LONDON—One of the men wanted for the nerve attack on a former Russian spy in the British city of Salisbury has been unmasked by investigative journalists as a decorated Russian colonel.
The man identified by British intelligence as Ruslan Boshirov—who has been charged with attempted murder along with Alexander Petrov—is actually Anatoliy Vladimirovich Chepiga, 39, according to the website Bellingcat.
British prosecutors confirmed that they know the men’s real identities, Reuters reported, citing two European security sources familiar with the Skripal investigation. The prosecutors declined to comment on Bellingcat’s findings.
Chepiga has served in wars in Chechnya and Ukraine and was awarded the highest military honor—Hero of the Russian Federation—by President Vladimir Putin in 2014. He is said to have served in the 14th Spetsnaz Brigade, one of the elite units under the GRU, or Russian military intelligence, and is listed as receiving over 20 military awards.
In about 2009, he is said to have moved to Moscow, where he was given a new identity as Ruslan Boshirov, subsequently working undercover.
Bellingcat linked Chepiga to “Boshirov” by searching for his name in databases provided to them by two sources. This revealed a passport file dated from around 2003 with a photograph of a man who resembles the passport photo of Boshirov released by British police. From that, they concluded “with certainty ‘Ruslan Boshirov’ is in fact Colonel Anatoliy Vladimirovich Chepiga,” Bellingcat reported.
Boshirov flew into London Gatwick Airport with Petrov from Moscow on March 2, and the two traveled to Salisbury for two days up to March 4, the day the Skripals were poisoned.
Russia denies their involvement in the poisoning and claims the two men were just tourists who visited Salisbury to see its cathedral.
Despite the Metropolitan Police and the UK Foreign Office both declining to comment, defense secretary Gavin Williamson appeared to confirm the veracity of the report in a since-deleted tweet.
“The true identity of one of the Salisbury suspects has been revealed to be a Russian Colonel. I want to thank all the people who are working so tirelessly on this case,” Williamson tweeted.
One of the pictures uncovered by Bellingcat shows a group of men in military fatigues standing in Chechnya, with one man to the right bearing some resemblance to Boshirov.
Bellingcat emphasized that they did “not claim that the person on the right is Chepiga.”
However, The Times of London presented the photo, identifying him without reservation as Chepiga.
Former UK Ambassador Craig Murray, who has written extensively about the Skripal poisoning and has questioned the official narrative presented by authorities, was skeptical of Bellingcat’s report.
“The problem is with Bellingcat’s methodology,” Murray wrote.
“They did not start with any prior intelligence that ‘Chepiga’ is ‘Boshirov.’ They rather allegedly searched databases of GRU operatives of about the right age, then trawled photos in yearbooks of them until they found one that looked a bit like ‘Boshirov.’ And guess what? It looks a bit like ‘Boshirov,’ if you ignore the substantially different skull shape and nose.”
Prime Minister Theresa May didn’t address the reports directly in a speech to the United Nations in New York on Sept. 27, but spoke of “the reckless use of chemical weapons on the streets of Britain by agents of the Russian GRU [military intelligence].”
The Kremlin has previously denied that either suspect has anything to do with Putin.
A Bellingcat journalist told the BBC that they would shortly reveal the identity of the second suspect.
“We believe based on the information we have gathered so far that he [Petrov] is a junior rank relative to Chepiga,” he told the BBC.
“We think he is someone who is at the captain level or a senior lieutenant level.”