The Unraveling of Russian Spies

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Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics.  He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders.  Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.

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OPINION — Last Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated the illegal intelligence department [Division S] of his Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) on its 100th anniversary in a ceremony in front of the Fatherland, Valor Honor monument at the SVR’s headquarters in Moscow,

Putin, a former intelligence officer himself, said, “I would like to cordially congratulate all those for whom working in this critical area was their calling and destiny; those who defended our country’s national interests without any diplomatic or other cover for years and decades; and all those who conduct unique operations today, transmitting precious information to the Centre.”

Referring to current activities, Putin said, “As before, one of the priorities of the Foreign Intelligence Service is to provide assistance to the industrial and technological development of our country and to the strengthening of its defense potential. This is always important, but especially so in conditions of the sanctions pressure put on Russia.”

But much of his talk was devoted to the past. “Your department has a rich history and glorious traditions,” he said, “In the 1930s and early 1940s, undercover agents acquired time-sensitive information about the aggression planned by Hitler and his supporters as well as the backstage maneuvering of Western countries that pushed the Nazis to attack the USSR, to march to the East.”

When he mentioned names of past heroes, “fighters of the invisible front,” who served as examples “of professionalism and personal bravery for the current and future generations of intelligence officers,” the most recent he mentioned was Konon Molody, a Soviet intelligence officer, better known in the West as Gordon Arnold Lonsdale, who operated in the 1960s.

The Putin ceremony caught my eye because back in summer 2010, with the arrests and deportation of 10 Russian “sleeper” agents, I wrote in The Washington Post, “The Russians have used ‘illegals’ in their espionage activities since the October 1917 revolution. As the FBI put it in the June 27, 2010, complaint, ‘illegals’ are provided false identities and documents, obtain citizenship or legal resident permits of target countries, and pursue degrees at target-country universities, obtain employment, and join relevant professional organizations.”

However, court records in 2010, showed that “by mid-2006, [FBI] investigators had already searched the homes of four of the [illegal Russian] couples, planted microphones in at least three of their residences, regularly reviewed their encrypted computer messages, and videotaped meetings where money and equipment were exchanged.”

In short, in the U.S., the investigation into the 10 Russian illegals became a case study in counterintelligence. “As a matter of technique, the FBI and the CIA generally weigh the opportunity of gaining valuable counterintelligence against the danger of allowing subjects of interest to continue operating, lest they obtain U.S. intelligence or manage to flee,” I wrote back then.


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One of the 2010 illegals was Anna Chapman, born Anna Vasilyevna Kushchenko, the daughter of a KGB operative. After Chapman and the other illegals were deported to Russia as part of a prisoner exchange, she went on Russian television and quickly became a well-known personality, which she remains today.

A less publicized part of her story is that in June 2011, she became a key witness in the closed-door trial, in absentia, of a former KGB officer named Col. Alexander Poteyev. Chapman testified that she had been arrested in the U.S. after being contacted by an American FBI agent who used a code that was only known to Poteyev, her Russian handler.

It turned out that Poteyev, who in 2000 had risen to become Deputy Head of Division S, had in the 1990s, been posted in New York City where he had become a target for FBI recruitment. When his NYC tour was ending, Poteyev asked Moscow for an extension and was turned down.

Disgruntled, he apparently responded favorably to the FBI offer and after returning to Moscow was turned over to the CIA, where he quickly became the source of information about the network of Russian illegals operating in the U.S. and probably elsewhere.

In early June 2010, according to one report, the SVR, believing a mole was within Division S, made plans to give lie detector tests to personnel within the organization. Aware of those plans, Poteyev, who had been born in Belarus, on June 24, 2010, left a business meeting and unexpectedly boarded a train to Minsk. From there, he went to Ukraine where he obtained a fake passport.

Then he went to Frankfurt and a CIA safe house. He arrived in the U.S. on June 26, 2010, one day before Chapman and the others were arrested.

Russian press would later publish that the passport he obtained in Ukraine was in the name of Victor Dudochkin, a Russian citizen. When questioned, Dudochkin recalled that a year earlier he had turned his passport over to the US Embassy in Moscow when seeking a visa to visit the US. In a story, Russian officials speculated that CIA officers at the Embassy copied Dudochkin’s passport and used it later to facilitate Poteyev’s leaving the country.

In the US, the FBI cover story told to reporters was that the quick arrests of the 10 illegals was because one of them was planning to flee the country, therefore hiding that Poteyev’s extraction from Moscow required shutting down the Russian network.

At Poteyev’s in absentia trial in Moscow District Court in June 2011, he was convicted of treason and sentenced to 25 years in prison. In court, the judge read a text message he said Poteyev had sent to his wife a year earlier, the day he left Moscow: “Try to take it calmly. I am leaving not for some time, but forever. I didn’t want to, but I had to. I am starting a new life, and I will try to help the children.”

One further fact turned up in October 2020, during a CBS News documentary about the capture of Chapman and other nine illegals. As described by FBI agents, Chapman arrived in 2009, and quickly showed that she had a way of communicating with a Russian intelligence agent that could not be intercepted.

When Chapman’s computer was within proximity of the Russian’s computer, “they would … be able to send a quick burst message back and forth,” one FBI agent said. “This latest Russian technology shut the door on the FBI’s ability to crack the new spies’ communications,” another agent said.

In turn, that led the FBI to decide it needed to shut down the illegals network in 2010. However, the Bureau needed direct evidence usable in a federal court, that Chapman was part of the network. That required that an FBI agent, posing as a Russian official and using the code from Poteyev, meet with Chapman at a New York City coffee shop.

They met. Chapman was recorded not only admitting she had privately shared information with the Russian government but also agreed to provide a false passport to another person she was told was a Russian agent. That became additional evidence of her guilt as a spy.

Needless to say, Putin last Thursday, made no mention of Poteyev or Chapman or any other of the illegals who were returned to Russia in 2010. Nor did he mention that beginning in 2013,  SVR’s Division S operation had become the basis for the US’ award-winning television series “The Americans” that ran for six seasons.

Back in December 2010, Putin told a different story. During his annual, end-of-year marathon televised press conference, Putin was asked about traitors. “Take the recent spy scandal, in which a group of our undercover agents was betrayed,” Putin said. “They were officers, you understand? And the traitor exposed his friends – his comrades in arms whose lives were dedicated to serving their homeland…Think about it! A person spends his life serving the homeland, and then some bastard betrays him. How can he live after that? How can he look into the eyes of his children, the swine?”

Putin went on. “No matter what gains a traitor receives for his malice, 30 silver pieces or what have you, he will never derive any pleasure from them. Spending the rest of your life in hiding, unable to talk with your near and dear ones – the person who chooses such a fate for himself will regret it a thousand times over.”


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The illegals game has continued. Just two weeks before Putin’s praise of the centenary of SVR’s Division S, the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service announced that back in April, it had prevented a 33-year-old man from Brazil from entering The Netherlands on the grounds he was an operative of Russia’s GRU military intelligence service.

The man purporting to be Brazilian citizen Viktor Muller Ferreira, born on 4 April 1989, was in fact Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov, born 11 September 1985. He had been hired for a job as a six-month research intern at the International Criminal Court at The Hague, which had just begun investigating war crimes by Russia in Ukraine.

According to Dutch intelligence, Cherkasov “would have been able to provide a significant contribution to the intelligence that the GRU is seeking. He might also have been able to influence criminal proceedings of the ICC.”

Cherkasov was returned to Brazil last April, but that country’s federal police failed to release a name when they announced the arrest of a person after he was refused entry to the Netherlands having used a false Brazilian ID.

“Using a sophisticated falsification scheme, he assumed the forged identity of a Brazilian whose parents are already dead,” the police stated in an announcement.

As with the 2010 SVR illegals, it is apparent some cooperating intelligence agencies had knowledge of Cherkasov’s activities.

Some reports indicate he had attended Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland from 2014 to 2018 where, according to the Irish website Latest News, “J2, known as the Irish Military Intelligence Service abroad, have been assisting international partners for a long time on this one.” 

He then moved to Washington, D.C. from 2018 to 2020 where he got a Master’s Degree from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). A SAIS professor wrote a recommendation letter for the ICC job.

Cherkasov’s story is far from over. A Brazilian website, brazil.postsen.com, on July 2 published a story headlined, Why the government hides the case of the Russian spy arrested in Brazil, in which it pointed out the close relationship between Putin and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

The story also said, “General Augusto Heleno Ribeiro, head of the Institutional Security Office of the Presidency, under which the Brazilian Intelligence Agency (Abin) is located, ordered that all information [about the Cherkasov case] be treated as secret.”

It is another spy story with international implications worth following.

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