A Russian spy arrested in Norway last year pretended to be a Brazilian “hybrid threats” researcher. He just admitted he’s a GRU spy.
Last year, Norway arrested José Assis Giammaria, on paper a 38 year-old, Brazilian-born researcher at the University of Tromsø, who specialized in “hybrid threats.” Except no such person exists, in Brazil or anywhere. Giammaria’s real name was Mikhail Mikushin; he was 44 at the time, and a colonel in Russian military intelligence deployed to the Nordic country as an “illegal,” a clandestine operative living abroad outside of diplomatic cover. On December 6, Mikushin finally admitted to being a Russian spy.
Ever since his arrest by two security police officers on a snow-covered, deserted road above the Arctic circle, “Jose Giammaria” had maintained he was a bona fide Brazilian. He persisted in his cover identity despite the fact that he could not make himself understood to his court-appointed interpreter, who spoke to him in Portuguese, Brazil’s main language, and ultimately had to be offered an English-to-Norwegian translator. The Russian Embassy in Oslo had also denied to police that Mikushin was a Russian citizen and declined to reach out to him to offer diplomatic assistance.
So this charade lasted for over a year, until last week, when just before the court hearing scheduled for December 6, the court records were quietly changed to indicate the defendant’s legal name, Mikhail Mikushin, whereas he’d earlier been indicted for espionage as José Giammaria. Norwegian police told local investigative newspaper VG that after more than a year of denials, Mikushin had finally admitted to being a Russian national and had asked to be connected with the Russian consulate in Tromsø, in northern Norway.
After more than a year of denials, Mikushin had finally admitted to being a Russian national and had asked to be connected with the Russian consulate in Tromsø
As The Insider confirmed in 2022, in collaboration with VG, Mikushin’s real identity was rather easy to unmask owing to his lousy operational security tradecraft. This began with his use of the same email and password for multiple online accounts; some, incredibly for a spy, linked both to his fake and his real identities.The email he used to apply for his Tromsø university job, under his cover name Giammaria, for instance, was also associated with that persona’s LinkedIn account, which had been breached in a massive 2012 data hack, resulting in his login information being posted to the dark web.
Among the other email addresses associated with the same LinkedIn password were several ending in .ru, the Russian domain. One of these was named for a popular Brazilian sitcom, A Grande Família (“The Big Family”), which might plausibly belong to a Brazilian national, even if not many Brazilians would have opted for a little-known Russian email provider for their digital correspondence. Another email – [email protected], is Portuguese for “Mikhail the Invader.” That account, too, was not only hosted on a Russian email provider’s server, but one of the passwords for it was, incredibly, “McUshin,” an Anglicized variant of the spy’s surname.
Further straining the parameters of mission discipline, Mikushin even volunteered his DNA for the MyHeritage.com genealogy mapping service, as seen from a leaked database of the service’s emails, putting him at even greater potential risk for being unmasked.
Unlike traditional illegals from the Soviet period, embodied by the characters Phillip and Elizabeth on the hit television series The Americans, Mikushin was able to travel back and forth to Russia – and yet his Russian passport was nowhere to be found in the leaked or live Russian passport databases that The Insider has obtained access to, a sign that it had been scrubbed by his GRU superiors, most likely after news of his arrest hit Moscow.
Mikushin was able to travel back and forth to Russia – and yet his Russian passport was nowhere to be found, a sign that it had been scrubbed by his GRU superiors
Even here, Mikushin left careless footprints with each of his trips home. During one visit to Moscow in 2018 he obtained a new driver’s license in his legal name. During another, in June 2020, Mikushin left a gushing review, again as his true self, for a SegWave electric scooter he purchased in the Russian capital.
His role as a GRU officer was similarly determined through leaked data on the dark web. Despite the GRU removing his passport file from Russian datasets, they had failed to scrub his driver’s license file. Once The Insider obtained a copy of it, a forensic comparison confirmed the photo on it matched that of Jose Giammaria exactly.
From here, The Insider located his registered address in Moscow: the dormitory of the GRU Academy in Moscow, where he had been listed as residing (and apparently studying) through 2008. Based on the years served overseas after graduating from the elite spy school, The Insider was able to extrapolate the military rank, a full colonel, that Mikushin almost certainly had at the time of his detention.
His arrest caused a stir not only in Moscow and Oslo but in a few other capitals. Despite his sloppy tradecraft, he had moved undetected through several countries during the years of burnishing his “legend,” or cover identity. He attended the University of Calgary in Canada, graduating with a Master’s degree in Strategic Studies in 2018. He also published articles in prestigious Canadian journals and volunteered in the election campaign for Sean Devine, a candidate for Canadian Parliament from the center-left New Democratic Party. In late September 2022, Mikushin attended an EU-funded conference at Mykolas Romeris University in Vilnius, as part of the Lithuanian Cybercrime Center of Excellence for Training, Research and Education.
For its part, Brazil has had to deal with the realization that so many Russian illegals of recent vintage were traveling the world on falsified Brazilian documents. A police investigation in Brazil showed that Mikushin and other spies’ original birth certificates were not forged retroactively, but craftily inserted in local birth registries decades ago, at the time of their supposed births in the 1970s and 1980s. This is an enduring testament to just how long an investment Moscow places in its illegals, be they from the GRU or SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service and one of the successor agencies of the Soviet-era KGB.
Mikushin and other GRU spies' original “Brazilian” birth certificates were craftily inserted in local birth registries decades ago
It is not yet certain what the official Kremlin response will be to the news of Mikushin acknowledging his Russian identity. In 2022, the AIVD, the Dutch security service, detained “Viktor Muller Ferreira,” another phony Brazilian and a GRU illegal named Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov. Cherkasov came close to infiltrating the International Criminal Court in The Hague as an intern, a role that, among other things, would have given him access to computer systems about that body’s investigation into individuals accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, as Vladimir Putin now is for the unlawful transfer of children from Ukraine to Russia. The Dutch extradited Cherkasov to Brazil where he is currently serving an eight-year sentence for falsifying state documents. Moscow eventually admitted that Cherkasov was a Russian national but maintains he’s no spy but rather a long-sought drug smuggler. The Kremlin wants him returned to Russia “to serve time for his crimes.”
Whether the GRU will attempt a similar repatriation scheme with Mikushin remains to be seen. For the time being, however, the Russian Embassy in Oslo has disavowed all knowledge of him.
In reply to a question submitted by VG reporters about a Brazilian university researcher’s sudden transformation into a Russian national, the embassy stated: “We do not know of such, and no consular assistance has been offered.” When the reporters pointed out that members of the Russian consulate in Tromsø had visited Mikushin twice, the embassy replied: “Just stick with our comment above.”