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The unmasking of a second Russian intelligence officer suspected of carrying out a nerve-agent attack in England earlier this year is prompting behind-the-scenes fury in the Kremlin, which is likely to respond by purging the senior ranks of Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU, Russian media is reporting.
On Monday, the investigative website Bellingcat identified the second suspect responsible for the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia as Alexander Mishkin, a medical doctor working for Russia’s GRU.
The website said it had been able to make the identification after obtaining a scanned copy of his actual passport and confirming the details about the man both with people who knew him and by using other open source information.
Last month, Bellingcat, along with its partner investigators at the news-site Insider, identified the other suspected poisoner as special-forces veteran Anatoliy Chepiga, a colonel in the GRU. Chepiga used the alias Ruslan Boshirov and Mishkin used the alias Alexander Petrov.
Former British foreign secretary William Hague says the revelations by Bellingcat and others on the GRU assassination attempt have “illuminated the duplicity of the endless denials” by the Kremlin of any Russian involvement in the murder bid. “The eyes of other governments and the wider public will have been opened to what is really going on,” Hague said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kremlin officials have dismissed allegations about GRU operatives mounting the murder attempt on Skripal, and they also reject claims of the Russian intelligence services carrying out other so-called active measures in Europe and elsewhere as “fantasies.” The Kremlin has maintained variously that the Skripal poisoning never happened, that it was carried out by the British spies in order to blame Russia or that murky third parties were responsible.
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 Cold War-style 2010 spy swap and settled in the English cathedral town of Salisbury.
Moscow’s denials have not been helped by the trail left behind by the would-be GRU assassins. Nor has the Kremlin been helped by other GRU agents in recent Russian espionage operations in Europe, who appeared also weak on the basics of traditional spycraft. Last week, Dutch and British authorities revealed a four-man GRU team attempted earlier this year to hack the computers in the Netherlands of the world's chemical weapons watchdog.
The poison used, according to British authorities, was novichok, an especially dangerous nerve agent, and, analysts say, it was almost certainly Mishkin’s role to apply the poison, which is thought to have been smeared on the handle of Skripal’s front-door.
“Dr. Mishkin probably knew, better than most assassins, exactly what he was trying to do,” commented Ben Macintyre, a spy historian, in Tuesday’s edition of The Times.
British lawmaker Bob Seely, a member of the British parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said, “It is appalling that a medical doctor appears to have been part of a team of GRU operatives.”
A local woman not connected to the original attack in Salisbury died in July after being exposed to the same toxin, which was contained in a perfume bottle discarded in a trash bin. The British woman, Dawn Sturgess, died after unwittingly spraying the novichok on her wrists.
According to Bellingcat, Alexander Yevgenyevich Mishkin was born in 1979. “He studied and graduated from one of Russia’s elite Military Medical Academies, and was trained as a military doctor for the Russian naval armed forces,” Bellingcat says, adding that the GRU recruited him while he was studying medicine and by 2010 had relocated to Moscow, where he received a national ID and travel passport under the alias Alexander Petrov.
Curiously, Mishkin’s cover identity retained a lot of his authentic biography, including his real birth-date, his first and patronymic names, and the first names of his parents. For several years he used, inexplicably say analysts, the address of the GRU headquarters as his home address.
British Security Minister Ben Wallace warned Tuesday against underestimating Russian espionage. While recent failings by the GRU had made it easy to mock the spy agency, he said, 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.