The second suspect in the Salisbury nerve agent attack was also a highly decorated officer in Russian military intelligence, it has been claimed.
The suspect was named on Monday by the Bellingcat investigative website as Alexander Mishkin, a military doctor in the GRU intelligence agency.
At a news conference in the Houses of Parliament on Tuesday, Bellingcat investigator Cristo Grozev said Mishkin had received the award of Hero of the Russian Federation from President Vladimir Putin.
Mr Grozev said the reporters from the Russian website The Insider had managed to reach Mishkin’s home village of Loyga, where they spoke to seven people who confirmed his identity.
“They confirmed that their homeboy Alexander Mishkin was the person who moved on to military school and then became a famous military doctor and who received the award of Hero of the Russian Federation personally from President Putin,” he said.
“His grandmother, with whom he grew up who happens to be a medical professional, has a photograph, in her own words, that has been seen by everybody in the village, of President Putin shaking Mishkin’s hand and giving him the award.”
According to Bellingcat, the 39-year-old – previously identified by the Government by the alias Alexander Petrov – graduated from the Military Medical Academy in St Petersburg in 2003 where he was recruited by the GRU.
He is believed to have received the award of Hero of the Russian Federation either for his role in the annexation of Crimea in 2014 or the exfiltration of the pro-Moscow former president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych.
Last month Bellingcat identified his fellow Salisbury suspect – previously named as Ruslan Boshirov – as Anatoliy Chepiga, a highly decorated colonel in the GRU.
Mr Grozev said that while Mishkin a had a “very sparse digital footprint” compared to Chepiga they had been able to piece together his identity using various databases, including telephone and car insurance records.
They then used social media to contact people who had been at the military academy with Mishkin. Around 30 replies came back almost immediately saying they did not know, but two respondents confirmed they did recognise him.
“One person said ‘Yes. I remember him. He graduated from the class above me. His name is Mishkin.’ Another person said ‘Yes, this is the guy everybody is looking for,’” Mr Grozev said.
When they asked one of the respondents why nobody else recognised him, Mr Grozev said: “That person told us everybody from his class, his department, was contacted two weeks ago and told not to talk to the media.”
He said the reporters who visited Loyga in the remote Arkhangelsk district, they had drawn a blank when they tried to speak to Mishkin’s grandmother.
“Interestingly we have not seen her because moment we announced this press conference today, the grandmother was asked to visit her children – Mr Mishkin’s father and mother – in another town so she vanished from the village three days ago,” he said.
The identification of Mishkin is a further embarrassment for the GRU after the British and Dutch authorities last week exposed its failed attempt to hack the computers of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons which was helping to identify the nerve agent used against the Skripals.
The spy agency was widely ridiculed after its four-man “close access” left behind a string of clues to their true identity, including computer traces and taxi receipts.
President Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin was not prepared to discuss investigative reports and media articles on the poisoning of Mr Skripal, and complained the British authorities had refused a Russian request to share details of their inquiries.
A statement on the Russian embassy website said: “If information continues to flow in the form of media leaks with references to anonymous sources and investigations by NGOs (even though they have obvious ties with secret services), this will only confirm that the British authorities have no intention to pursue investigation within the framework of international law.”
Security minister Ben Wallace declined to comment on Bellingcat’s findings, saying it was an “intelligence matter”.
Addressing the general threat from Russia, Mr Wallace said: “It is easy to laugh at some of the GRU’s poor tradecraft and their abilities.
“But we should not underestimate them nor indeed the dangerous and reckless use of nerve agent on our streets.
“We know that Russia prosecutes its aggression across a full spectrum of measures, assassination, cyber warfare, disinformation, corruption and cyber crime.”