British investigators now say a third Russian military intelligence officer was involved in the poisoning in March this year of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the southern English cathedral town of Salisbury.
Officials say the officer, who they suspect of carrying out reconnaissance for the nerve agent attack, has been identified by the British security services. At this stage, they say, they are not releasing his name - neither the alias he might have used nor his real identity.
The disclosure comes as Kremlin officials downplayed the unmasking earlier this week of one of the suspects in the attack as a decorated colonel in the GRU, the Russian military intelligence service.
Col. Anatoliy Chepiga, a GRU veteran who is believed to have served in an elite special forces unit in Afghanistan as well as in Chechnya and Ukraine, received Russia’s top military honor, Hero of the Russian Federation, in 2014. It may have been bestowed on him personally by Russian President Vladimir Putin, say security analysts.
Chepiga was seen laughing on CCTV footage released earlier this year by the British authorities as he and a colleague, who used the alias Alexander Petrov, sauntered along a Salisbury street March 4 soon after the poisoning of Skripal, a former Russian agent who defected to Britain.
The two men have claimed they are sport nutritionists and in an interview, ridiculed by the British media and government, with the Kremlin-directed RT network, insisted they had gone to Salisbury, twice, to see the cathedral’s spire and ancient clock. Their first day trip was a failure because of slush and snow, they said, although according to weather data there was no snow in the cathedral town on March 3.
The investigative journalism consortium Bellingcat, along with the news-site The Insider, say they have identified the decorated veteran, who used the alias Ruslan Boshirov, by trawling through open-source records of the graduates of Russian military academies and then matching his photograph. Leaked data of Chepiga’s real passport provided final proof.
The Russian Foreign Ministry says the Bellingcat identification is “fake news.”
And Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Thursday: “Like you, we are just learning of this investigation in the media released that talks about certain people resembling certain other people.” Other Kremlin officials say many people resemble each other.
Chepiga’s apparent identification as one of the likely culprits of the assassination attempt using the rare toxin Novichok leaves in tatters the Kremlin claim that it had no involvement in the attack, say British officials. His seniority in the GRU, they argue, suggests the attack was sanctioned from the top of the Kremlin.
Bellingcat says aside from its own open-source probe, “multiple sources familiar with the person and/or the investigation have confirmed the suspect’s identity.” British officials say they have no dispute with the identification. But they are not officially confirming it and have not said in detail why, arguing they are unable to for security reasons.
Locals in Chepiga’s home village, Berezovka, 640 kilometers east of Moscow in the Amur region, interviewed by the Russian newspaper Kommersant, confirm the identification and say they knew it was him even before the Bellingcat investigation. They say they recognized him from the CCTV footage British authorities released. Kommersant says the locals spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing retribution.
“Yeah, that’s Tolya,” one woman told the newspaper, using Chepiga’s nickname. She says he was a disciplined youth. “He didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, and never got involved with any bad crowd,” she said.
Security analysts say it is possible that Chepiga and Skripal, a former GRU officer, knew each other. If so, it would add a personal element to the nerve agent attack. Skripal also served in Afghanistan, although not in a special forces unit but with Soviet Airborne Troops and many years earlier.
Skripal and his daughter survived the March nerve-agent attack, but a local woman not connected to the original attack died in July after being exposed to the same toxin, which was contained in a discarded perfume bottle dumped in a trash bin.
Skripal was a double agent for British intelligence in the 1990s. In December 2004, he was arrested by Russian authorities, tried, convicted of high treason and sentenced to 13 years in prison. He was included in a 2010 spy swap and settled in Salisbury.
Britain, the United States and most European Union countries responded to the Salisbury attack with expulsions of Russian diplomats and financial sanctions on Russia. The Kremlin denies any involvement in the attack and has maintained variously that the poisoning never happened, that it was carried out by Britain in order to blame Russia or that unknown third parties were responsible.