In yet another bizarre twist involving Russia, villagers in Berezovka, Russia first confirmed, then only hours later deny, that named Skripal assassin, Colonel Chepiga is a native of their village.
During this short period of time, it is implied that Russian authorities convinced the contacted villagers to “un-know” Colonel Chepiga.
The article does not allege but the implication is fairly clear, that Russian authorities pressured the Russian citizens to change their minds in order to offset the suspicion that Colonel Chepiga is the Skripal assassin.
The villagers knew that their Colonel Chepiga was award the “Hero of the Russian Federation” medal, and are proud of him.
They are not proud, however, that he was caught.
There appears to be no proof coming out of Russia that Chepiga is the Skripal assassin. Again, the waters are murky, the evidence obviously tainted.
In Russia’s Far East, villagers recognize a Skripal poisoning suspect
MOSCOW – Two people in a village in Russia’s Far East told The Washington Post on Friday that they recognized a suspect in recent nerve-agent poisonings in Britain as a former fellow villager.
“It’s true, he’s our guy,” said Alla, who described herself as a onetime family friend and, like some others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition that she not be fully identified because of the sensitivity of the matter. “For us simple residents, this is all just crazy.”
She was referring to Anatoly Chepiga, a highly decorated military officer whom investigative journalists this week identified as one of the suspects in the attempted assassination of a former Russian spy and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury in March. A Russian newspaper, Kommersant, pinpointed the village near the Chinese border where Chepiga grew up and said people there had recognized him.
Russia denies any involvement in the Salisbury attack.
But messages and phone calls by The Post to residents of the village, Berezovka, on Friday yielded fresh evidence that the suspect whose image and alleged undercover identity were first revealed by British police several weeks ago was, in fact, Chepiga.
British authorities said the suspect traveled to the United Kingdom using a passport identifying him as Ruslan Boshirov. In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Boshirov and his alleged accomplice, identified by the British as Alexander Petrov, were known to be civilians. In an interview on Russian state television, the two men said they were fitness-industry entrepreneurs who had traveled to Salisbury as tourists.
Britain’s Bellingcat website and Russia’s The Insider this week published a report using government records and publicly available information to identify Boshirov as Chepiga. The two investigative outlets said Chepiga was a colonel in the GRU military intelligence agency who had served in Russia’s war-torn Chechnya region and, possibly, in Ukraine.
Irina Ivanova, another Berezovka resident, said in a message to The Post over Russia’s VKontakte social network that Boshirov looked “very similar” to Chepiga.
“Anatoly Chepiga is our countryman. I know him and his family very well,” Ivanova said. “They’re a wonderful, friendly and respected family.”
Alexey, a 37-year-old resident of Berezovka who works in the construction industry, told The Post that the man who called himself Boshirov resembled his former schoolmate Chepiga. Chepiga, Alexey said, went on to study at the Far-Eastern Military Command Academy in the nearby city of Blagoveshchensk and was known by villagers to have received the prestigious Hero of the Russian Federation award.
“People knew he studied at the military academy and that he got the Hero of Russia,” Alexey said in a phone interview, adding that he had not known that Chepiga worked in intelligence. “He was a positive guy – never got into fights or anything.”
Hours after the interview, Alexey wrote to The Post to say he had changed his mind and no longer believed that Chepiga and Boshirov were the same person. “This isn’t proven by anyone or by anything,” Alexey wrote. “It’s just a resemblance of photographs.”
The Kremlin on Friday also dismissed the latest reports. Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, told journalists that amid all the news reports about the Salisbury poisoning in the international media, “no one can tell which of these reports are false and which are true.” As for the resemblance between Boshirov and Chepiga, Peskov referred to the impersonators of Soviet leaders who pose for pictures with tourists in central Moscow.
“We’ve got 10 Stalins and 15 Lenins running around Red Square, and all of them look extremely similar to the originals,” Peskov said.
British authorities said the two suspects were both GRU officers who had entered under false identities in order to poison a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, with a military-grade nerve agent called Novichok. Officials presented surveillance camera images and other information tracking the two men moving through busy Gatwick Airport, crowded London train and subway stations and the streets of Salisbury – all while allegedly carrying the poison.
Skripal’s daughter, Yulia Skripal, 33, and a British police officer were also poisoned in the Salisbury incident. The Skripals and the officer subsequently recovered. But four months later, a British woman died of Novichok poisoning in a town near Salisbury after she used a perfume bottle containing the nerve agent.
After Britain published its allegations, Putin said the two suspects were known to be civilians. The men then sat for a bizarre interview with RT, Russia’s state television network aimed at foreign audiences, to deny any connection to the attack. The man called Boshirov said they were drawn to Salisbury by its cathedral’s famous, 400-foot-tall spire. Both men denied working for the GRU.
In Berezovka, a village of several thousand people about 3,500 miles east of Moscow, Chepiga’s culpability in the attack appeared to be a matter of dispute.
Alla, the onetime family friend of Chepiga, said she could not imagine him being mixed up in the Skripal affair. She said Chepiga’s parents left the village about five years ago and that she had last seen him no more recently than 10 years ago.
“We are totally at a loss as to how this could have happened – he was raised in the spirit of patriotism,” Alla said. “What happened has absolutely nothing to do with that.”
Before writing to say he had changed his mind, Alexey, Chepiga’s former schoolmate, said he felt both pride and shame that his village was being linked to the poisoning.
“There’s pride in being connected to this – and there’s shame that he got caught,” Alexey said.
The Washington Post’s Natalia Abbakumova in Moscow and William Booth in London contributed to this report.