The second suspect in the Salisbury poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal is a decorated Russian agent who received a top honour from Vladimir Putin, an investigative website has said.
According to a new report released by Bellingcat, Dr Alexander Yevgenyevich Mishkin was handed a Hero of Russia award in late 2014 for his service in Ukraine, where Mr Putin’s troops are accused of backing pro-Moscow rebels fighting government forces.
Incomplete border crossing data obtained by the site suggests that he travelled to the country on multiple occasions between 2010 and 2013, using his undercover persona of Alexander Petrov.
He had climbed the ranks of the GRU after graduating from the a military medical academy no later than 2001, and relocated to Moscow at some point between 2007 and 2010.
Bellingcat claimed to have uncovered his background by reaching out to some of his fellow academy graduates, with one confirming that they recognised Dr Mishkin as one of the men from the infamous Russia Today interview in which the two suspects identified by British police had claimed to have been visiting Salisbury on holiday.
The investigation also included evidence from residents of his home town of Logya, where he was born on 13 July 1979 and lived until at least 1995.
During his school years he is said to have lived with his grandmother, who is thought to have owned a picture of her grandson receiving his medal from Mr Putin and has recently vanished from the village.
Another source who spoke to Bellingcat was able to provide a scanned copy of Dr Mishkin’s passport from 2001, as well as a second document featuring another photograph of a person with a strong facial resemblance, dated 2016.
Bellingcat requested a forensic facial similarity analysis between the photos in a simulated age progression, and an expert confirmed that the two photographs belonged to the same person.
Eliot Higgins, the citizen journalist who launched Bellingcat, told Sky News it was obvious from the start of their investigation that there was “something very suspicious” about Dr Mishkin and fellow suspect Anatoliy Chepiga.
“It really started when the identities were revealed by the British authorities, that gave us our first clue, and from there we were able to find their fake identity documents,” he said.
“We discovered that they were marked with some very suspicious things – like the phone number of the Russian Ministry of Defence, and markings that suggested they were top secret.
“From there we could establish there was something very suspicious about these people.”
The details about Dr Mishkin came less than a fortnight after Bellingcat outed Mr Chepiga, who is also a GRU officer.
British police last month accused the men of attempting to assassinate the Skripals with novichok and Theresa May has said the attack was “almost certainly” approved at a senior level of the Kremlin, though she has stopped short of directly accusing Mr Putin.
The Kremlin has denied any involvement in the attack and previously dismissed photos linking Chepiga to the GRU, but issued no comment when asked about the findings released about Dr Mishkin.
Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “I already told you last week that we won’t continue any discussions on (reports) of media channels and various civil research organisations.”
Despite the Bellingcat investigation appearing to have exposed the GRU, British security minister has warned against underestimating the threat of Russia.
Speaking at a conference in London on Tuesday, Mr Wallace said Moscow was a proponent of aggression “across a full spectrum of measures”, including assassination and cyber crime.
While he said recent failings had made it easy to mock the Kremlin and its military intelligence agency, it would be foolish not to take them seriously.
“It is easy to laugh at some of the GRU’s poor tradecraft and their abilities, but we should not underestimate them nor indeed the dangerous and reckless use of nerve agent on our streets,” he said.
“We know that Russia prosecutes its aggression across a full spectrum of measures – assassination, cyber warfare, disinformation, corruption and cyber crime.”
He refused to comment on the Bellingcat findings specifically, as did a spokesman for the Home Office.
The botched hit job on the Skripals has plunged relations between London and Moscow to a post-Cold War low.
Mrs May has pledged to fight back by exposing the subversive activities of the GRU, which led to an unprecedented announcement last week by Britain and the Netherlands that a group of four GRU officers attempted to hack the intentional chemical weapons watchdog.