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Inside the world of deep-cover Russian spies who are infiltrating the West

Eyes coming out of the Russian flag. An icon in the shape of an angle pointing down. Chelsea Jia Feng/BI

Victor Muller was a popular student at the highly regarded Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.

The “Brazilian” was described to CNN by fellow students as gregarious and smart. He was lively in class, open-minded, and often seen on campus carrying around his motorbike helmet.

One student said he was the last person they would ever suspect of being a spy.

But in March Muller’s true identity was revealed. Prosecutors in the Netherlands said that Muller was, in reality, Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov, a Russian military operative who under a fake identity sought an internship at the International Criminal Court in The Hague to steal intelligence.

Not long after, four individuals with Bulgarian identities were arrested in the UK. British prosecutors said they were in fact Russian intelligence agents, living under false identities to gather information on key parts of the UK infrastructure.

The cases, experts told Business Insider, show that as tensions with the West increase Russia is gearing up its famed program of “illegals”, or spies who live under fake identities, to infiltrate foreign countries.

It’s a method Russia has relied on since the earliest days of the Soviet Union, with its “deep cover” operatives depicted in movies, books, and TV dramas.

But with changing times experts believe that Russia has evolved new techniques for creating the “legends,” or fake identities for its illegals.

Spies deployed abroad fall into two broad categories. Most are “legals,” sent to foreign embassies to apparently take up diplomatic jobs while secretly gathering intelligence. There are also so-called “deep cover” agents, or “illegals,” who live under fake identities, sometimes for decades.

Russia’s famed ability to train “deep cover” agents goes back to the earliest years of the Soviet Union when Western countries refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Communist government and barred its diplomatic representatives.

To gather intelligence about Russia’s many foreign enemies, the KGB’s precursor, the NKVD, began sending agents abroad under fake aliases. Often, they spent years living apparently mundane lives, while secretly developing sources and gathering intelligence. 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has seen relations between the West and Russia sink to their lowest point since the Cold War, and diplomatic relations have again collapsed.

Western governments have expelled 700 Russian diplomats they’ve accused of being “legals” working for Russian intelligence agencies.

Kevin Riehle, a former FBI counterintelligence officer, said this means that Russia is falling back on old methods, and deploying “deep cover” agents under false identities to infiltrate the West.

“Because they don’t look Russian, they don’t operate out of the embassy, they can move around without the scrutiny that a Russian diplomatic officer gets,” he said.

Since the mass expulsion of Russian diplomats, “illegals are what’s left basically so they become very important,” he added.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB foreign intelligence officer, has long celebrated the exploits of Russia’s spies. In a speech at the headquarters of Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, the SVR, in 2020, he praised Russia’s “courageous” spies.

Putin has portrayed becoming an “illegal” as an “act of self-sacrifice and heroism of these people to go and you know, subsume themselves from society on behalf of the motherland,” said Trevor Barnes, whose book, “Dead Doubles,” explores one of the most famous Russian deep-cover spy rings.

In 2014, 10 Russian “deep cover” agents had their covers blown in the US. One of the spies, Anna Chapman, became a tabloid celebrity, and on her return to Russia took up a lucrative position on the board of a bank.

How Russia creates ‘legends’ for its spies

Under Putin, Russia has evolved the methods it uses to create sophisticated cover identities for its spies, or “legends” as they’re known in the business.

During the Cold War, Canada became a hub for the illicit creation of identities for Russian spies. The country had less stringent rules for creating passports and identity papers than other Western nations, said Barnes.

Some Russian foreign embassy officials were assigned to a ghoulish role, he said, combing newspapers for notices of child deaths whose identities would then be used to obtain passports for agents. But in the wake of 9/11 new technology, such as biometric passports, made it more difficult to use fake identity papers.

Barnes said that there are “swings and roundabouts” in the use of new technology for registering identity, and AI and other new technologies made the production of convincing fakes easier.

New technology, he said, “puts great pressure on border agencies.”

Russia has also turned to a new part of the world to obtain fake identities for its agents: South America. There, corruption is rife and the Kremlin can count on the support of decades-old allies.

“It’s a little easier to find a cooperative individual in a registration office or in a driver’s license office or whatever it is, whom you can recruit, or you can pay and who is willing to maybe overlook a minor anomaly in the application,” said Riehle.

“Russia goes where it’s easiest. And just as with any operational activity, you go for where the less risk is, so I suspect they’re going there because the risk is lower,” said Riehle.

In recent months, several alleged Russian agents living under South American identities have been uncovered.

In Slovenia, a couple living with their two children were arrested in March and accused of living under false Argentine identities while spying for Russia. An academic living under a Brazilian identity was arrested in Norway in 2022, accused of spying for Russia.

Russia may also be turning back to methods it innovated decades ago, during a brutal conflict on European soil decades before Ukraine: The Spanish Civil War.

During the war, the Soviet Union’s agents stole passports from foreigners who enlisted to fight for the socialist Republicans against Francisco Franco’s fascists. They used them to create “deep cover” identities for spies, some of whom were only unmasked decades after the war ended.

It’s possible, Riehle said, that Russia is using the same tactics now. Thousands of foreign fighters from Central Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere are believed to have signed up to fight for Russian mercenary groups in Ukraine.

“I think it’s possible the Russian services could use a similar method today. Particularly as there are foreign fighters from multiple countries traveling to Ukraine to fight on Russia’s side, not just the Ukraine side,” said Riehle.

Russian ‘illegals’ lead ordinary lives

But the world of Russia’s deep cover agents is not always as glamorous as its depicted as being in films and novels. Often, said Barnes, deep cover agents lead anonymous lives quietly seeking to infiltrate their targets.

Soviet spies Morris Cohen and his wife Lona lived in the 1950s in the London suburb of Ruislip under the identities of antiquarian booksellers Peter and Helen Kroger while sending intelligence to Moscow.

The alleged agents recently arrested in the UK lived ordinary lives, working as network engineers, hospital drivers, and lab assistants. It’s a world away from the casinos and international intrigue of James Bond movies.

In the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the world of espionage has become even more dangerous, said Barnes. The invasion prompted a wave of defections to the West, he said, and fears of brutal retaliation from the Kremlin.

He said it’s likely the unmasking of a number of Russian illegals in the West in recent months is the result of intelligence passed on by a defector.

John Sipher, formerly deputy director of the CIA’s Russia operations, told The Guardian he believed a source inside Russia had likely passed information to US or Western intelligence enabling illegals to be uncovered.

“It’s almost impossible for counterintelligence services to uncover illegals, except some of these GRU illegals who seem to have had sequential passport numbers. It is almost always a human source,” said Sipher.

As a result, the “illegals” program is now shrouded under even deeper layers of fear and security.

“There have been lots of defections in the last couple of years behind the scenes and none of that’s been made public yet,” said Barnes. “Security Services have given them much, much higher levels of protection.”

It’s impossible to know, said Riehle, how many deep cover agents Russia has deployed to the West. Traditionally, agents placed in deep cover roles train for around six years, an expensive and detailed process designed to iron out any mistakes or inconsistencies that may expose them as living under an assumed identity. The number may be as low as 30, said Riehle.

But one detail, he said is almost impossible to eliminate despite years of training: Accents. 

It’s one of the details that led students to suspect that things were not all they seemed with alleged Russian spy Cherkasov.

“Looking back, it was a red flag,” the former classmate told CNN, speaking on the condition of anonymity, of Cherkasov’s accent. “I remember thinking at the time it didn’t really make sense.”

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