The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russia’s covert operations have a major weakness: Hubris

6 min

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The tale of Brazilian student Victor Muller Ferreira — or rather, alleged Russian agent Sergey Cherkasov — is a remarkable modern story of spycraft. But if this tale details the strengths of Russian covert operations, it also reveals their weaknesses.

As detailed by my colleague Greg Miller this week, Cherkasov is alleged to have spent almost a decade building a fictitious persona for Ferreira. He appears to have used fraudulent documents including a birth certificate and a driver’s license to create an identity in Brazil, taking advantage of lax record-keeping in the country and perhaps exploiting inside help.

Cherkasov was ultimately exposed. Last year, he was turned away by Dutch authorities who had been alerted to his real history as an agent of Russia’s military intelligence wing, the GRU, by the FBI, according to The Washington Post’s reporting. He was returned to Brazil, where he is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence.

Before his exposure, Cherkasov spent years fooling a variety of highly esteemed bodies. Among them: Trinity College Dublin and Johns Hopkins University in Washington, where he studied as a foreign student, and the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where he planned to take up an unpaid position as a junior analyst.

His efforts show the remarkable perseverance and ambition of Russian covert operations. And Cherkasov could have gleaned some important information going forward, given the ICC’s later role in investigations into war crimes in Ukraine and the warrant to arrest Russian President Vladimir Putin for alleged war crimes.

Cherkasov was also suspected of planning to use his faked Brazilian heritage to seek Portuguese citizenship, granting him a foothold in the European Union.

He came to D.C. as a Brazilian student. The U.S. says he was a Russian spy.

But for Russia, this kind of ambitious, high-risk operation comes with a side of self-defeating hubris. Consider, for example, the information that Cherkasov was reportedly sending back to Moscow ahead of its decision to invade Ukraine and what the possible U.S. reaction would be.

In one message, Cherkasov said there were “no signs indicating that the U.S. is going to provide any but political support to the Ukrainians in case of war.” He spoke of information he claimed came from influential advisers from think tanks — the FBI later concluded that at least some of the information had come from online group discussions led by a former professor.

He was, quite clearly, out of the loop. Cherkasov appears to have been a small part of a far broader intelligence failure by Russia that saw Moscow hugely overestimate how easy the conflict in Ukraine would be, setting itself up for even more serious military failures on the battlefield.

In a new report on Russia’s unconventional operations during the invasion of Ukraine released Wednesday by Britain’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), the authors found that at “a fundamental level the Russian special services lack self-awareness, or at least the honesty to report accurately about their own efforts.”

“[T]here appears to be a systemic problem of overreporting one’s successes and concealing weaknesses to superiors,” analysts Jack Watling, Oleksandr V. Danylyuk and Nick Reynolds note, describing how Russian spies had told their superiors that an agent network they had set up in Ukraine would proactively support Moscow if Russia invaded.

The RUSI analysts used a variety of sources, including captured documents and intercepted communications, to make their analysis.

The Post’s earlier reporting suggests that Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) — the successor to the KGB and a peer to the GRU, which employed Cherkasov — advised informants shortly before the invasion to exit Kyiv but to leave their keys, apparently so Russians could use their homes after they easily took over the city.

“They expected somebody to open the gate,” a senior Ukrainian security official told The Post over the summer. “They didn’t expect any resistance.”

Russia’s spies misread Ukraine and misled Kremlin as war loomed

For Cherkasov, a lack of self-awareness may have been his failure. The alleged spy appears to have made a few rudimentary errors during his time abroad that may have compromised his story. According to an FBI affidavit released last week, even after being imprisoned, he has been sending brash messages to a romantic partner about his impending release.

There was no way “I’m staying here lol,” he wrote in one message sent in June from detention in Brazil that, characteristically, used expletives, according to the affidavit. “So yeah, consider this sentence a formality. They ‘had’ to give me a big sentence to save their faces ok?”

Here, Cherkasov appears to have shown the hubris seen in other Russian spies who have been caught out — including the GRU agents tied to the poisoning of the Russian defector and former spy Sergei Skripal in England in 2018. Though that effort was clearly a failure, as Skripal survived and the operation was exposed, the general in charge of it was promoted.

That said, it’s the unconventional operations in which something goes wrong that we hear about — especially when it comes to so-called “illegals” like Cherkasov, lone agents who work outside of the diplomatic cover usually given to spies abroad. Less is known about the unconventional operations that go well.

And there may be many of them. The authors of the RUSI report note that alleged Russian agents have been uncovered in Germany’s intelligence agency, the BND. Russia’s special services also appear to be trying to destabilize Moldova in a way similar to their efforts in Ukraine.

For the high-risk operations undertaken by Russian agencies such as the GRU or the FSB, the hubris is unlikely to be going anywhere. “While the Russian services may have failed in Ukraine, this is unlikely to prevent their being central to the coercive activities of the Russian state in the future, and countering them will remain no less important,” the RUSI report concludes.