Cybersleuthing group Bellingcat says it has found that two men that Britain suspects of poisoning former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter were awarded Hero of the Russian Federation medals by President Vladimir Putin four years ago for conducting covert operations in Ukraine.
Releasing details about its latest findings on October 9, Bellingcat said that Aleksandr Mishkin was decorated at around the same time as Anatoly Chepiga in 2014 -- the year Russia seized Crimea and fomented separatism in eastern Ukraine, helping start a war that has killed more than 10,300 people.
A day earlier, Bellingcat said it determined that the suspect who traveled to Britain in March on a passport under the name Aleksandr Petrov is actually Mishkin, a military doctor employed by Russia's military intelligence agency, widely known as the GRU.
The British-based open-source investigation group's founder, Eliot Higgins, and researcher Christo Grozev told reporters at an event at the British Parliament that they found out that Mishkin had participated in covert operations in Ukraine and Moldova's breakaway region of Transdniester.
People acquainted with his family said they thought the hero award was given for activities "either in Crimea or in relation to [former Ukrainian President Viktor] Yanukovych," according to the Bellingcat report.
Bellingcat said it sought out hundreds of Mishkin's fellow graduates at the Military Medical Academy in St. Petersburg, and that two remembered Mishkin, but they said that all members of the class had been contacted recently and told not to speak about him.
The organization added that The Insider, Bellingcat's investigative partner in Russia, sent a reporter to the northern Russian village of Loyga, where at least seven people recognized photos of the man identified initially as Petrov as "our local boy" Mishkin.
The reporter heard that a woman identified as Mishkin's grandmother had shown many villagers a photograph of Putin shaking hands with her grandson and was very proud of it.
Bellingcat said the reporter was not able to talk directly to the grandmother.
Bellingcat made waves late last month when it said that Chepiga was the true identity of the other suspect, who had a passport in the name of Ruslan Boshirov, and that he was a GRU colonel decorated with the Hero award.
British authorities allege that the two Russians smeared a Soviet-designed nerve agent called Novichok on the front door of Skripal's home in the English city of Salisbury on March 4, the day the former spy and his daughter were found incapacitated on a bench and rushed to the hospital.
Both survived after weeks in critical condition, but Dawn Sturgess, a woman who authorities said came in contact with the poison after her boyfriend found a fake perfume bottle containing it, died in July.
The poisonings have added tension to already severely strained ties between Russia and the West, leading to additional U.S. and European Union sanctions on Moscow and to an exchange of diplomatic expulsions.
Russia denies involvement, but Bellingcat's findings have added to the evidence against Moscow and exposed the GRU to ridicule.
Putin has insisted that the two men identified by Britain as poisoning the Skripals were ordinary Russian civilians.