Gregarious, smart, and often seen wearing a helmet for his beloved motorcycle, “Muller” was known, and even liked, by his fellow students and SAIS faculty. But his confused accent caught the ear of a few classmates. On one occasion, a classmate asked him bluntly: are you russian
The spy brushed off the question. He was from Brazil, he said in what turned out to be part of the elaborate cover identity he spent years building.
“Looking back, that was a red flag,” the former classmate told CNN, on condition of anonymity. “I remember thinking at the time that it didn’t really make sense.”
Dutch authorities arrested him at the border and sent him back to Brazil, where he was living under the false identity of a Brazilian whose parents died, according to Brazilian police.
It was not immediately clear when the United States became aware of Cherkasov’s true identity. The FBI has an active investigation open, according to a source close to intelligence. US and Dutch intelligence agencies shared information about Cherkasov some time ago, according to another US official, although it is unclear when this happened. Yet another US official did not explain how the connection to Russian intelligence came to light, adding that the FBI was working closely with Dutch authorities to track his activities.
The revelation of Cherkasov’s true identity shocked the SAIS faculty. But for former intelligence officials, Cherkasov fits a well-known pattern: Russia, among other foreign powers, seeks to place young intelligence officers in American academic institutions to help build their deep identities.
Often the mission of the so-called “illegals” – a spy operating under an identity with no connection to the Russian government – is to do little more than simply establish his legitimacy as a student, said John McLaughlin, a former MP director of the CIA who now teaches at SAIS.
“It’s not unusual,” McLaughlin said. “My feeling is that going through SAIS was kind of a bleaching experience for him. These Russian illegals tend to go through a lengthy accreditation process in order to establish their credibility as the person they claim to be. .”
SAIS declined to comment when contacted by CNN on Friday. But in an email to faculty and students obtained by CNN, SAIS Dean Jim Steinberg confirmed that Cherkasov graduated in 2020.
“We continue to monitor developments, but have no further information to share at this time,” Steinberg wrote.
Cherkasov did not respond to a phone call or text message seeking comment on Friday.
‘The teacher’s favourite’
In another SAIS class, “he was the teacher’s favourite,” said another classmate, who like other former classmates spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from the services. Russian security. “He was a very nice guy, very open-minded, very active in class.”
“This guy I never would have suspected [of being a spy]”, the former classmate told CNN.
A third former classmate of Cherkasov, an American military officer, once struck up a conversation with Muller about their shared love of motorcycles. Eventually, he felt like he and Muller could take a ride together, the military officer told CNN.
But then he asked Muller if he spoke Russian, as it looked like he could because of his accent.
Muller denied being able to speak Russian and withdrew, the military officer said. The motorcycle ride never happened.
Several former intelligence officials told CNN it would not be unusual for US counterintelligence officials to allow an ‘illegal’ Russian to continue his studies in order to monitor him and try to find out who his contacts are. , whether it operates in a larger network inside the United States, and how it builds its coverage. It is possible that the United States tipped off the Dutch intelligence service, these people said.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment on the matter.
But another former counterintelligence officer noted that US intelligence services are sometimes unaware of student spies until they become more actively engaged in espionage – and only then do they trace their stories to SAIS or other academic institutions in the United States. with a penchant for foreign policy.
The reason the Kremlin would want to plant a spy at the International Criminal Court is clear, according to former intelligence officials: it would provide Russia with a crucial window into the investigation of alleged Russian war crimes – in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2022.
“For these reasons, secret access to information from the International Criminal Court would be very valuable to Russian intelligence services,” the Dutch intelligence services said in their statement.
Effectively planting a spy is increasingly difficult for intelligence agencies around the world, thanks to ubiquitous surveillance technology and the extent to which most people live their entire lives online in 2022. An online profile that only appeared a few years ago, or a profile that suddenly becomes inactive, can be a clue to counterintelligence agents trying to spot spies.
The problem is equally difficult for American spies operating abroad under “unofficial cover”, a so-called NOC.
“Any sort of long-term sustainable illegality is not an endangered species but much more difficult to do now than it once was,” said a former US counterintelligence official. “And that’s true for everyone.”
The United States arrested and expelled 10 Russian agents in a spy swap with Moscow in 2010, one of whom had graduated from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government 10 years earlier and lived in Cambridge with his wife and two children. Harvard then stripped Andrey Bezrukov – who went by the name Donald Heathfield – of his degree. His wife, Elena Vavilova, graduated from McGill University and was deported on the same exchange.
Cherkasov had also sought to quietly build an alternative identity over the years. The Dutch intelligence agency published a crude “caption” which it said was likely written by Cherkasov in mid-2010, exposing his false history as a Brazilian man born in Rio de Janeiro in 1989. It details this fake family history across multiple generations, offering a myriad of petty personal idiosyncrasies: a hatred for fish, a doting aunt, a crush on a geography teacher.
In 2014, Cherkasov started attending university at Trinity College Dublin, studied political science and graduated in 2018. In the same year, he traveled to the United States to obtain his master’s degree at SAIS.
Although it is not clear until when Russian intelligence services plotted to place Cherkasov in The Hague – some former intelligence officials have said this could have been opportunistic rather than a long-term plan – Cherkasov has took courses that made sense for a student interested in The Hague as a career path, including a course on genocide.
A political note Cherkasov wrote for one of his SAIS classes presents the sober, anecdote-rich analysis one would expect from a student of international affairs. The memo, obtained by CNN, advocates potential US responses to the United Nations to help stop genocide. This is the kind of American political discussion that has applied in recent months to try to reduce Russian violence in Ukraine.
And according to several people who knew him when he was at SAIS, Cherkasov was a good student – smart, engaged and talkative in class.
One course Muller enrolled in or audited was on strategic diplomacy, popular with U.S. military and intelligence professionals, and taught by Steinberg, a former and current Obama administration undersecretary of state. dean of SAIS, according to one of the former SAIS. students.
SAIS faculty and students were stunned by the revelation that the Brazilian student with the playful accent was, in fact, a Russian spy. The SAIS professors who spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity said the school’s communication with them was merely an acknowledgment of public reporting.
“It’s off-putting,” said the former SAIS student who slammed Cherkasov for his accent. “For me, it raises a lot of questions about how he got into SAIS, how he was able to travel.”
CNN’s Evan Perez and Natasha Bertrand contributed to this story.