As It Happens

How an investigative team ID'd Skripal poisoning suspect as a Russian colonel

According to the story, they're just innocent fitness instructors — but our guest's investigation claims one of the men accused of poisoning Sergei Skripal and his daughter is, in fact, a Russian colonel in military intelligence.

Investigative website Bellingcat identified Russian colonel Anatoliy Vladimirovich Chepiga as a suspect

Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, who were formally accused of attempting to murder former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. An investigative website now alleges Boshirov, right, is a Russian colonel. (Metropolitan Police/Reuters)

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According to an interview on Russia's RT television, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov were two innocent men in the fitness industry, who were traveling Salisbury, England to visit the town's famous cathedral. 

The U.K. government has said the two men were actually there to poison former Russian spy Sergey Skripal, and his daughter Yulia.

And now, an investigative website says it's been able to track down the real identity of one of the men. 

According to Bellingcat's research, Boshirov is actually a decorated Russian military intelligence officer named Anatoliy Vladimirovich Chepiga. Russia has denied the allegations.

Christo Grozev is a researcher who led Bellingcat's investigation. As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to Grozev about how they tracked down Chepiga.

Mr. Grozev, when we saw this RT interview, one of the men introduced himself as Ruslan Boshirov. What have you discovered is his real name?

His name is Anatoliy​ Chepiga. He's off by one year from the personality he presented, in terms of age. And he's off by many, many other qualities from the personality that we saw on RT.

You sound very confident. How do you know this is Colonel Chepiga?

We've identified him via many, many objective and subjective metrics. First of all, objectively, we got a hold of his original passport file. So we've seen the actual passport database with his date of birth, original photo, taken when he was 17, and another one when he got his first passport, and another one when he was 21.

After we were ready with the report and the identification, we actually contacted sources at the British police and secret services to just get a nod, or not a nod, as to our findings — and we got the nod. So we know for sure that's the one.

Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov are seen on CCTV at Salisbury Station on Mar. 3, 2018 . (Metropolitan Police/Reuters)

You also dug into the file of Colonel Chepiga. He's a much decorated serviceman. He has received Russia's highest state award. What do you know about him?

He was born in a tiny village, population less than 300 people, in the farthest corner of the Russian Federation. He went to a military school that was only about 30 miles away from his home village that, at that time, in the late '90s and early '2000s, was one of the most elite, or let's say better-staffed schools, for military education. He got his military education in a special operations unit, training unit, at the school.

Immediately thereafter, he was sent to service in Chechnya, where he amassed a number of awards because, apparently, he was great at what he did as a soldier. And then as a very promising soldier, who had accumulated about 15 awards already, he was sent to GRU school. And GRU school in Moscow is one of the ...  it's called the Academy, the Diplomatic Academy. But, in fact, it's a spy school and it's the most elite spy school in Russia.

In this video grab provided by the RT channel Ruslan Boshirov, left, and Alexander Petrov attend their first public appearance in an interview with the RT channel in Moscow, Russia. (RT Channel Video/Associated Press)

It sounds [like] you have a lot of information, mostly from open sources. You didn't go on the ground to seek this out. You did this from a distance. And this is working for your website Bellingcat, which has been accused by the Russian government of being a front for Western intelligence agencies, that you're fabricating evidence. Why should we trust your conclusions here?

All of our findings in the past have either been proven right or Russia has stopped trying to rebut them because they have no way to rebut them. What we do is very transparent. Almost anybody with the analytic skills can go and replicate that data. We don't point people to where they can get leaked Russian databases but they're out there. They're on the Internet and they're in torrents. Anybody who spends a week will be able to get them and replicate our findings.

But a number of things have left people scratching their heads about your conclusion. I think you're scratching your head as well. Why a colonel? Why somebody of such a high rank, and such a decorated man, be sent on this mission to poison people in Great Britain? And also to be so exposed, because you know that when you're in Great Britain there are a lot of cameras observing. So why such a high-ranking man?

That's a mystery. We've received opinions from two senior Russian officers. Both of them said literally the same thing: "We would have expected somebody with a rank of major or even captain to have done this."

The fact that they chose a colonel means that the order came at a very high level. Probably one layer below Putin, not Putin himself. But it's something they did in order to show to Putin that actually they took all the measures and all the precautions to have the highest expertise on the ground, which apparently they didn't.

Police officers stand outside the City Stay Hotel in Bow, where Russian military intelligence agents Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov previously stayed after arriving in the U.K. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

This is all around the poisoning of Sergey Skripal and Yulia Skripal — and also, the British citizen Dawn Sturgess. We saw this man who calls himself Ruslan Boshirov and his partner on television in this RT interview. They looked like goofs, didn't they? You're laughing, everyone was laughing, including people in Russia. So how is it that somebody of such a high calibre, somebody who is so skilled, would be, first of all, be allowed to be on Russian TV, to be so exposed — and then, to be such a goof?

That's another mystery. There are at least two hypothesis on this that circulate among informed circles. One is that they were given this order at the last moment, after Putin made that blunder himself, by saying, "Well, we know they're civilians and I expect them to come and save themselves."

Bear in mind that people like this are never prepared to go public and to be burned in public. This was a very embarrassing moment for them. 

Another hypothesis was that this was punishment for their blunder and their busted job. I don't believe that's realistic because whatever they were, they were not traitors. And in the Russian army the only people they punish really are traitors. If anything they would be demoted but not put on purpose to be embarrassed. 

Does it appear that this was just a botched operation? I mean, they were successful in reaching these people and poisoning them. But was this a failure?

I think now it has become a failure. Even Russians, the average Russian who believes, if nothing else, Russia is good at spying, now realizes they aren't good at that either. If you look at Internet memes that spread on the Russian Internet, before they were making fun of the West, of America, of the opposition. Now Russians are making fun of their own intelligence services and that's unprecedented. I think that is a failure for the regime. 

Written by John McGill. Produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.