MOSCOW - Residents in a small Russian village have identified one of the two suspects in the nerve agent poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain as a senior intelligence agent, Russia's respected Kommersant daily said Thursday in a report that backed up findings by an investigative group.
Britain-based investigative group Bellingcat on Wednesday named one of the men suspected to have carried out the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter as Col. Anatoly Chepiga, an agent with the Russian military intelligence agency GRU who was awarded Russia's highest medal, Hero of Russia, in 2014.
The suspect had been named by British authorities as Ruslan Boshirov, and he had also appeared on Russian television channel RT under that name denying any involvement in the poison attack. The Bellingcat report published a photo from Chepiga's 2003 passport that resembled Boshirov, but didn't contain further proof that they are the same person.
Kommersant on Thursday interviewed several residents of Beryozovka, the small village where Chepiga's family used to live, and quoted them confirming that Chepiga is one of the suspects identified by British authorities.
The villagers said they have not seen Chepiga for about ten years, but could recognize him in the photos released by British police and in the interview on RT. One resident described him as a “very good, clever boy.” Another said people in the village knew that Chepiga was “in the secret service” and that his mother was worried about his assignments.
Britain has charged Boshirov and another suspect, Alexander Petrov, with trying to kill Skripal and his daughter on March 4 with the Soviet-designed nerve agent Novichok in the English city of Salisbury. Britain has said the attack received approval “at a senior level of the Russian state,” an accusation Moscow has fiercely denied.
Both men appeared in an exclusive interview with the Kremlin-funded RT television station earlier this month, when they denied any role in the poisoning or links to the intelligence services. They said they were in the sports nutrition business and that they were in Salisbury on vacation.
Putin earlier this month said the two suspects are civilians who did nothing criminal.
Asked about Bellingcat's report, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Thursday that the president stands by his statement. He added that the Kremlin doesn't know who Chepiga was, but promised to check whether he received Russia's highest award.
A search in the Spark-Interfax corporate database shows that Vladimir Chepiga, whose first and family names indicate that he could be Anatoly Vladimirovich Chepiga's father, has a 6 percent holding in a small construction company based in the village of Beryozovka.
A local patriotic society briefly wrote about Anatoly Chepiga in a December article, saying he graduated in 2001 from the Far Eastern Military Command College. The article said he had been on assignment in Chechnya three times and has been awarded “Hero of Russia”.
Some Russian media on Thursday tried to debunk Bellingcat's findings.
Russia's best-selling newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda on Thursday quoted a Defense Ministry employee who pointed to what he described as several discrepancies in the investigation.
The Defense Ministry source, who was unnamed because he is still an active serviceman, reportedly said that it was unlikely that a graduate of the Far Eastern Military Command College could be a spy because the school doesn't train intelligence officers.
Chepiga, however, went on to study at another military academy after that, according to Bellingcat.
The official also cast doubt on reports that Chepiga worked in Ukraine, for which he reportedly was awarded Hero of Russia.
Many others, including Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, focused on Belligcat's sources rather than on the content of the revelations.
Maj. Gen. Alexander Mikhailov told the National News Service radio station that the data released by Bellingcat is so highly confidential that they couldn't have been leaked. He called the report “nonsense.”
Russian commentators posted numerous memes online on Thursday, making fun of Chepiga's allegedly blown cover identity.
Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the Kremlin-funded RT channel that scored the exclusive interview with the two suspects, posted one of them on Thursday. In the meme, Simonyan asks one of the suspects in a speech bubble: “Are you Chepiga?” and the man who called himself Boshirov replies: “Are you?”