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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Unsung Superstar of Espionage

WASHINGTON — Viktor Cherkashin wears the face of the Cold War: a piercing stare, and the intimidating presence of a brilliant actor, which of course is a necessary tool of any successful spy. But it was his careful approach to clandestine operations that made him such a brilliant adversary to the CIA and FBI.

As a colonel in the KGB, Cherkashin was instrumental in handling both Aldrich Ames, who spied for nine years from within the heart of the CIA, and, federal law enforcement officials now say, Robert Philip Hanssen, who is accused of spying for more than 15 years from inside the FBI.

In a published interview in Moscow in 1997, Cherkashin discussed his involvement in the Ames case, but he never disclosed the existence of another major spy operation. He did suggest, however, that Ames may not have been responsible for everything that the FBI and CIA had alleged.

"I think Ames' damage has been exaggerated a bit in the West,'' Cherkashin said. "Maybe because of Ames himself. I think he may have exaggerated in his confessions to the FBI, maybe he told them he did everything, even things he never did.''

Cherkashin was chief of counterintelligence in the KGB's Washington station in 1985 when Ames and, according to the FBI, Hanssen also volunteered to spy for Moscow. While questions still abound about the Hanssen case, it appears that Cherkashin was such a master of his espionage craft that he was able to help keep two moles running deep inside the U.S. government far longer than U.S. counterintelligence experts would have believed possible.

Cherkashin's pivotal early role in the Hanssen case was disclosed for the first time Tuesday in an FBI affadavit that provided a detailed history of the FBI's charges of Hanssen's alleged dealings with the KGB.

Cherkashin has never been a household name in his homeland. Like many of his generation, he left state service in obscurity in the early 1990s in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse.

Yet among a few specialists in the United States and Russia, Cherkashin is now gaining new recognition and respect for his remarkable professional achievements. In fact, a decade after the Cold War's end it is clear that Cherkashin was the unheralded superstar of espionage.

The U.S. government alleges that on Oct. 1, 1985, Hanssen mailed a letter to a KGB officer serving in Washington named Viktor Degtyar. Inside was an inner envelope, marked: "Do not open. Take this envelope unopened to Viktor I. Cherkashin.'' Inside that inner envelope was a letter to Cherkashin, written anonymously by Hanssen, according to the affidavit, proposing to send a box of classified documents to the KGB through Degtyar in return for $100,000.

According to the FBI, Hanssen, a longtime counterintelligence expert, had clearly done his homework before approaching Cherkashin. Hanssen, identifying himself only as "B,'' later told Degtyar and Cherkashin that he "would not have contacted you if it were not reported that you were held in esteem within your organization,'' according to the FBI affidavit.

Cherkashin has never talked about the Hanssen operation. But in extensive interviews in the past, Cherkashin has discussed in detail his involvement in the Ames case. When Ames walked in the front door of the Soviet Embassy in April 1985, offering his services as a spy, Cherkashin quickly recognized his enormous potential and was determined to protect his new agent.

Cherkashin's caution was heightened by the fact that the information Ames was handing over revealed that the KGB was thoroughly riddled with moles reporting to the CIA and FBI. So instead of notifying headquarters about Ames through regular channels, Cherkashin took the precaution of flying back to Moscow himself to personally tell KGB foreign intelligence chief Vladimir Kryuchkov about their new CIA agent.

Former U.S. intelligence officials have said that they knew that Cherkashin had suddenly returned to Moscow in the spring of 1985, but at the time they were unable to determine why.

The new allegation that Hanssen volunteered in October 1985 changes the historical record of that year by shedding new light on Cherkashin's behavior. Notably, in November 1985, Cherkashin helped work out an ingenious scheme to trick one of the FBI's moles in the KGB to return to Moscow. Yurchenko, unhappy with his lot as a defector, suddenly redefected back to the Soviet Union.

Cherkashin has said in a previous interview that Yurchenko's redefection presented an opportunity to lure Valery Martynov, a KGB officer in Washington working for the FBI, back to the Soviet Union: The KGB arranged for Martynov to serve as a member of an honor guard escorting Yurchenko back to Moscow. When they arrived back in the Soviet Union, it was Martynov who was arrested; Yurchenko was given a job at the KGB again.

Until this week, it had appeared that Cherkashin and the KGB had moved against Martynov solely because of Ames. Now, the U.S. government says that Cherkashin had two sources before he targeted Martynov.

Today, Cherkashin, now in his late 60s or early 70s, lives in Moscow, but it is uncertain how he has responded to the FBI's charge that it has discovered his second great mole.