The General Intelligence and Security Service, the Netherlands’ counterespionage agency, which is known by its Dutch acronym, AIVD, released details of the plot in an extraordinary news release more reminiscent of a spy novel than a government statement.
AIVD said a 33-year-old 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 — except the man’s real name was Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov, and he was a 36 -year-old Russian intelligence officer, according to the agency.
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 [Russia’s intelligence directorate] in particular,” according to AIVD, which released copies of a document detailing the man’s 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 transnational family history and mundane details about rent in different cities, crushes on schoolteachers and a favorite trance music nightclub in Brasilia.
The original document, probably written in mid-2010, was in Portuguese and included notable grammatical mistakes. It had been redacted by Dutch authorities to remove identifying information of people not involved in Cherkasov’s intelligence activities.
“This was a long-term, multi-year GRU operation that cost a lot of time, energy and money,” Dutch intelligence agency chief Erik Akerboom told Reuters.
Cherkasov also appears to have tricked at least one top US academic institution.
Eugene Finkel, an associate professor of international affairs at Johns Hopkins University and an expert on genocide, wrote Thursday on Twitter that he had taught the man he believed to be Muller Ferreira. He even wrote him a letter of recommendation for the internship at the ICC.
“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.
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 ongoing investigations into allegations of Russian war crimes committed in Ukraine 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,” AIVD said .
For this reason, he was “deemed potentially very high” risk to the security of the Netherlands, and was sent back to Brazil at the earliest opportunity, the release said.
AIVD said it worked with Dutch military intelligence, or MIVD, and other partners to “mitigate any possible damage to national security and the security and integrity of international organisations.” The agency said it notified Dutch immigration authorities, as well as the ICC.
Russia has a fraught history with the court. Moscow signed the 1998 Rome Statute that established the ICC but never ratified it. The ICC has also launched investigations into Russia’s 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 on Feb. 24, ICC chief prosecutor Karim Khan announced that he would open an investigation into possible crimes against humanity and war crimes in Ukraine.
Timsit reported from London and Taylor from Washington.