The smirking Salisbury hitman wanted for poisoning Sergei Skripal has been unmasked as a decorated GRU colonel who was awarded the Russian military's highest honour by Vladimir Putin after his service in Chechnya and Ukraine.
The real identity of one of the two assassins, identified by police as Ruslan Boshirov, is reportedly Colonel Anatoliy Vladimirovich Chepiga, 39. He was made a Hero of the Russian Federation by decree of the president during a secret ceremony in 2014.
The disclosure, uncovered by investigative journalist organisation Bellingcat in conjunction with The Telegraph, exposes as lies Putin's claims that the Skripals' would-be killers were innocent 'civilians'.
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Col Chepiga and a second GRU spy, who used the name Alexander Petrov, were charged over the March poisonings by the Crown Prosecution Service, but later appeared on Kremlin-funded news channel RT to reveal their bizarre cover story.
Calling themselves tourists, they said they were only wandering around Salisbury after failing to get to Stonehenge because of snow, and stumbled on the Skripals' house - as shown on CCTV - because they were looking for Salisbury Cathedral, which has a 400ft spire and is 25 minutes in the other direction.
The pair also refused to say why they booked into an east London hotel 127 miles away - or why it contained traces of Novichok - and failed to explain why they appeared to have no luggage when they hastily travelled home to Russia.
RT even suggested the suspects weren't trained killers - hinting they were gay lovers on a romantic break because they had 'little beards, short hair cuts and tight pants'.
Their claims were dismissed as 'lies and blatant fabrications' by Downing Street, and look increasingly farcical in the light of the new revelations about Chepiga's military links.
He was eventually unmasked following a painstaking investigating relying on passport files, leaked address lists and public military information.
Petrov's true identity is still unclear, but he is thought to have been travelling under his real first name with his surname as an alias, according to The Telegraph, which said police know his genuine identity.
The men, both currently hiding in Russia, are also charged with murdering Dawn Sturgess, a local woman who found Novichok three months after the attack in March and sprayed it on her wrist believing it was Nina Ricci Premier Jour perfume. Her boyfriend, Charlie Rowley, fell critically ill but recovered.
A European Arrest Warrant and Interpol red notice have been issued for their detention.
The Kremlin was branded shameful last night for lying about the pair being holidaymakers. Boris Johnson tweeted: 'Utterly predictable news that GRU is behind Skripal atrocity.'
Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the Commons foreign affairs committee, said: 'It is confirmation of what we have known for a long time – that Russia is serially dishonest in its foreign affairs and has again lied about its complicity. These guys are amateurs. Their cover couldn't even survive investigation by newspapers.'
The Metropolitan Police, who are investigating the poisoning, and the Foreign Office declined to comment on the Bellingcat/Telegraph report. But British defence minister Gavin Williamson appeared to confirm its veracity on Twitter.
'The true identity of one of the Salisbury suspects has been revealed to be a Russian Colonel. I want to thank all the people who are working so tirelessly on this case,' Williamson said in a tweet, which was later deleted without explanation.
Prime Minister Theresa May did not address the reports directly in a speech to the United Nations in New York, but spoke of 'the reckless use of chemical weapons on the streets of Britain by agents of the Russian GRU (military intelligence)'.
The Russian Embassy in London was not immediately available to comment. The Kremlin has previously said that the suspects have nothing to do with Putin.
Bellingcat found that Chepiga has won more than 20 awards and a Hero of the Russian Federation medal during his illustrious military career.
Born in the isolated village of Nikolayevka, on the Russian-Chinese border in 1979, he is married with a teenage son.
In 2001 he graduated from the Far-Eastern Military Command Academy before being deployed to Chechnya three times.
Its website states: 'Anatoly Vladimirovich Chepiga was awarded the honorary title of Hero of the Russian Federation by order of the president of the Russian Federation.'
The site said that his unit had deployed three times to Chechnya, where Russia was carrying out what it called a 'counter-terrorist operation'.
His name appears under a gold star honour list on a monument to academy alumni at a base near the Chinese border.
He won the reward at around 35, a remarkably young age to receive Russia's highest honour.
The medals are normally awarded by the president personally, and are given only to a handful of people each year.
Unlike most recipients there is little public information about Chepiga's life and official documents are marked 'top secret'.
The secretive nature of the award, combined with its timing in 2014, suggests it was for actions in Ukraine. His Spetsnaz unit was pictured on the eastern Ukraine border.
Investigators also found documents that trace Chepiga's movements around Russia and Europe. He pops up at a remote military unit and in Moscow where he is likely to have studied at the Military Diplomatic Academy, or 'GRU Conservatory'.
The GRU was betrayed by Mr Skripal before he was jailed and sent to the UK in a spy swap. He and his daughter were poisoned in March in Salisbury.
Chepiga and Petrov are also accused of murdering Dawn Sturgess, who was inadvertently poisoned when she discovered a perfume bottle filled with the deadly novichok nerve agent used on the Skripals.
Investigators had to carefully piece together a complicated paper trail to arrive at Chepiga's true identity, including information on his former military academy's website.
While the achievements of his fellow award-winners are detailed extensively, Chepiga's simply says it was awarded 'by decree from the Russian president'. Bellingcat speculated that he could have been given the award for operations in Eastern Ukraine – where Russia's military was secretly operating in 2014.
Senior Russian military officials have since said that so-called 'little green men' – soldiers wearing uniforms with no insignia – were in fact members of Russia's Spetsnaz deployed secretly to Ukraine.
The Bellingcat website also found an undated photograph of graduates from the Far Eastern Military Command Academy on assignment in Chechnya.
It pointed out that the man on the far right looks strikingly similar to the man named as Boshirov by the Metropolitan Police – although it said it could not prove conclusively it was the same person.
They came across the photograph after sources said the school was a likely place for a Russian military officer with a specialism in Western European operations to have trained.
After further digging, they came across the mysterious Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga. Address databases link him to the Military Unit 20662 – code for the 14th Spetsnaz Brigade.
The logo of the brigade is a black bat with a yellow parachute behind it. It was formed in the 1960s and has been under the command of the GRU for much of its history. According to Yuri Shvets, a former KGB agent, GRU officers were referred to as 'boots' – tough but unsophisticated.
Once a member of the GRU, it is believed to be exceptionally difficult to leave. And those who do so to join foreign agencies are punished savagely.
What is Bellingcat?
Bellingcat is a British investigative journalism website that specialises on war and the criminal underground.
It started as a blog in 2012 by Eliot Higgins, and relies on information gathered by 'citizen journalists' - members of the public who do not work for a professional journalism organisation.
The site first received international attention for its analysis of forged data on satellite pictures showing the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 during the war in Ukraine.
Its name comes from the expression 'belling a cat', which derives from a medieval fairytale about mice which plan to make a cat harmless by putting a bell around its neck.
Viktor Suvorov, a GRU officer who defected to Britain in 1978, said new recruits were shown a video of a traitor from the agency being burned alive in a furnace as a warning.
The GRU has become adept as using so-called 'non-linear warfare', which uses a combination of covert special forces operations, spying, cyber attacks and internet trolls to destabilise enemy nations.
It started as an intelligence-gathering agency for Trotsky's Bolshevik Red Army, and Lenin insisted it remain separate from the other intelligence organisations.
Today it still sits apart from the SVR, the external spying service, and the domestic FSB (the equivalents of Britain's MI6 and MI5).
These were created when the notorious KGB was split in 1991.
Read more: Skripal 'hitman' unmasked as GRU colonel awarded Russia's highest military honour by Vladimir Putin
bellingcat - Skripal Suspect Boshirov Identified as GRU Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga - bellingcat