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Unmasking the Salisbury Poisoning Suspects: A Four-Part Investigation
In cooperation with their investigative partner Insider (Russia), the Bellingcat team set out to identify the two mysterious men who the UK government said were the main suspects in the Novichok poisonings. By using open source evidence, the journalists identified the real people behind the cover personas.
Read The Insider Russian report on this same topic here.
In a preceding report on the investigation into the two suspects in the Skripals poisoning case, Bellingcat and its reporting partner the Insider disclosed the identity of one of the two suspects. The person travelling under the alias of Ruslan Boshirov was identified as GRU’s Col. Anatoliy Chepiga, recipient of Russia’s highest state award.
Bellingcat can now report that it has conclusively identified the second suspect, who travelled to Salisbury under the alias Alexander Petrov. We already produced evidence that “Alexander Petrov” is not an authentic persona, but an undercover alias for an officer of a Russian security agency. In a later report, we established that “Petrov” was specifically working for Russia’s military intelligence, the GRU.
“We already produced evidence that “Alexander Petrov” is not an authentic persona, but an undercover alias for an officer of a Russian security agency.”
We have identified “Alexander Petrov” to be in fact Dr. Alexander Yevgeniyevich Mishkin, a trained military doctor in the employ of the GRU. Furthermore, multiple witnesses familiar with Alexander Mishkin and his family have confirmed to us that he, like Col. Chepiga, is a recipient of the Hero of Russia award, which is bestowed by a special decree by the Russian President.
While Alexander Mishkin’s true persona has an even smaller digital footprint than Anatoliy Chepiga’s, Bellingcat has been able to establish many key facts from his background.
Who is Alexander Mishkin?
Alexander Mishkin was born on 13 July, 1979 in the village of Loyga, in the Archangelsk District in Northern European Russia. Loyga, inhabited by just over a thousand residents, is so remote that it has no road access to the rest of Russia, and for most of the year is only reachable via a narrow-gauge railroad. Alexander Mishkin lived in his home village until at least 1995, until he was sixteen. For a large part of his school years, Mishkin lived with his grandmother, Loyga’s only medical practitioner at the time.
At some point between 1995 and 1999, Alexander Mishkin moved to St. Petersburg. We could not establish what led to the initial relocation, although some people familiar with his family reported that he enrolled at a military academy. We have established with certainty however that no later than 2001 he was a student at the “S. Kirov” Military Medical Academy, which is popularly referred to in Russian as Voyenmed. Mishkin studied at the Academy’s 4th Faculty, which trains military doctors for Russia’s naval armed forces. He specialised in undersea and hypobaric medicine. Mishkin graduated the Academy in 2006 or 2007 with a medical degree and rank of senior lieutenant, which is the default rank granted to all military doctors in Russia.
It is not certain at what point — before, during or after his military medical studies — Mishkin was recruited to work for the GRU. However, no earlier than 2007 and no later than 2010 he relocated to Moscow and received an undercover identity, including a second national ID and travel passport, under the alias Alexander Petrov.
Unlike the case of Anatoliy Chepiga, “Petrov”’s cover identity retained most of the biographical characteristics of the authentic Mishkin – such as the exact birth date, first and patronymic name, and first names of his parents. The family name was changed to Petrov, and the birthplace was moved to Kotlas, town approximately 100 km from his actual place of birth (reaching Kotlas from Loyga by car, ironically enough, takes 10 hours as it requires a 350-km detour). Under his cover identity, Mishkin was registered at a Moscow address occupied by a different individual who is likely unrelated to him and unaware of his existence. The real Mishkin, under his authentic identity, lived with his wife and two children at a different address in Moscow.
“Under his cover identity, Mishkin was registered at a Moscow address occupied by a different individual who is likely unrelated to him and unaware of his existence.”
Incomplete border crossing data obtained by Bellingcat shows that in the period 2010-2013 Mishkin travelled — under his undercover persona of Petrov — multiple times to Ukraine, and often crossed by car into and back from the self-declared Transnistrian Republic where he stayed for short periods of time. His last trip to Ukraine was in mid-December 2013. Mishkin’s travel itinerary from 2016 and on was reported previously by us.
Until early September 2014, Mishkin’s registered home address in Moscow was Khoroshevskoye Shosse 76B, the address of the headquarters of the GRU. Bellingcat has confirmed that until approximately the same time, August 2014, Col. Chepiga was also registered as “residing” at this address. This address registration did not mean that the two physically lived at the GRU headquarters but that their actual place of residence was kept confidential.
Hero of Russia award: For activities in Ukraine?
In the latter part of 2014, President Putin bestowed Alexander Mishkin with the Hero of the Russian Federation Award. People closely familiar with Mishkin’s family reported to us that they believe Russia’s highest award was given for Mishkin’s activities “either in Crimea or in relation to [former Ukrainian president] Yanukovich”
In our previous reporting on Chepiga, we identified that until 2014 he resided at an apartment complex shared by dozens of GRU-linked officers and owned by the Ministry of Defense. While we found no indication of Mishkin’s actual residence while registered at GRU headquarters address, it can be assumed he also used a GRU-issued corporate apartment. In the autumn of 2014, at the time both Mishkin and Chepiga received their Hero of Russia Awards, both moved to upscale apartments valued at between €350,000 and €500,000 at the exchange rates that existed then. Bellingcat believes that these apartments were in-kind remuneration that accompanied the highest state award.
Alexander Mishkin current military rank is unknown. However, based on the known rank as of graduation from the Military Medical Academy (Russian military doctors graduate with a rank of senior lieutenant), and the elapsed time (15 years), it can be posited that as the time of the Skripals’ poisoning incident he was either a Lt. Colonel or a full Colonel.
The starting point for our research was a passport photograph of “Alexander Petrov,”as well as security camera photos and video footage from this person’s interview on RT. In addition, we had the passport dossier of the undercover persona “Petrov”, which contained an earlier photo and other, possibly irrelevant or fake, biographical data. In addition, UK media quoted a police source stating that the first name of the suspect was indeed believed to be “Alexander”, while the family name was believed to be different than “Petrov”.
Similar to the identification of Col. Chepiga, Bellingcat initially exhausted all reverse-image search attempts with no match. This implied that “Petrov”, like Col. Chepiga, has no social media or other photographic presence on the internet, or that such past presence, if any, has been cleansed thoroughly.
The second line of attack was to search through photo-albums or group photos and videos of graduates of the Far-Eastern Military School attended by Col. Chepiga. This approach also yielded no results. Similarly, no matches were identified in group photos of the Spetsnaz military unit to which Chepiga was assigned after graduation. Then Bellingcat searched through names of all people registered at Chepiga’s corporate-residence address. After exploring all possible name and age matches, we concluded none of the residents could be “Alexander Petrov.”
Change of search algorithm
Finally, we decided to apply a different approach to the search. While in the case of Chepiga, all personal details had been altered for his cover persona, this was not necessarily always the case. Other GRU undercover officers we had investigated, such as Eduard Shishmakov, had retained their first name, birthdate and place of birth, and had only the last name changed, in Shishmakov’s case to “Shirokov.” The research team hypothesized that this may have been the case with “Petrov” too, given the tip that the first name had been retained unchanged.
Looking for clues as to the geographical focus for the search, we noted that in the “cover” passport file, there was a reference to a previous passport, issued in St. Petersburg in 1999.
Searching through dozens of previously leaked databases, we did not find such passport issue number, leading the team to conclude the number was fake. However, the reference to St. Petersburg was a possible clue, under the “minimum change” hypothesis.
Alexander from St. Petersburg
Focusing on St. Petersburg, we searched through various leaked databases of residents, vehicle owners and telephone subscribers, by using the following search criteria: first name and patronymic = “Alexander Yevgeniyevich” (as in the cover identity), and birth date = “13 July, 1979” (also as in the cover identity).
This search resulted in only one exact match in St. Petersburg databases from 2003 and 2006: Alexander Yevgeniyevich Mishkin, born on 13 July, 1979. This name with the same address, Akademika Lebedeva street 12, apartment 30, are mentioned in an open source database as well.
Bellingcat then used the telephone number (which is no longer in service) listed in the database as search criteria, to find other St. Petersburg residents that were linked to it. At least eight residents were registered to have used this same phone number, in the 2003 and 2006 databases. This finding suggested that these living quarters may have been a communal apartment (komunalnaya kvartira), or living space shared by multiple unrelated residents. Communal apartments were wide-spread in the USSR, but as of 2002 would have primarily been used by students. Indeed, more than half of the people registered to this phone number, including Mishkin, were between ages of 18 and 24.
Another clue from the cover passport that supports the hypothesis that Alexander Mishkin is the true identity of Alexander Petrov, is the aforementioned reference to a previous passport issued in 1999. The reference mentions “20 отделение милиции Выборгского района город Санкт-Петербурга,” translated as the 20th police department of the Vyborg district of St. Petersburg, located at Ulitsa Smolyachkova nr.5, just 1.6 kilometers from the address where Mishkin was registered.
Using the open-source online database of residents of St. Petersburg, Bellingcat identified more than 30 persons who had inhabited different apartments in the house at “Akademika Lebedeva 12.” A search for these people’s online presence showed that many of them list VMEDA as their alma mater, and many others work in spheres linked to the medical profession. From the 8 persons registered to the same communal apartment as Mishkin, two were identified, via social media, as VMEDA graduates.
No presence for “Alexander Yevgeniyevich Mishkin” with the birth date of 13.07.1979 was found on Russian or foreign social media sites.
At this point in the investigation, Bellingcat hypothesized that the Alexander Yevgeniyevich Mishkin who lived across the street from the VMEDA in 2002 was a student at the military medical academy. Additionally, the team hypothesized that this might indeed by the real person behind the persona Alexander Petrov, who shared the same birthdate, name and patronymic.
Linking St. Petersburg to Moscow
On the assumption that the real person behind “Alexander Petrov” lives and works in Moscow (as suggested by the Moscow registration of the cover passport file), Bellingcat then searched for presence of a person with the name Alexander Yevgenyevich Mishkin in Moscow. The first open-source result was from a Moscow online phone database.
Using this phone number and name, we searched in various leaked Moscow databases and found a match in a car insurance database from 2013.
However, at this point it was not unequivocal that this Moscow-based person having the same full name and driving a Volvo XC90 was the same person as the St. Petersburg namesake. To verify this, Bellingcat acquired the registration history of this vehicle from an official Russian database. The car history showed that it had been imported, and initially registered in St. Petersburg in 2012, and on 11 September 2013 had been transferred to an individual residing in the Khoroshevsky District in Moscow.
As the GRU headquarters is located at Khoroshevskoye Shosse 76B, in this same district, this finding increased the probability that Alexander Mishkin from St. Petersburg is indeed “Alexander Petrov.” However, the evidence was still inconclusive, primarily as there was no confirmation that “Khoroshevsky Region” Alexander Mishkin shares (a) same birth date as the St. Petersburg namesake and (b) if his address in Khoroshevsky Region is not a pure coincidence.
To eliminate these uncertainties, we obtained a more recent auto insurance database from 2014, available for purchase from a Russian website. A search for the registered owner of the Volvo XC90 eliminated any doubt that Alexander Mishkin is linked to the GRU, as the address listed for the owner was GRU’s headquarters, at Khoroshevskoye Shosse 76B. Additionally, due the full overlap of birth date and name, we concluded that with high confidence that he is the same Alexander Mishkin who resided next to Russia’s military academy in St. Petersburg in 2002.
At this point in the investigation, Bellingcat and its investigative partner, The Insider, shared the conviction that Alexander Mishkin was in fact the person behind the alias “Petrov,” as all evidence was internally consistent, and also consistent with data from the previous case study of Shishmakov/Shirokov. The team also had relatively high confidence that Alexander Mishkin had studied at, and possibly graduated, the St. Petersburg Military Medical Academy, VMEDA, or Voyenmed.
Do not divulge
Via Russian social networks, Bellingcat mass-contacted hundreds of VMEDA graduates from the 2001-2007 class range. We did not inform the persons contacted about the context of the query, nor did we mention Petrov. Many of the contacted persons responded by saying they are not familiar with an Alexander Mishkin as having been in their class. Most others did not respond to our queries.
One person, who requested complete anonymity, confirmed to Bellingcat that Alexander Mishkin indeed graduated the academy, having been in a different class. They also said that they had recognized Mishkin as “Alexander Petrov” from the RT interview. This same person informed us that many of the graduates from Mishkin’s class and department had been contacted by Russian security services over the last few weeks, and instructed not to divulge Mishkin’s identity to anyone.
A photo worth a thousand words
Having established Petrov’s true identity in late September, we focused all efforts on obtaining a photograph of Alexander Mishkin. As reported by Russian media, following Bellingcat’s initial reports on the Skripal suspects, the Russian domestic security agency FSB clamped down on sources that they perceived might be leaking data from Russia’s passport dossier databases. As a result, requesting any source to provide the investigating team with access to Mishkin’s passport file was not an option, as it would place this source in danger.
Instead, we were able to obtain a copy of Alexander Mishkin’s scanned passport pages, from a source with access to a scanned copy of the passport. The source requested complete anonymity due to safety concerns, and thus Bellingcat cannot share the position or history the source has that has enabled them to have access to this document. However, we have validated the data visible in the passport in at least three other leaked databases that match the passport number, date of issue, name and issuing authority. The photo on the passport scan does not appear in any other open sources, further minimizing the risk of а forged document. We have also confirmed the source’s profession and that his or her position (which is not linked to the government) provides access to this document.
The source also provided Bellingcat with a second document in the name of Alexander Mishkin containing a (different) photograph of an individual bearing a strong facial resemblance of “Petrov.”
Bellingcat requested a forensic facial similarity analysis between the passport photo from Mishkin’s passport (dated 2001) and “Petrov”’s international passport (dated 2006), from Prof. Ugail, professor of visual computing at the University of Bradford and an expert in simulated age progression. Prof. Ugail confirmed unequivocally that the two photographs belong to the same person, accounting for the 15-year difference between the two.
On the road to Loyga, the village with no roads
For final validation of our amassed findings, Bellingcat’s Russian investigative partner, The Insider, sent a reporter to the village of Loyga. The reporter was able to meet and talk to many residents, who all recognized “Alexander Petrov”, the person shown on photographs released by the British police and seen in the RT interview, as “our local boy” Alexander Mishkin. One person told our reporter that Alexander Mishkin had been her son’s play friend.
In addition, at least five different residents told our reporter that Alexander Mishkin, who they knew worked in Murmansk or in Moscow “as a military doctor”, had received the Hero of Russia award several years ago. One source close to Mishkin’s grandmother (who is now in her 90s, and as a former doctor is still revered in the village) told us that the reason for the award is top secret, but that the understanding in the village was that it was “for Crimea or [for former Ukrainian president Viktor] Yanukovych,” the implication being that the award had either something to do with the Crimean annexation or with helping Yanokovych flee Ukraine.
The same source told us that Alexander Mishkin’s grandmother possesses a photograph on which President Putin is shown bestowing the Gold Star medal (which goes with the award) to Alexander, and shaking his hand. The source said the grandmother treasures this photo and does not show it to everyone, and never lets anyone else hold it. Our reporter was not able to talk directly to Petrov’s grandmother or see the photograph.
A Doctor and a Hero
Bellingcat could not find any publicly accessible document confirming that Alexander Mishkin received the Hero of Russia award. However, this is not unusual, as only a part of the awards are made public, while recipients who earn the recognition through services that are subject to state secrecy are not announced. In the Col. Chepiga case, we were only able to discover his award due to public statements by officers of his military school, and the gold-emblazoned name on the “Gold Star” wall of a school-ground monument. No such public honors were identified in open sources for Dr. Mishkin.
However, at least one document discovered by Bellingcat corroborates the statements by Alexander Mishkin’s proud townspeople. In September 2014, at about the same time that Mishkin would have received his award, per the Loyga residents, Mishkin moved to a new apartment in а freshly build skyscraper in Moscow. The two-bedroom apartment, which was registered in the name of his wife and two daughters, had a tax value of approximately €350,000, significantly above the price range tenable for a Russian military officer. More tellingly, according to an extract from Russia’s central real estate registry, ownership of the apartment was obtained by the new owners based on a “Contract of Transfer.” A Contract a Transfer is not a standard form of real estate acquisition; a more standard reference would be a “Sale and Purchase Contract.”
At approximately the same time, Col. Anatoliy Chepiga also moved from an apartment in a corporate “dormitory” building to an upscale apartment not far from Mishkin’s. Chepiga’s apartment was larger and more expensive: at 100 sq. m, its tax value was reported at approx. half a million euro at the then exchange rate. This 12th floor apartment was also passed on to the four members of the Chepiga family on the basis of a “Contract of Transfer of Ownership”, although in this document also the term “Privatization” was added.
The most plausible explanation for these two contemporaneous “transfers”, none of which was associated with a mortgage or a traditional sale-purchase contract, is that they were granted to Chepiga and Mishkin by the Russian state as an in-kind bonus alongside the Hero of Russia award. This would be consistent with information reported to the BBC and other media by residents of Chepiga’s home village who spoke of a Moscow apartment being given to Anatoliy Chepiga as a present when he received the Hero of Russia Award.
Relevance of new findings
The findings of this investigation by Bellingcat add possibly material context to the mission of the two GRU officers to Salisbury. The inclusion of a trained military doctor on the team implies that the purpose of the mission has been different than information gathering or other routine espionage activities. Bellingcat contacted various sources with knowledge of practices of Russian military intelligence who provided a range of opinions on what the relevance of the presence of a doctor in a foreign-operations team means. While some stated that GRU was known to form multi-functional and multi-skilled teams as part of operational “best practices”, others suggested that a doctor would be a mandatory addition to a team tasked with poisoning a target — either for ensuring effective application of the chemical, or to protect team members from accidental self-poisoning.
The new findings also require a renewed analysis of the travel itinerary of Mishkin across Western Europe in the period 2016-2018, previously disclosed by Bellingcat.