A photo released by the Metropolitan Police Service in London on September 5, 2018 shows a man then identified as Alexander Petrov, who investigative group Bellingcat say is in fact Alexander Mishkin, a trained military doctor

London (AFP) - One of the two suspects in the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Britain was an intelligence operative who was personally decorated as a hero by President Vladimir Putin after conducting covert operations in Ukraine, investigative group Bellingcat said on Tuesday.

The site said on Monday that the man, who used the alias “Alexander Petrov”, was in fact Alexander Mishkin, a trained military doctor employed by Russia’s GRU military intelligence service.

Mishkin’s name and his work for the GRU were independently confirmed on Tuesday by the Conflict Intelligence Team, a respected Russian-language investigative website.

Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins and researcher Christo Grozev told reporters at an event in the British parliament that they discovered Mishkin had taken part in covert operations in Ukraine and the breakaway republic of Transnistria.

Higgins and Grozev said that Mishkin was made a Hero of the Russian Federation – the country’s highest honorary title – by Putin in the autumn of 2014.

People familiar with his family believed it was awarded for activities “either in Crimea or in relation to (former Ukrainian president Viktor) Yanukovych”, according to their report.

The man believed to be Alexander Mishkin, one of the suspects behind an attack on a former Russian spy in Britain, pictured at Gatwick airport in London in March

A popular uprising in Kiev ousted the Moscow-backed Yanukovych, who was smuggled out of Ukraine and into Russia by GRU agents in February 2014.

Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea a month later.

The investigative group has previously identified GRU colonel Anatoly Chepiga as the other suspect behind the March poisoning attack. It said that he too had received Russia’s highest award the same year in a secret ceremony in the Kremlin.

British authorities accuse the two men of attempting to murder Skripal and his daughter Yulia with the Soviet-made nerve agent Novichok in the city of Salisbury in southwest England.

While the Skripals survived the attack, a woman died on June 30 after her partner picked up a discarded bottle of perfume containing the nerve agent that UK inspectors think was used to smuggle in the Novichok.

“The findings of this investigation by Bellingcat add possibly material context to the mission of the two GRU officers to Salisbury,” the report concluded.

“The inclusion of a trained military doctor on the team implies that the purpose of the mission has been different than information gathering or other routine espionage activities.”

- Adopted identity -

Using open-source records such as leaked residential, telephone and vehicle databases, the Bellingcat probe found Mishkin was born in the remote village of Loyga in northern Russia in 1979.

Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins discussed their investigation's findings with reporters at an event in the British parliament on Tuesday

He graduated in 2003 or 2004 from the Russian military’s medical academy in St Petersburg, where he specialised in “deep underwater physiology”.

The researchers said that he was recruited by the GRU “at some point before 2003” and moved to Moscow in around 2009 where he adopted the identity of Alexander Petrov.

Bellingcat said it reached out to hundreds of fellow graduates from the academy, and two recalled Mishkin, but added that all of the class had been contacted recently and told not to speak about him.

In contrast to Chepiga, Mishkin’s cover identity retained most of his authentic biographical characteristics, such as the same birth date and first names of his parents.

Bellingcat said it obtained incomplete border crossing records showing Mishkin travelled – under his undercover persona of Petrov – multiple times to Ukraine between 2010 and 2013.

They also showed he often crossed by car back and forth from Transnistria, where he stayed for short periods of time, it added.

- ‘Our local boy’ -

Bellingcat said its Russian investigative partner, The Insider, sent a reporter to the village of Loyga, where at least seven residents recognised photos of Petrov as “our local boy” Mishkin.

Bellingcat has identified the two suspects as GRU colonel Anatoly Chepiga, left, and Alexander Mishkin, a trained military doctor employed by GRU

The journalist heard that his grandmother had shown many villagers a photograph of Putin shaking hands with Mishkin.

“The source said the grandmother treasures this photo and does not show it to everyone, and never lets anyone else hold it,” the report said.

Bellingcat added the reporter was not able to talk directly to the grandmother or see the photograph.

Putin insisted last month that the two men identified by British police as being behind the Skripals’ poisoning were not members of the GRU.

“They are civilians, of course,” he said, while his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday that the Kremlin would no longer comment on media reports about the Skripal case.