The art of spycraft has been the inspiration for writers and filmmakers for decades. Ever since Dutch-born Mata Hari used her upper-class social connections and sexual exploits to gather information for the Germans during the First World War, the public has been fascinated with the shadowy world of spies and counterintelligence officers.
Unlike the ill-fated Mata Hari, who met her end facing a French firing squad, or Kim Philby, the high-ranking British intelligence officer who worked as a double agent for the NKVD and KGB and helped end the careers of multiple British and American spooks – including the famous spy novel author John le Carré – before Philby defected to the Soviet Union in 1963, the latest twist in East-West battle of clandestine services has largely, and bizarrely, played out in public.
Former Russian spy Sergey Skripal and his daughter were discovered unconscious on a bench in the UK city of Salisbury on March 4 after being poisoned with a Soviet-made chemical weapon known as Novichok.
Both Skripal – who sold secrets to Britain’s foreign intelligence agency MI6 – and his daughter Yulia survived the original attack. Local resident, Dawn Sturgess, – a woman not connected to the original attack – died in July after being exposed to the same substance.
Months after the poisoning, MI5 – who are in charge of domestic intel in the UK – identified two men – “Ruslan Boshirov” and “Alexander Petrov” – as the prime suspects in the attempted assassination of Skripal.
In an attempt at damage control for both the Kremlin and Russia’s security services, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the two men shown in surveillance footage picked up near Skripal’s home in Salisbury were, in fact, civilians on a tourist trip. At the time, he said his own internal investigation had identified the suspects but offered no further details other than to say that “Boshirov” and “Petrov” had nothing to do with the case. Putin went so far as to welcome the two to appear on television to clear their name and to prove that they were “average guys”, as Putin labelled them during an interview on Kremlin-controlled TV.
Miraculously, both men appeared shortly after Putin’s comments on Russia’s state-run propaganda channel, RT (formerly Russia Today), for an interview with the network’s controversial editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan.
Looking nervous and unsure of their own answers, including being able to confidently answer to the names “Boshirov” and “Petrov”, the two fumbled through a series of bizarre explanations for their appearance in Salisbury. Each man acknowledged that they had been in Salisbury on two separate occasions, claiming they were there as tourists to “see the world-famous 123-metre tall church spire”.
Despite her own reputation for peddling wild conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated legal claims, a visibly unconvinced Simonyan attempted to refocus the interview on the two interviewees’ private lives, hinting that the two were not tourists, but a gay couple on vacation in a British city that the Kremlin’s media tried to frame as a hotbed of LGBT activism.
The Kremlin’s ham-handed effort at a cover story left few in Russia or in the West convinced that the two individuals were who Moscow said they were, This became more apparent after British investigative website Bellingcat revealed that the classified passport details of the two suspects in question were linked to the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence.
In their September 26 report, Bellingcat released details and records showing that “Ruslan Boshirov” is actually decorated GRU Colonel Anatoly Chepiga, a veteran of the 1999-2002 Second Chechen War and the ongoing war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region.
Though British intelligence officials have not publicly commented on Bellingcat’s findings, news agency Reuters cited two unidentified “European security sources” familiar with the investigation into the Skripal poisoning as saying that Bellingcat’s revelations were fully accurate.
According to Bellingcat’s report, Chepiga was awarded Russia’s highest state medal – Hero of the Russian Federation – in December 2014 for his activities during the war in Ukraine. The award is rarely handed out on an annual basis and is usually presented to the recipient by Putin, himself, in a secret ceremony.
The 39-year-old reportedly trained at one of Russia’s elite academies and later served with a special forces unit in Chechnya that was under the command of the GRU and where he earned more than 20 military awards for his service.
Bellingcat’s report indicated that Chepiga was born in Nikolaevka, a village in Russia’s Amur Oblast near the Russian-Chinese border. After his combat duties came to an end in Chechnya, he transferred to Moscow in about 2009 and was given the false identity “Ruslan Boshirov” as part of his undercover work for the GRU.
As expected, the Kremlin’s response has been to deny Bellingcat’s findings, with the spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, suggesting that the release of the report was deliberately timed to coincide with British Prime Minister Theresa May‘s address at the UN Security Council where she “again aired accusations against Russia.”
What was missing from Zakharova’s statement, however, was an explanation for a report in British daily the Sun where residents of Chepiga’s adopted home village of Berezovka – some 650 kilometres east of Moscow – recognized the man known as “Ruslan Boshirov” from the CCTV images in Salisbury as Chepiga.
The Russian security services appear to oblivious to the numerous public blunders that have come to light in recent years as they scramble to explain the open sources available to highly competent investigative organisations like Bellingcat.
The Skripal case and the revelations behind Chepiga’s true identity appear to be, yet more, examples that both the GRU and their partners, the FSB, remain formidable. But as long as they continue to produce another Chepiga or convicted faux femme fatales like Anna Chapman to do their most clandestine work, they have a long way to go before they find another spy mastermind in the vein of Klaus Fuchs in their ranks.