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US charges suspected Russian spy who allegedly used fake identity to enter US, gather info from American citizens

The Federal Bureau of Investigation seal is seen at FBI headquarters in Washington, U.S. June 14, 2018. (REUTERS/Yuri Gripas)

(CNN) — The Justice Department announced charges Friday against a Russian national who allegedly entered the United States under a fake identity and gathered information from American citizens about the then-looming Russian invasion of Ukraine.

For years, Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov, a 37-year-old agent of a Russian intelligence service, operated under the alias Victor Muller Ferreira, prosecutors said. Cherkasov allegedly established the alias in Brazil, where he pretended to be the son of a deceased Brazilian national, before moving to the US in 2018 under the guise of attending graduate school in Washington, DC, the Justice Department said.

CNN previously reported that “Muller” had been well-liked by his classmates in the US, but that his accent had caught some of their attention.

While in US, Cherkasov, under the alias, allegedly connected with a State Department employee, someone who worked on Capitol Hill, an Israel expert, a United States Naval Academy professor and others. Cherkasov gathered information from those sources, prosecutors said, and reported it back to his handler.

In particular, Cherkasov allegedly gathered information about US policy toward the potential Russian invasion of Ukraine before the war began.

“I was working with my contacts … to find out what the academic community, political advisors and analysts think about the recent Russian military build-up near the Ukrainian border,” Cherkasov allegedly wrote in one message highlighted by prosecutors. “Especially I was aiming to find out what are their advice to the administration.”

Cherkasov allegedly highlighted to his handlers that one of his contacts “told [US Secretary of State is Antony] Blinken … that Russians were always holding the line of respectful talks, but now it’s nothing like that. So, in her reports she confirms that there is no diplomatic opening possible and Russians are tired and will not negotiate.”

That source also told Cherkasov, he allegedly wrote, that before meeting with a Ukrainian government official, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin “was explicitly instructed by the administration (I don’t know by whom exactly) … ‘not to give any conceivable signal of the US military involvement potentiality.’”

“Meaning,” Cherkasov allegedly continued, “the administration is definitely not in any position to help Ukrainians, if the fight breaks out. Whatever the press says or political promises were made, they are not going to be enforced beyond just words. The administration does not want this conflict, because they don’t have any meaningful way of gaining something out of it.”

Cherkasov was charged with acting as an agent of a foreign power, visa fraud, bank fraud, wire fraud, and other charges in connection with illegal activities in the US.

He is currently jailed in Brazil, according to the Justice Department, where he is charged with identity theft and fraud. Brazilian authorities arrested Cherkasov when he returned to Brazil in 2022, according to court documents, after he was denied entry into the Netherlands for an internship with The Hague’s International Criminal Court.

When Brazilian authorities arrested Cherkasov, court documents stated, he was carrying a hard drive that had fake childhood memories on it. Cherkasov had allegedly written in a document on the hard drive that “I used to love watching the cars cross it from Rio to Niteroi, but I did not like the smell of fish from the port close to home. I think that for this reason I cannot stand fish — in contrast with other Brazilians who love seafood.”

Cherkasov was also allegedly in possession of messages that described various “dead drop” locations around Brazil for covert communications with his handlers.

The Russian government has confirmed that Cherkasov is a Russian citizen, according to court documents, and has requested his extradition from Brazil.