US indictment: Russian spy sought to gather intel on Israelis, including party head

Sergey Cherkasov, who visited Israel on trip with university where he pretended to be a student, allegedly met US embassy officials and ‘kingmaker L.’

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Sergey Cherkasov. (Screen capture/Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Sergey Cherkasov. (Screen capture/Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

A Russian intelligence operative who entered the US under a fake identity to gather information on American citizens also visited Israel with the same aim and managed to meet with the leader of a political party, according to an indictment filed by the US Justice Department earlier this month.

Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov, 37, moved to the US under the guise of attending graduate school at Johns Hopkins University in 2018 under the alias Victor Muller Ferreira, the charge sheet released last Friday said. He had previously established the alias in Brazil, where he pretended to be the son of a deceased Brazilian national.

While in the US, Cherkasov allegedly connected with a State Department employee, a Capitol Hill staffer, an “Israel expert,” a US Naval Academy professor and others to gather intelligence about US policy regarding a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine in the months and years leading up to the war, the indictment alleges.

“I was working with my contacts… to find out what the academic community, political advisers and analysts think about the recent Russian military build-up near the Ukrainian border,” the indictment alleged he wrote in one message to his handlers.

In January 2020, Cherkasov visited Israel as part of a trip with a university. The indictment said while there, he texted his handler a list of names of people he met. These included “literally every single” staffer at the US Embassy, including its “LGBTQ adviser,” in addition to a security expert identified as “N.G.” along with the head of an Israeli political party who he described as a “kingmaker” with the initial “L.”

The visit came ahead of the March 2020 Knesset elections, when Yisrael Beytenu chair Avigdor Liberman was seen as a kingmaker because his party held the balance of power between the rival political blocs. Contacted by The Times of Israel, Liberman’s office denied such a meeting had taken place, saying nothing of the kind appears in his personal records for January 2020.

Cherkasov subsequently sent his handler another “list of interesting people I was talking to you about” that included a former State Department official who continues to advise administrations on Mideast policy, an individual affiliated with the hawkish, pro-Israel Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, an “Israel expert” and a congressional adviser.

Cherkasov was indicted for acting as a foreign agent, wire fraud, bank fraud and visa fraud, among other charges.

He has been in a Brazilian jail since 2022, when he was arrested for identity theft and fraud, according to court documents. Moscow has confirmed that he is a Russian national and has requested his extradition.

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