LONDON – The second man accused in the Salisbury novichok attack in March that left one British woman dead is a decorated Russian military intelligence officer who took part in the Kremlin’s military invasion of Ukraine, investigators revealed at the British House of Commons on Oct. 9.
Dr. Alexander Mishkin, a military physician who arrived in the United Kingdom on March 2 under the alias of Alexander Petrov, is also an operative with the GRU, the Russian military spy agency.
Mishkin was awarded with Hero of the Russian Federation medal – along with alleged accomplice Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga – and spent considerable amounts of time in Ukraine between 2011 and 2018. During their time in Ukraine, the two suspects were likely active in GRU efforts to kick-start Russia’s war, investigators have claimed for the first time.
Mishkin was likely decorated by Russian President Vladimir Putin for his role in either extracting former President Viktor Yanukovych from Kyiv on Feb. 22, 2014, amid the EuroMaidan Revolution, or for a later contribution to the Russian military takeover of Crimea, investigators said as they presented evidence at a U.K. parliamentary committee.
Robert Seely, a British member of Parliament who is on the foreign affairs committee, told the Kyiv Post that the evidence presented in London shows that GRU operatives in Ukraine at the time were likely acting as “firestarters” and were there to instigate conflict across the country.
“We know that the GRU were actively involved in the first takeovers of city councils in Ukraine,” added lead investigator Christo Grozev. “This would later be followed up by Russian Spetznaz special forces… and the creation of fake local defense units.”
Eliot Higgins, founder of the Bellingcat investigative agency that uncovered the Salisbury attackers’ identities, said “there’s so much that he could have been doing during these trips to Ukraine. He could have been coordinating, passing money onto people… we know that the GRU has been directly involved with separatists in Ukraine.”
In September, Bellingcat investigators revealed that the first Salisbury suspect, Ruslan Boshirov, was in fact a decorated special forces officer and GRU operative called Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga, who spent considerable time deployed on the Ukrainian border and likely saw active duty in eastern Ukraine.
On Oct. 9, Grozev and Higgins affirmed that they’re “100 percent sure” about the revealed identities of both Chepiga and Mishkin and said they had no other reason to be in Ukraine as GRU operatives, other than to instigate conflict and support pro-Russian rebels.
The pair are believed to have smeared the novichok nerve agent on the front door of the home of former Russian double spy Sergei Skripal, released by Russia in 2010 in a prisoner swap after being convicted and sentenced to prison in 2006 for giving secret information to the British MI6 intelligence agency, a charge he denied. Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter, Yulia, 34, were hospitalized for months after the poisoning but have recovered.
Police link the attack on the Skripals to a separate novichok poisoning on June 30 in Amesbury, that led to the death of 44-year-old Dawn Sturgess. She and her partner Charlie Rowley were exposed to the nerve agent after handling a contaminated perfume dispenser.
Starting a war
Mishkin and Chepiga allegedly helped Russia launch its war in Ukraine.
“The GRU has been linked to lots of post-Soviet conflicts,” said Seely, a lawmaker from the the governing Conservative Party who also lived in Ukraine between 2000 and 2004 when he was a journalist for the Times newspaper. “They go into countries and kick-start non-conventional, paramilitary warfare. These are usually small-scale but bloody, proxy conflicts that they [the Russians] use as experience to help them define modern, Russian warfare.”
Higgins said: “There are plenty of examples of the GRU acting – or trying to act – as firestarters,” including in Georgia’s breakaway South Ossetia region and in Montenegro, where they have tried to stoke conflict.
But according to investigator Grozev, the GRU’s interference, manipulations and subversions in Ukraine are probably their crowning achievement so far, even if they didn’t trigger a countrywide, pro-Russian rebellion as they had hoped.
“Leaked emails from Russian intelligence, analyzed by us, clearly show that the GRU was tasked with kick-starting conflict in Crimea and Donbas,” he said, with Chepiga and Mishkin as likely important components in those illegal activities. “Earlier this year, we concluded a six-month investigation that conclusively proved that full-time Russian officers on the Kremlin payroll commanded the artillery units that shelled Mariupol.”
The January 2015 rocket attacks on Mariupol, an Azov Sea port city of 500,000 people about 800 kilometers southeast of Kyiv, claimed at least a dozen Ukrainian lives but Moscow denied responsibility for the attack. “We concluded that the GRU organized this attack, and coordinated the Russian artillery units,” said Grozev.
Russian violence, first in Donbas and later Salisbury
In 2014, Ukrainian journalists reported that Anatoliy Chepiga’s unit, the 14th Spetznaz Brigade had been mysteriously redeployed from far-eastern Russia to the border with Ukraine.
Photographic evidence purported to show that these soldiers were frequently flown into Donbas, Crimea or both on low-flying helicopters. Investigators in the United Kingdom have confirmed that evidence is correct.
“We analyzed that evidence too and came to the same conclusions,” said Grozev, adding that it’s highly likely that Chepiga’s unit was deployed to Ukraine.“There was no reason for this brigade to leave their training mission and relocate to the Ukrainian border – it’s our belief they were actively deployed there.”
On the subject of what comes next, Bellingcat’s investigators have suggestions for the British and warnings for the Ukrainians.
“The British government now have enough evidence to take Russia to the International Criminal Court,” said Grozev.
In Ukraine, as the country approaches presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019, lawmakers and the public should prepare for significantly increased Russian interference. “We must assume that the GRU are already interfering in Ukraine’s democratic process and are already escalating this,” said Grozev.
“Our sources in Ukraine tell us that there is a surge of Russian people arriving to work in Ukraine on corporate projects that we understand to be cover operations for the GRU,” he said.
In response to Russia’s war in eastern Ukraine, Seely is convinced that the conflict has actually had the ironic effect of bringing Ukrainians together – much to Putin’s dismay – and has also increased support and solidarity for Ukraine abroad.
But Kyiv’s Western allies, including the UK, can still do more, he said. “There’s more lethal aid coming to Ukraine,” predicted the member of parliament. “I’m in favor of this – I think we’ve been too soft on the Russians, to be honest.”