch authorities briefed the court on the operation, spokesperson Sonia Robla said in an emailed statement. “The ICC takes these threats very seriously and will continue to work and cooperate with the Netherlands,” Robla said.

Cherkasov was set to start an internship at the ICC, where Dutch intelligence said he may have sought to gain access to information about the investigations into allegations of Russian war crimes committed in Ukraine this year and in Georgia in 2008.

“If the intelligence officer had succeeded in gaining access as an intern to the ICC, he would have been able to gather intelligence there and to look for (or recruit) sources, and arrange to have access to the ICC’s digital systems,” the AIVD said.

“He might also have been able to influence criminal proceedings of the ICC,” the agency said, adding that he was “deemed potentially very high” risk to the security of the Netherlands and was sent back to Brazil at the earliest opportunity.

Russia has a fraught history with the court. Moscow signed the 1998 Rome Statute that established the ICC but never ratified it. The ICC launched investigations into the Russian invasion of South Ossetia in Georgia in 2008 and later declared Russia an occupying force in Crimea after the 2014 invasion, prompting Moscow to withdraw its signature in protest.

Just days after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, ICC chief prosecutor Karim Khan announced that he would open an investigation into possible crimes against humanity and war crimes committed during the conflict.

The accusations against Cherkasov, who claimed to be a young student of human rights law and international affairs, caused shock and surprise among those who knew him. One person who said they knew the alleged spy from Dublin said he was still processing the news. He added, “There were so many red flags.”

Eugene Finkel, an associate professor of international affairs at Johns Hopkins and an expert on genocide, wrote on Twitter that he had taught the man he believed to be Muller Ferreira and wrote him a letter of recommendation for the ICC internship. “Given my research focus it made sense. I wrote him a letter. A strong one, in fact. Yes, me. I wrote a reference letter for a GRU officer. I will never get over this fact,” Finkel wrote.

Timsit reported from London and Taylor from Washington.