Bellingcat and its investigative partner The Insider – Russia have established conclusively the identity of one of the suspects in the poisoning of Sergey and Yulia Skripal, and in the homicide of British citizen Dawn Sturgess.
Part 1 and Part 2 of Bellingcat’s investigation into the Skripal poisoning suspects are available for background information. In these previous two parts of the investigation, Bellingcat and the Insider concluded that the two suspects – traveling internationally and appearing on Russian television under the aliases “Ruslan Boshirov” and “Alexander Petrov” – are in fact undercover officers of the Russian Military Intelligence, widely known as GRU.
Bellingcat has been able to confirm the actual identity of one of the two officers. The suspect using the cover identity of “Ruslan Boshirov” is in fact Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga, a highly decorated GRU officer bestowed with Russia’s highest state award, Hero of the Russian Federation. Following Bellingcat’s own identification, multiple sources familiar with the person and/or the investigation have confirmed the suspect’s identity.
This finding eliminates any remaining doubt that the two suspects in the Novichok poisonings were in fact Russian officers operating on a clandestine government mission.
While civilians in Russia can generally own more than one passport, no civilian – or even an intelligence service officer on a personal trip – can cross the state border under a fake identity. The discovery also highlights the extent of the effort – and public diplomacy risk – Russia has taken to protect the identities of the officers. President Putin publicly vouched that “Boshirov” and “Petrov” are civilians. As it is established practice that the awards Hero of the Russian Federation are handed out by the Russian president personally, it is highly likely that Vladimir Putin would have been familiar with the identity of Colonel Chepiga, given that only a handful of officers receive this award each year.
Who is Colonel Chepiga?
Anatoliy Vladimirovich Chepiga was born on 5 May 1979, in the far-eastern village of Nikolaevka in the Amur oblast, population 300, near the Russia-China border. At age 18, he enrolled at a military school just 40 kilometers from his home, the Far-Eastern Military Command Academy in Blagoveschensk, one of Russia’s elite training grounds for marine commandos and Spetsnaz officers.
Anatoliy Chepiga graduated the academy with honors in 2001. He was then assigned to serve in the 14th Spetsnaz Brigade in Russia’s farthest-eastern city of Khabarovsk, one of the elite Spetsnaz units under GRU command. Chepiga’s unit (74854, formerly 20662) played a key role in the second Chechen War, and was also observed near the Ukrainian border in late 2014.
Over the course of his assignment to the 14th Spetsnaz Brigade, Colonel Chepiga was deployed three times to Chechnya. The specific operations he was involved in are not known; however, a website of a far-eastern branch of a state-run military volunteer organization reports that he received over 20 military awards in the course of his service.
At some point between 2003 (the last year we identified him at the 14th Spetsnaz Brigade in Khabarovsk) and 2010 (the year he received his first undercover passport), Anatoliy Chepiga was assigned his alter ego, “Ruslan Boshirov”, and was relocated to Moscow. Given his current rank of Colonel and function as a clandestine GRU officer, it is plausible that during this period he graduated from the Military Diplomatic Academy, also known as the “GRU Conservatory,” in Moscow.
In December 2014, Colonel Chepiga was awarded Russia’s highest state award, Hero of the Russian Federation.This award is bestowed personally by the President of Russia “as recognition of services to the state and the people of Russia involving a heroic deed”.
Most of the awards are handed out in public ceremonies – and accompanied by a presidential decree, such as the award in 2016 to Russian officers fighting in Syria. Other presidential decrees – when the underlying act of heroism is subject to state secrecy – are kept secret. This is the case with the award to Colonel Chepiga. While there is no publicly issued decree – or reference to him on the Kremlin website – the state-run volunteer website specifies that he received the award “in December 2014…for conducting a peace-keeping mission.”
Indeed, the fact that Colonel Chepiga was bestowed the Hero of Russia award is announced on the website of his military school. While most other recipients of the award have a detailed description of the acts that resulted in the recognition, the last two recipients – Anatoliy Chepiga and Alexander Popov – received only a terse statement: “by decree from the Russian president.” This further implies that the mission he – or they – were awarded for was secret.
The phrasing and timing of the award provides significant clues as to where Colonel Chepiga’s mission was. In 2014, there were no military activities in Chechnya. Russia had not engaged militarily in Syria yet. The only region in which Russia was conducting active military operations in secrecy at the time was in Eastern Ukraine, which is the most likely theatre of his mission, as suggested by the secrecy of his award.
Anatoliy Chepiga is married and has one child.
The Challenge of Finding Colonel Chepiga
Bellingcat began the search with only the two targets’ photographs and their cover identities. Initially we attempted reverse image-search via several online engines, but no matches were found. Similarly, no name telephone numbers were registered in the name of “Ruslan Boshirov” in any of the reverse-searchable telephone databases usually scraped by Bellingcat.
Having tried these initial avenues of pursuit, Bellingcat and the Insider approached the search deductively. On the assumption that the two suspects were GRU officers with a focus on West European covert operations (see our second publication about the Skripal poisoning suspects), and knowing their approximate age, we contacted former Russian military officers to inquire what specialized schools would have provided appropriate training. One of the sources we contacted suggested that the school with the best reputation for foreign-language training and overseas clandestine operations at the turn of the century – when the two suspects would have studied – was the Far Eastern Military Command Academy. The graduation years for the two were estimated between 2001 and 2003.
We browsed through multiple (incomplete) yearbook photos and reunion galleries of the classes of 2001-2003 but did not find exact matches for either of the suspects. There were several possible – but not certain – matches for the suspect “Boshirov”. One of these was in a group photograph from a 2018 article about the history of the Academy. Near a photograph of Academy graduates deployed in Chechnya, the text referred to “seven school graduates [who] were bestowed with the Hero of Russia Award”.
While testing the hypothesis that the unnamed person at right-most end of the photo might be “Boshirov,” we searched online for references to “DVOKU” (the Russian abbreviation for the Far Eastern Military Command Academy), “Chechnya” and “Hero of the Russian Federation.” This search landed us at the above-referenced Volunteer Union website, which described a certain Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga as linked to all three search terms.
Online searches in both Google and via two Russian search engines found no images, or social media presence, related to a Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga, or to anyone by that name with a military connection. This appeared to be highly unusual, given the fact he had been awarded the highest state honor.
Subsequently, the research team scoured leaked Russian databases for references to Anatoliy Chepiga. A number of leaked residential and/or telephone databases of various Russian cities and regions are freely available as torrents on the internet; data in such databases varies in recency between 2000 and 2014.
The research team was able to find Anatoliy Chepiga in two locations and time periods in the database: in 2003, in Khabarovsk; and in 2012 in Moscow.
In the 2003 database, a certain Anatoliy Vladimirovich Chepiga was listed with a phone number and an address only described as “в/ч 20662“, the Russian abbreviation for Military Unit 20662. 20662 is the Ministry of Defense designation number of Spetsnaz unit of GRU’s 14th Brigade in Khabarovsk.
At press time, the telephone number listed next to the name of Anatoliy Chepiga was used by a person who has owned it for 4 years, and who was not aware of the previous owner of the number.
Bellingcat accepted the working assumption that this person was indeed Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga, described in the publication as “Hero of the Russian Federation”.
In the 2012 database, one person named Anatoliy Vladirovich Chepiga were listed as residing in Moscow. This man was born on 5 April 1979.
Using the birth date, address and family members’ names, Bellingcat searched for this man online and on social networks, to no avail. Another person with the same full name and birth year – but a different date of birth – was identified as a business owner unrelated to “Boshirov”. The birth year (1979) of the candidate from the database was one year later than the birth year in “Boshirov”s cover documents, however it corresponded to a graduation year from the military academy in 2001.
At this point, Bellingcat accepted the working hypothesis that the man from the 2003 and 2012 databases is the same, and is in fact Colonel Chepiga, Hero of the Russian Federation.
To establish if he is, in fact, “Boshirov,” we needed to obtain a photograph. None were available online or in open sources, even in a number of articles that referred to “Hero of Russia Colonel Chepiga.” Another graduate of DVOKU who reportedly received the same award simultaneously with Chepiga – Alexander Popov – could be seen in photos and videos, yet Chepiga was conspicuously absent. The systematic omission from photographs of an otherwise notable figure – which Bellingcat had previously observed in the case of GRU General Oleg Ivannikov, who served as Minister of Defense of South Ossetia under the cover identity of Andrey Laptev – suggested that Colonel Chepiga may also be a secret service officer.
To validate the hypothesis that Chepiga is Skripal poisoning suspect “Boshirov,” Bellingcat and The Insider obtained extracts from the passport file of Anatoliy Vladimirovich Chepiga – the man born on 5th April 1978 – from two separate sources with access to databases dated prior to 2014, .
The passport file contained a photograph – dated approximately in 2003, when this passport was obtained – that strongly resembled a younger “Boshirov” as seen in passport photos released by the UK police, with an even stronger resemblance to the cover identity passport photo published in our previous publication on the Skripal suspects.
A passport application form in the passport dossier listed Chepiga’s 2003 place of residence as “Military Unit 20662, Khabarovsk”, confirming this was indeed the person identified in the 2003 database. It also listed his place of birth as “village of Nikolaevka”, further linking this person to the Hero of the Russian Federation with the same name.
The passport application form identified also Anatoliy Chepiga’s marital status and listed his military ID number.
A Mission of Critical Importance
Based on the array of information sources consulted – all of which were independent from each other and came from different time periods – Bellingcat was able to conclude with certainty that the person identified by UK authorities as “Ruslan Boshirov,” is in fact Colonel Anatoliy Vladimirovich Chepiga, a highly decorated senior officer from Russian military intelligence who was awarded the highest state honor in late 2014.
This finding starkly contradicts both this man’s statements, as made in a TV interview to Russia’s state-run RT network, and President Vladimir Putin’s assertions that the person in question is merely a civilian named Ruslan Boshirov. These demonstrated falsehoods overshadow this man’s – and the Russian government’s – other denials in this respect, and corroborate the UK authorities’ allegations that this individual was a) complicit in the Skripal poisoning and b) acted on orders from a high-level government authority in Russia.
Bellingcat has contacted confidentially a former Russian military officer of similar rank as Colonel Chepiga, in order to receive a reaction to what we found. The source, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed surprise that at least one of the operatives engaged in the operation in Salisbury had the rank of colonel. Even more surprising was the suspects’ prior award of the highest military recognition.
In our source’s words, an operation of this sort would have typically required a lower-ranked, “field operative” with a military rank of “no higher than captain.” The source further surmised that to send a highly decorated colonel back to a field job would be highly extraordinary, and would imply that “the job was ordered at the highest level.”