A Russian man accused of the Salisbury poisoning is a military officer who received an honour from Vladimir Putin, an investigative website says.
President Putin claimed Boshirov was a civilian, and on Russian TV, he himself said he visited Salisbury as a tourist. But the website Bellingcat says he is actually an intelligence officer by the name of Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga.
He has served in Chechnya and Ukraine and was made a “Hero of the Russian Federation” in 2014.
British officials have not commented, but the BBC understands there is no dispute over the identification.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova dismissed the new claims, saying there was no evidence.
Ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal – who sold secrets to MI6 – and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with Novichok on 4 March. Both Mr Skripal and his daughter survived, but Dawn Sturgess – a local woman not connected to the original attack – died in July after being exposed to the same substance.
It is thought Chepiga travelled to the UK on a false passport, along with another Russian national who used the name Alexander Petrov.
The 39-year-old trained at one of Russia’s elite academies and served with a special forces unit under the command of the GRU – Russia’s military intelligence service. He earned more than 20 military awards for his service. He is believed to have transferred to Moscow in about 2009, where he was given a false identity as Ruslan Boshirov. He has been working undercover for the past nine years.
In December 2014, he was made a Hero of the Russian Federation. The medal, awarded in a secret ceremony, is typically handed out by the Russian president. It is only given to a handful of people each year. The timing suggests it was for operations in Ukraine.
He and Petrov flew in to Gatwick Airport from Moscow on 2 March 2018 and visited Salisbury on two consecutive days, including 4 March, the day of the poisoning. Both men returned to Moscow on the same day. European arrest warrants and Interpol red notices have subsequently been issued for the pair.
Russia does not extradite its own nationals.
When UK police identified Boshirov and Petrov, Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted the pair were innocent civilians.
A day later, on 13 September, the pair appeared on Russian TV and claimed they were simply tourists, visiting Salisbury to see its “famous cathedral and its 123m spire”.
Boshirov – or Colonel Chepiga – said he and Mr Petrov were in the sports nutrition business, but were travelling for pleasure. They emphatically denied carrying any Novichok, or the modified Nina Ricci perfume bottle which UK investigators say contained the substance. The two men told Russia’s state-run broadcaster that their lives had been “turned upside down” by the allegations. “We’re afraid to go out, we fear for ourselves, our lives and lives of our loved ones,” Boshirov said.
Downing Street called the content of the interview “deeply offensive to the victims and loved ones of this horrific attack”.
BBC Monitoring, which tracks foreign media, says Russian state-controlled TV has made no mention of allegations made by Bellingcat. However, they have been extensively covered by private media and external broadcasters.
Writing on Facebook, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova described the allegations as groundless.
Komsomolskaya Pravda, a pro-Kremlin tabloid, published an online article listing “three reasons” why Chepiga was not involved in the Skripal poisoning, adding that he was not a Russian secret services operative.