Third Suspect In Poisoning Of Former Russian Spy Named By Investigative Group

An international investigative group says it has identified a third suspect in connection with last year's poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter. The group says the man is a high-ranking officer in the GRU, Russia's military intelligence agency.

Denis Sergeev was born in the southeastern town of Usharal in Kazakhstan, according to Bellingcat's report. He allegedly served in the army before attending Moscow's Military Diplomatic Academy, a school once described as a GRU-KGB establishment by the CIA.

And under the name "Sergey Fedotov," Sergeev is accused of traveling to England in March 2018 with two other men suspected of being involved in the Novichok poisoning incident that left Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, slumped on a bench. They were hospitalized for weeks and released that spring.

"He's one of the most difficult of all of the GRU officers that we've tracked," lead investigator Christo Grozev told NPR by Skype. Sergeev is senior to the other GRU suspects, he adds.

Bellingcat spent four months trying to uncover his identity, partnering with a Russian news site called The Insider and Respekt, a Czech publication. Researchers chose to look at travel records on the days that the two other suspects, named as senior GRU officers Anatoly Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin, had flown between Moscow and London.

"We found somebody with a very similar passport number as the other two publicized suspects," says Grozev.

The team members then began to search Russian databases, scouring tax and property records, he says. And when they found little, it raised red flags. "We found that nothing existed about this person before 2010, which is exactly when the other two identities of the other two suspects were created."

Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins tells NPR that the Russian government has been removing documents with photographs from databases, "systematically expunging the records of the real identities of the Skripal suspects." He accuses the Kremlin of being involved in a cover-up, "if not the poisoning itself."

The Russian government has denied all involvement in the Salisbury nerve agent attacks.

It also has some critical words for Bellingcat. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accused the site of being a "special agency" leaking false information "under the cover of investigations."

In September, RT, a state-funded media outlet, released a video interview with two men identified as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, suspects in the incident. They denied working for the GRU and said they were tourists visiting the "wonderful town" of Salisbury.

In its Thursday report, Bellingcat also suggested that Sergeev was linked to the 2015 poisoning of an arms dealer in Bulgaria.

On Monday, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and Britain's ambassador to Sofia, Emma Hopkins, announced a joint investigation into the alleged Russian poisonings.

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