U.S. asks Brazil to extradite Russian spy who posed as student

U.S. asks Brazil to extradite Russian spy who posed as student

The United States has asked Brazil to extradite an alleged Russian spy charged last month by the Justice Department with posing as a foreign student in Washington while carrying out espionage operations against the West, according to U.S. and Brazilian officials.

The extradition request filed Tuesday represents an extraordinary attempt by the United States to take custody of a Russian operative held overseas while Moscow is pursuing its own effort to secure his release.

The alleged spy, a Russian citizen named Sergey Cherkasov, is serving a 15-year prison sentence in Brazil for document fraud related to his fake identity. Russia has denied that Cherkasov is a secret agent and instead filed its own extradition request accusing him of being a heroin trafficker — a claim that U.S. and Brazilian officials regard as a transparent ruse.

Cherkasov, who is originally from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, secretly worked for the country’s military intelligence service while fooling Western authorities, universities and institutions into believing that he was a Brazilian student named Victor Muller Ferreira, according to a Justice Department indictment.

The U.S. extradition filing comes amid escalating tensions over Russia’s recent arrest of a Wall Street Journal reporter, Evan Gershkovich, on charges of espionage that U.S. officials have denounced as false, and some assert is an attempt by Moscow to stockpile Western hostages it can swap for Russians held overseas.

Officials in Brazil said the U.S. request would be relayed to the country’s Supreme Court, which ordinarily handles extradition matters, but Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva may be forced to intervene because of the sensitivity of the case.

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

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment, saying “as a matter of policy, the department generally does not comment on extradition-related matters.” Paulo Ferreira, an attorney in Brazil who represents Cherkasov, said that he could not comment on the case but that his client has conveyed to Brazilian authorities his desire to be extradited to Russia.

Cherkasov, 38, was convicted of document and identity fraud charges stemming from his use of falsified records to create the fictitious Ferreira persona.

Using that identity, Cherkasov gained admission to the elite international studies program at Johns Hopkins University in Washington. After graduating in 2020, he was offered an internship at the International Criminal Court in The Hague and was about to start that position last year when he was stopped at an airport by Dutch authorities — acting on a tip from the FBI — and sent back to Brazil.

His arrest is part of a broader crackdown on Russian espionage networks in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. European countries expelled at least 400 Russian diplomats suspected of espionage after the start of the war, a purge that has continued with additional expulsions in recent weeks in Sweden and Germany.

Cherkasov was allegedly part of a smaller, more specialized cadre of Russian “illegals,” meaning spies who do not operate under diplomatic cover out of Russian embassies but instead often spend years developing false identities designed to obscure any link to the Russian government. At least six other illegals have been arrested or exposed over the past year in countries including Norway, Slovenia and Greece.

In wake of Ukraine war, U.S. and allies are hunting down Russian spies

Western officials say that the crackdown, as Russia wages a brutal war in Ukraine, has caused greater damage to Russian spy agencies and networks than at any time since the end of the Cold War.

The Cherkasov case also exposed serious lapses in Russian tradecraft. Authorities who scoured his computers and other devices were able to recover detailed records of his travels, locations of “dead drops” used to relay messages, emails sent to his Russian handlers and an error-strewn attempt to write down his fictitious life story — a document that officials say he used to memorize details of his assumed Ferreira persona.

Despite these and other missteps, Cherkasov’s true identity was not uncovered by U.S. officials until after he arrived in the nation’s capital to begin his studies at Johns Hopkins, according to officials familiar with the matter.

Using access that he gained during his two years in Washington, Cherkasov filed reports to Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU, on issues including how the Biden administration might respond to a Russian invasion of Ukraine, according to the FBI indictment.

Citing analysts at think tanks and other sources, Cherkasov predicted that the United States would ultimately do little to help Ukraine — an assessment that was in line with the erroneous forecasts of Russia’s intelligence services leading up to the war.

Russia’s covert operations have a major weakness: Hubris

The dueling extradition requests are highly unusual, and whether the United States is likely to prevail is difficult to assess.

Brazil cooperated extensively with the FBI and CIA on the investigation of Cherkasov, according to U.S. officials and Brazilian court records. But Washington has also been frustrated by Brazil’s refusal to condemn the Ukraine invasion and its friendly gestures toward Moscow, which included welcoming Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for a visit this month.

Russia’s own extradition request faces other problems, including that it fails to acknowledge seemingly obvious facts about Cherkasov and his work for the GRU, according to U.S. and Brazilian officials. Instead, Russia claims that Cherkasov was not a spy or a student, but a notorious drug trafficker who fled Russia to avoid a lengthy prison sentence.

Brazil’s Supreme Court has indicated that it will not rule on any extradition request until the completion of an ongoing investigation of Cherkasov’s espionage activities in Brazil, officials said.

Marina Dias in Brasília contributed to this report.

One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.

A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.

Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.

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