Jill Lawless, The Associated Press

Published Tuesday, October 9, 2018 10:25AM EDT

LONDON — One of the two suspects in the poisoning of a Russian ex-spy in England is a military intelligence officer who was made a Hero of the Russian Federation by President Vladimir Putin in 2014, the British investigative group Bellingcat said Tuesday.

The group identified the suspect in the March nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter as Alexander Mishkin, a doctor who works for Russia’s GRU intelligence agency.

British police say two GRU agents travelled under the aliases Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Borishov and used a Soviet-made nerve agent to poison the Skripals in the English city of Salisbury.

Bellingcat said it relied on documents and other research to conclude Mishkin was the suspect known as Petrov. Last month, it named the other suspect, “Borishov,” as GRU Col. Anatoly Chepiga.

Moscow declined to comment on the group’s stated findings.

Bellingcat is a team of volunteer digital detectives that scours social media and open-source records to investigate crimes. Other cases it focused on include the downing of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine and chemical attacks in Syria.

The group said it identified Mishkin through passport information, residents’ databases, car registration records and phone records, as well as personal testimony from people who know him.

The group said Mishkin was born in 1979, grew up in the remote marshland village of Loyga in northern Russia and studied medicine at the Military Medical Academy in St. Petersburg.

Two former students at the academy confirmed Mishkin was the man British authorities identified as Alexander Petrov, Bellingcat reported. So did seven residents of his home village visited by the Insider, the British group’s Russian partner organization.

“They confirmed that their homeboy Alexander Mishkin was the person who moved on to military school and then became a famous military doctor and who received the award of Hero of the Russian Federation personally from President Putin,” Bellingcat investigator Christo Grozev said at a news conference at Britain’s Parliament.

Travelling under his assumed name of Petrov, Mishkin went to Ukraine and other neighbouring countries to Russia between 2011 and 2013, Bellingcat said.

In 2014, he was active in military operations in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists lead a violent breakaway movement. The same year, he was given one of Russia’s highest honours.

Mishkin’s grandmother has a photograph “that has been seen by everybody in the village, of President Putin shaking Mishkin’s hand and giving him the award,” Grozev said.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the Kremlin wouldn’t discuss investigative reports and media articles on the Skripal poisoning. He reiterated Tuesday the government’s claim that Britain stonewalled Russian requests to share details of the probe.

Skripal, a Russian military intelligence officer turned double agent for Britain, and his visiting daughter spent weeks in critical condition after the Salisbury attack. In June, two area residents who apparently came across a discarded vial that contained the poison fell ill; one of them died.

Britain claims the poisoning was authorized at a top level of the Russian state — a claim Moscow denies. The Skripals’ poisoning ignited a diplomatic confrontation in which hundreds of envoys were expelled by both Russia and Western nations.

The attack on the Skripals has focused global attention on the GRU, an intelligence unit that Western officials say is linked to computer hacking and other covert operations around the world.

British, Dutch and U.S. officials have accused the GRU of trying to hack the computers of international agencies, masterminding a devastating 2017 cyberattack on Ukraine and being behind stolen emails that roiled the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Last week, authorities in the Netherlands alleged that the GRU had tried and failed to hack the world’s chemical weapons watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

The U.S. Justice Department also charged seven GRU officers in an alleged international hacking rampage that targeted more than 250 athletes, a Pennsylvania-based nuclear energy company, a Swiss chemical laboratory and the chemical weapons watchdog.


Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this story.

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