Russian officials Wednesday denied a report that identifies one of the two men accused of the Salisbury nerve agent attack as a highly decorated colonel in Russia’s military intelligence.
“There is no proof,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on Facebook. “So they continue this information campaign, the main goal of which is to distract attention from the main question: what happened in Salisbury?”
She was responding to an investigative report published by the British website Bellingcat, in association with its partner The Insider Russia, that identified one of the two suspects in the March attack as Col. Anatoliy Chepiga. The report punches further holes in the much-derided Kremlin narrative that the suspects were innocent tourists who traveled to the English city on two consecutive days, including the day of the poisoning, to marvel at its cathedral.
In a September interview on Russian television the suspect claimed he was Ruslan Boshirov, a nutritional supplements salesman. Yet according to Bellingcat, Boshirov is actually Chepiga, a decorated officer in Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU. The 39-year-old was a special forces veteran who had served in Chechnya and Ukraine, and had been awarded Russia’s highest military honor in 2014, the report added.
British prosecutors have charged the man identified as Boshirov, and his alleged accomplice, identified as Alexander Petrov, with attempted murder for spraying Novichok on the door handle at the Salisbury home of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal. British officials have said they believe both names are aliases, that the operation was carried out by GRU and signed off by the Kremlin, and that they know the men’s true identities.
British minister tweets, then deletes
British authorities have refused to go on record in confirming the veracity of the Bellingcat report, but nor have they disputed it. Indications are that officials agree that the suspect is Chepiga.
British Defense Minister Gavin Williamson seemed to confirm that assessment in a tweet Wednesday, which was later deleted without explanation, according to Reuters. “The true identity of one of the Salisbury suspects has been revealed to be a Russian Colonel,” he wrote.
By contrast, pro-Kremlin Russian media have cast doubt on the investigation. The Komsomolskaya Pravda, a popular tabloid, cited an unnamed Russian defense ministry source who questioned aspects of the officer’s supposed timeline, and said the man seemed too well educated to have been sent on the combat missions for which he was decorated.
Combing through military academy yearbooks
Bellingcat said its investigators had identified Chepiga using a process of deduction, beginning with the passport photo of the suspect that had been released by British authorities.
Based on his age, and the assumption he was a GRU officer specializing in undercover operations in Western Europe, they focused on military schools where he may have received his training, combing through yearbook and reunion galleries relating to the period he may have graduated until it found a possible match.
It then zeroed in on Chepiga, linking him to two addresses in Khabarovsk and Moscow, and using leaked databases of Russian passport documents to source photos from 2003 and 2009 which bore a strong resemblance to Boshirov.
Russia’s embassy to the Netherlands mocked the investigation on Twitter Wednesday, implying the researchers were conspiracy theorists: “Q: How much time does a couple of people thousands miles away need to disclose a ‘true identity’ of an ‘intelligence officer’? A: Less than a month provided they use Google #TheTruthIsOutThere.”
Bellingcat lead researcher Aric Toler hit back: “Well, yeah, thanks to you guys being geniuses in doing things like handing out passports with consecutive numbers to your spies.”
The website, which says it intends to conclusively identify the second suspect in coming weeks, added that it was highly likely that Russian President Vladimir Putin would have personally known the suspect’s true identity, given that he hands out the Hero of the Russian Federation award that Chepiga was given in 2014.
Earlier this month, Putin said that the two suspects wanted by the British were civilians, rather than military intelligence officers, and called on them to explain themselves in the media. The next day, they appeared on Russia’s RT network in an interview conducted by editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan, who in the past has compared her outlet to “a defense ministry.”
The Kremlin’s explanation of the affair so far has reportedly drawn skepticism even among Russians.
British PM attacks Russia’s ‘desperate fabrication’
Speaking to world leaders at the United Nations Wednesday, British Prime Minister Theresa May slammed Russia’s “desperate fabrication” over the incident, which has triggered the worst diplomatic deterioration between London and Moscow since the Cold War.
May condemned the Kremlin for “the reckless use of chemical weapons on the streets of Britain by agents of the Russian GRU,” but made no reference to the officer’s alleged identification.
Both Skripal and his daughter survived the March 4 attack, but a British woman, Dawn Sturgess, died months later after handling a discarded perfume container that had been contaminated with the nerve agent.
European arrest warrants and Interpol red notices have subsequently been issued for the suspects in the attack, but Russia does not extradite its citizens.
Cover image: Ruslan Boshirov, who was formally accused of attempting to murder former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, is seen on CCTV in an image handed out by the Metropolitan Police in London. (Reuters)