The US indictment of Russian spy, Sergey Cherkasov, reveals that Russian intelligence was keenly interested in the status of Israeli political affairs and Israel Lobby figures in Washington DC who had served in the State Department. Cherkasov, who applied to several US universities in the DC area known for their international relations programs, was accepted at Johns Hopkins, where he did a master’s degree. While there, he traveled with a student group to Israel and met with much of the US embassy staff. He also met with Avigdor Lieberman, who he called “Kingmaker L” in messages to his handlers.
Lieberman, who is a former bar bouncer from Moldova, is known in Israel for his exceedingly close relations with Russia. At one point, when Lieberman served as foreign minister, the Shin Bet announced it had limited its briefings on highly secret matters for fear that he would compromise them by relaying them to Russian intelligence. LIeberman has repeatedly denied the allegations.
Cherkasov also relayed to his Russian handler lists of major US diplomatic and defense officials with whom he came into contact. The federal indictment does not specify them by name, but it is possible to infer who they may be based on descriptions provided by the DOJ in it:
Just a list of interesting people that I was talking to you about
[USP 1]10– DoS, middle Eastern direction advisor the president admin, former
[University 1] student.
[USP 2]11– FDD, military security adviros [sic] to the Congress Committee on
Intelligence, [USP 3]’s12 assistant.
[“TT1”] 13 group: [USP 4]14– [USP 5]15 chair, came only for a day though,
[USP 6]16– main guy to call shots, Israeli expert came with small team of his own.
[University 1, University 2] student leader: [USP 7]17– Anapolis [sic] Naval
Academy Cyber Sec instructor
USP 1 is almost certainly Dennis Ross, who served stints for decades in the State Department as a Middle East advisor to numerous presidents. Though it isn’t clear that he was a student at Johns Hopkins, as CHerkasov wrote, Ross has given lectures to its School for International Studies, and has close relationships to its faculty.
USP 2 uses the acronym for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), which was founded by Marc Dubowitz, a long-time pro-Israel security hawk. Given Johns Hopkins high-level status it seems highly likely Cherkasov was referring to Dubowitz. The indictment footnotes indicate that Cherkasov did name the individuals and that their identities have been shielded.
It’s not clear who the “Israeli expert” was who “came with small team of his own.” This could possibly be an Israeli diplomat (hence coming with “a team”), though I would think he would have indicated this in his message to his handlers.
The Russian agent doesn’t indicate that he had personal meetings with any of them or that he had gleaned any direct information from them. Nevertheless, the lists indicate what Russian intelligence valued. Clearly, they were highly attuned to Israeli politics itself (hence Lieberman meeting), and figures in the US government associated with the Israel Lobby.
The indictment offers great detail on Cherkasov’s evaluation of US government views regarding Russia’s then-looming war against Ukraine. It confirms the spy’s absolute failure to understand what the US response would be to such an invasion. He assures his handler that the US feels it has no recourse but to remain out of the matter except for releasing statements of concern. This may be what he thought his handlers wanted to hear. Or it may be what he was actually hearing in the circles he frequented at Johns Hopkins. Regardless, he was abysmally wrong.
Currently, Cherkasov is imprisoned in Brazil regarding his fraudulent abuse of its visa system. Russia has filed a request for his extradition there, which Brazil is considering. The US indictment appears an attempt to pressure the Brazilians not to accede to the extradition. It’s intended to flag just how serious and widespread were Cherkasov’s intelligence offenses. He not only wormed his way into one of the most prestigious US international relations programs, he also obtained an internship at the International Criminal Court as it was considering indicting Vladimir Putin.
It cannot be a coincidence that yesterday, Russia arrested a Wall Street Journal reporter, Evan Gershkovich, on espionage charges. This arrest, coming two days after the Cheraskov indictment, is clearly aimed as a shot across the bow. Russia wants to be prepared with a valuable US asset if it is forced to negotiate for its spy’s return. Both countries have engaged in similar exchanges in the past, most recently involving basketball star, Beverly Griner. The Brazilians may dispose of Cherkasov’s case either with a conviction or extradition to the US where he would be tried on the charges listed in the indictment. The Russians will also, as they did in the Griner case, try and convict Gershkovich, after which the two sides can/might negotiate an exchange.