the home of online investigations

You can support the work of Bellingcat by donating through the following link:

“God-level Trolling” – Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Maria Zakharova Promotes Debunked Internet Conspiracy Theories on The Skripal Nerve Agent Attack

September 6, 2018

By Eliot Higgins

Translations: Русский

Following the recent publication of information about the two suspects in the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal a number of attempts have been made to debunk the evidence, most notably from the informal network of individuals and websites who have a long history of pushing conspiracy theories about other allegations against Russia, such as the downing of MH17.

The recent release of information on the incident included multiple images from CCTV cameras that allowed the police to track the movements of the two suspects from the airport they arrived at, to Salisbury, then back to the airport immediately after the assassination attempt. Two of these images caught the attention of the denialists and conspiracy theorists, showing the suspects passing underneath a CCTV camera at exactly the same time:

A number of bloggers with a long history of sharing conspiracy theories in defence of Russia claimed these images were proof that there was something suspicious about the UK’s evidence:

The basis of this claim was that the images showed the same location, but at exactly the same time, so it would have been impossible for both individuals to be stood in the same location at the same time. Unfortunately for the conspiracy theorists, this conclusion was based on a fundamental misunderstanding. The images show the suspects as they’re passing through Gatwick airport, specifically the non-return gates that are at the terminal exits. Photographs of the type of gates in question can be found on the Marco Airport Facilities Group website in a case study about the installation of the gates at Gatwick airport:

Another set of gates in the same style are found elsewhere in Gatwick Airport:

It is clearly visible there are multiple parallel gates that would have allowed the two suspects pass through the gates at the same time, and this fact resulted in some of the conspiracy theorists retracting their theories.

However, this didn’t stop Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Maria Zakharova repeating these same debunked claims to the Russian media. In a live interview with Russia 1’s 60 Minutes Zakharova explicitly states the corridors in both CCTV images are in fact the same corridor, so it would be impossible for both suspects to be in the corridor at the same moment as the timestamp suggests, citing this as one of many supposed “discrepancies” in the UK’s evidence. Zakharova described this as “god-level trolling” by UK authorities.

It’s impossible to know if Zakharova was just repeating the debunked theories of internet conspiracy theorists, or this was a theory the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs had come up with themselves. The way in which the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Russia’s various embassies engages with the community that was sharing these theories through social media would suggest they certainly would have been exposed to the claim, and it certainly wouldn’t be the first time Russian officials had cited internet conspiracy theories in their official capacity.

Following the downing of MH17 in Ukraine in July 2014, the Russian Ministry of Defence gave a press conference, presenting what it claimed was its own evidence about the crash. This included a claim that one video showing the Buk missile launcher that shot down MH17 passing through separatist controlled Luhansk was in fact filmed in another part of Ukraine, in a town under the control of the Ukrainian government. This theory had in fact first originated on Russian internet forums, and had gone viral among pro-Russian conspiracy communities. It seems extremely unlikely that the Russian Ministry of Defence would have come up with the same erroneous conclusion (and presented edited images to support its claim) independently of the internet conspiracy, so it is clear where they got their claim from, internet conspiracy theories.

In an earlier example Russian government officials made multiple claims about the August 21st 2013 Sarin attacks in Damascus that were based on conspiracy theories and internet rumours. For example, two days after the attack, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Aleksandr Lukashevich made the following claim:

More new evidence is starting to emerge that this criminal act was clearly provocative. On the internet, in particular, reports are circulating that news of the incident carrying accusations against government troops was published several hours before the so-called attack. So, this was a pre-planned action.

The claim videos from the August 21st attack had been uploaded onto YouTube before the attack had begun circulating immediately after the attack, as a number of the videos were displayed on YouTube with the date of August 20th. This led to the claims about videos being uploaded before August 21st, which was for a short while popular amount pro-Assad conspiracy theorists. However, this was actually a result of the date displayed on YouTube being based on the location of the server, in this case the west coast of the USA, so any videos uploaded early in the morning in Damascus, at the time the attack took place, would be displayed as being uploaded the day before because of the time difference.

The question remains as to whether or not Maria Zakharova’s statement was based on genuine, if extremely bad, analysis by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or if all the Ministry of Foreign Affairs could muster in its response to the UK’s allegations where some conspiracy theories it stole from the internet. Perhaps it was Zakharova’s own attempt at “god-level trolling”, but it is clear that in the face of evidence from the UK, Russia’s response has been worse than that of internet conspiracy theorists.

Eliot Higgins

Eliot Higgins is the founder of Bellingcat and the Brown Moses Blog. Eliot focuses on the weapons used in the conflict in Syria, and open source investigation tools and techniques.

Join the Bellingcat Mailing List:

Enter your email address to receive a weekly digest of Bellingcat posts, links to open source research articles, and more.


  1. E

    did someone noticed that there is a red line above the “pause” in the first picture and a red square above the “pause” in the second picture.. so it’s not the same door..

    • Grubbie

      The red square and line are both the same sign.The fact that they look different proves that the cameras are not pointing in exactly the same way direction in each lane.

  2. peter.n

    do the english agencies know, when foreigners with issued visas enter the county, I mean they flying tickets dates?
    have aeroflot to report the passanger lists in advance for england?

  3. muchandr

    There is not really a direct Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Gatwick. Aeroflot will sell you a codeshare ticket SVO-LED-LGW on Rossiya airline through St. Pete’s Pulkovo airport as the closest thing. Describing this as a direct Aeroflot flight from Moscow is at the very least sloppy detective work….0…1c..64.psy-ab..1.2.601.6…459.v_Ycg5XEKHM

    It takes 6+ hours instead of 4:10 and costs starting from €284 instead of Aeroflot’s own real direct flight to LHR (Heathrow) starting from €268. Google knows and says so

    Tip – Non-stop flights from €268 if you fly to (LHR)

    The GRU must be obfuscating their tracks by such an incredibly advanced roundabout, right? The more likely explanation is a last-minute booking, such that the forward leg of the trip was fully booked for the more convenient direct flight. They did return via LHR, right? Quite obviously, it must’ve been quite a spontaneous decision on the side of the GRU to poison Mr. Skripal so fast, that they couldn’t possibly get Aeroflot to set a ticket aside (short of an upgrade to the business class, which they always do have 🙂

    • Mad Dog

      Aeroflot started direct SVO/GW flights in 2016 and announced they were dropping them in January of this year. They dropped the service in March. The time stamp shows February. Someone needs to do a bit more detective work, methinks!

      • muchandr

        Somebody did, on behalf of Sharij if you know who that is.

        It turns out that not only the tickets to UK, but also the return tickets we purchased just a day in advance. This means a day ahead of supposed poisoning mission actually completed. The two had no luggage, the full passport data was wiped from the ticketing database within 20 minutes of UK report.

        The two have been found already. Petrov supposedly works at in Tomsk

        Boshirov has a FaceBook profile with a single friend, here harassed by “The Sun”

        Thus it seems the profile was already there at least as early as 2014 already. Works at “Headway” Possibly a large medical charitable organization based in UK and does have a regional office in Salisbury

        • Grubbie

          No problem then.These two chaps will no doubt be able to provide a list of people they met and an innocent explanation that the police have somehow missed.Their movements must be an extraordinary coincidence.I believe that Headway is a very small charity that helps people with head injuries.

          • muchandr

            Your argument is wrong way around, confusing the cause with effect. The suspect were certainly picked out by a massive automated image processing software correlating Salisbury CCTV imagery with mugshots of visitors from Russia from visa application and airport’s CCTV.

            From up to several thousands Russian tourists you might find in Salisbury on any given day, they simply picked the ones whose wandering around and itinerary fit them best.

            This is how easy something like this is using the best Russian software, FindFace, running on entire and Twitter image base

            The British police do certainly have a system like this

            It is not really that bad of failure if you look closer. People dressed for Rio-style salsa festival is a very difficult test case. Would you recognize anyone wearing that sort of gear? According to Hollywood canon, somebody needs a St. Patrick’s day parade to disappear into the crowd. I am sure those the British software finds perfectly 🙂 Relative high ratio of false positive may help explain the delay.

            A charity that has staffed regional offices does not appear too small. Also found them in US. Could not find anything in Russia, because there is the “New Headway”, some sort of English teaching franchise from Oxford University Press that saturates all searches. It is not that essential though. I was just trying to verity the fellows’ pharmaceutical/medical background. They said, they have a business together peddling some kind of bodybuilding supplements, but were most touchy on the subject, which make me think they do have day jobs at a larger company and do this on their employer’s time.

            You also have a wrong idea on burden of proof. They don’t have to prove jack, it is the British who need to prove their guilt. Were they supposed to be meeting anybody? Did anybody claim they did? It is not a crime to be lost in a foreign town. They British are so coy about image processing automation, because a warrant obtained on a hint of a robot is likely on shaky legal ground. In most countries it would be. Of course, they already found traces of Novichok in their hotel room, even though they supposedly brought it in from Moscow in cellophane-sealed perfume box. Also it was supposedly found cellophane sealed in donations box. This seems mutually exclusive. In general, before they have suspects, they need to not violate the most basic probable cause. Because

            a) It does not seem to be the same “Novichok” as described in scientific literature.
            b) It was not applied using the doorknob
            c) They did not find the same exact batch active several months on

        • Logic and Reality

          In one of the photos at the station, you can clearly see one of them has a dark blue overhead luggage.
          I didn’t notice until the interview, but they bought shoes while they were on vacation. They also bought new clothes because the awful weather got their clothes soaking wet and ruined on March 3rd. Now that I look at the photos again, I see different shoes. They also bought the jackets. They came unprepared for the weather. They brought dry, warmer clothes, unsuitable for sleet and snow. I’m glad they pointed this out! I feel kind of embarrassed for not noticing this before!

    • AlexT

      Aeroflot was flying direct in March. I posted the details of the specific flight (with actual departure and arrival time) a few post above (ok, that implies you actually have to read them).
      But, as you might know, flight schedules are sometimes changing and this flight is not anymore operated.

  4. Grubbie

    This is getting ridiculous. Putin’s latest claims that they are innocent civilians is going to be quite some tale. No one,even die hard Puinists believes any of it (this includes the appalling RT prosistute and failed journalist Neil Clark )they just think it’s funny coming up with ever more outrageous excuses.Lets be clear about this, Putin has personally procured the murder of at least 2 people, GBH on at least 3 people and smeared Great Britain with radioactive and chemical poisons.These are acts of war.

    • Concerned Citizen

      Grubbie wrote:
      Putin has personally procured the murder of at least 2 people, GBH on at least 3 people and smeared Great Britain with radioactive and chemical poisons.These are acts of war.

      I don’t believe a word of the nonsense spewed by the British government, I’m afraid. I don’t think Putin had anything to do with the death of the other nobody, Litvinenko, either.

      • Grubbie

        You are obviously a Putinbot ,but even you must be intrigued by the explanation that Putin is going to come up with. There really is no other reason for their movements and if the already highly implausible storyline is that they were tourists or on business there would be some evidence of them meeting someone or visting something.However it does have to be said that you would expect the GRU to be much more efficient than this.As I said no one ,including you ,really believes that it was anyone else.

        • Concerned Citizen

          I’m not clear that Putin needs to explain anything.

          So far there’s no evidence against these men. Being in Salisbury while Russian isn’t a crime.

          • Grubbie

            Hilarious interview with the culprits on RT,busy reeling off facts about Salisbury cathedral. Or it would be if it wasn’t for the murdering.
            The British expressions,” bang to rights”and”taking the piss “come to mind.

  5. Concerned Citizen

    Saw the interview.

    My impression is they are a gay couple who enjoy trips to Europe. Definitely not GRU agents.

      • Grubbie

        Sports nutrition business, gay couple who often go sightseeing together together. More than enough information for open source investigation. Go to it concerned citizen journalist!Meanwhile it will be fascinating to hear how RT prostitute Neil Clark trys to explain this ridiculous story.

        • Concerned Citizen

          You want me to investigate them?

          Why would I do that, I believe them. If you don’t believe them, you need to investigate.

          All we have is photos of 2 guys wandering the streets and shopping right now.

  6. Concerned Citizen

    By the way, weren’t we told that these deadly secret agents travelled under false names?

    Do we now agree that they aren’t very secret and travelled under their real names?

    • Grubbie

      1.No ,you prove it, you’re the one who insists that they are just tourists,back their story up.
      2.Why do you think those are their real names?If they are, you will be able to find their parents, schools, company history, etc.Oh yeah I forgot, because they and Putin said so.
      3.Even you are not supposed to actually believe this ridiculous story(and you don’t, really).Putin and all the RT staff are making no effort to hide their smirking.

      • Concerned Citizen

        No, that’s not how it works. I accept their story. I don’t need to prove a negative.

        • Grubbie

          You’re mental. You are arguing in the face of a wall of evidence and these guys (or gays) have no discernible history.Its for you to prove and it should be quite easy, why have you not done it yet?

  7. Rob

    Did everyone catch the verifiable lie in this interview ?

    We know for a fact that they went through different gates, as the camera angle details of the pictures are different. Bellingcat also showed here that there are multiple gates next to each. So we know they went through separate gates, at the same time.

    Now in the interview, Simonyan asks this :

    SIMONYAN: Right. Here’s the photo that’s got the whole world puzzled. Gatwick. You’re going through the gate at the same time, even at the same second. How do you explain that?

    Now, if you would be honest, and just clear your name, you would state that you don’t know or that you went through different gates.

    Instead, this is what they replied :

    BOSHIROV: We always go through the gate together. Through the same gate, with the same customs officer. One after another. We walked through that corridor together. We’re always together. As to how it happened – us walking there at the same second and then separately – I think it’s a question that should be put to them.

    PETROV: Yeah, on the point of us always going through it together – my English is a bit better, so if any problem crops up, I’m there to help Ruslan out.

    Wait, what ? They are totally reviving the debunked conspiracy theory that Zakharova blurted out on Russia TV1.

    Simonyan seems confused to, so asks for clarification :

    SIMONYAN: So you went through together? You didn’t take different corridors?

    PETROV: No, we never go through separately.

    BOSHIROV: No, never.

    Blatant lie right there. Caught on CCTV.

    And you the problem with this : If you tell a lie about one detail, none of the rest of your statements can be trusted. Not just that, but their lie is a clear indication that they were NOT ordinary citizens on a trip to Salisbury.

    • AlexT

      Well not sure this is really a lie – these “non return” gates are designed to let people through one by one – it is simply physically not possible to pass them otherwise. So the only question is “did they use two different gates at the same time” (which they apparently refute) or “did they go through the same gate one after the other” (which is how I understand their “denial”).
      As for the camera angle I posted a few days ago an interesting montage where, by rotating slightly one image and surimpose to the other, you can really wonder if this is not actually the same place. I suggested that the Belingcat people would put their supposedly extensive image analysis to good work on this but it is probably beneath their high standards.
      All in all I find those two guys very perplexing but I most definitely don’t see them as GRU agents !

      • Rob

        AlexT said : ” I posted a few days ago an interesting montage where, by rotating slightly one image and surimpose to the other, you can really wonder if this is not actually the same place.”

        Now, let’s think about that for a minute.
        You are suggesting that these pictures were taken at different times and in the same corridor. That means that you are suggesting that the UK doctored the images, not just by rotating them slightly, but also by making the time stamps line up to the second.
        And the reason the UK would do that would be ….. ?

        • AlexT

          Well I don’t know if those pictures have been doctored (I don’t think so personally, and to be honest they don’t prove or disprove anything anyway) but I would have found it interesting that Belingcat aka Elliot would do what he does best, ie. image based investigation.
          On the bigger picture there is a clear will by the UK (and a lesser extent US / France) government to antagonise Russia, apparently at any cost. I don’t quite know why this is happening (expect that many people are making a very good living out of it). As much as I am no fan of M. Putin I would be all for a reasonable relationship with him and Russia in general.

    • muchandr

      Here, Jack Morphoneous demonstrates by extracting signature data of specific camera using grime deposits that it was indeed same camera that filmed the two

      so, it is actually a picture of the same corridor that differs due to shifting and cropping it differently and the two were telling the truth. Why it was necessary to doctor something so non-essential is unclear

  8. Lucky13

    Well these two giving that hopeless interview on RT certainly kills off most of the conspiracy theories about fake photos, not Russians etc etc…
    Although it just raised a whole swag of further questions….

  9. Concerned Citizen

    BOSHIROV: The hotel room that they show and say we stayed in has a bed for one person only. Meanwhile, right next to it there are double and triple rooms. And it is perfectly normal for tourists to stay together in a double room. It saves money and it’s practical. It’s more fun that way and it’s also easier. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this.

    Definitely a ruthless and efficient GRU agent speaking there. Who could doubt it?

    • Grubbie

      Homosexuals have been known to murder.You are getting desperate now. There is a ton of evidence against them and they are unconvincingly lying like small children. It is shocking how incompetent your hitmen are ,or have you been able to show us that they are just innocent civilians by the easy task of looking into their background?

      • Concerned Citizen

        You know, somehow I don’t think the GRU employs gay men, still less sends them off as a couple with a fake bottle of Nina Ricci to do dastardly door smearing, or was it spraying.

        Come on, the whole thing is laughable. What nonsense.

        • Grubbie

          Amazing, but true.The evidence that we have seen so far is plenty to convict them of murder.
          Even you can work out that plenty of evidence is being held back.As I said, it’s for you to provide counter evidence, but you can’t.

          • Mi

            Which evidence? Skripal leaves his home in the morning and never comes back on that day, while those two (strange, I agree) persons arrive at noon to poison his door. How could they poison him?

  10. Logic and Reality

    1. How does one apply a nerve agent on a door handle at 9:30am, when their train hasn’t even arrived in the city yet?
    2. If the nerve agent in question is “5-10 times stronger than VX” (according to the UK PM, Theresa May), VX being a nerve agent that can kill a goat in less than 42 seconds (Youtube video provided by the US Army from the 1950s)… How does something “5-10 times stronger” than something that kills in SECONDS fail to kill anyone HOURS LATER?
    3. Fentanyl, the original professional conclusion drawn by doctors and nurses at the hospital, RESTRICTS the air ways. Thus a tracheotomy is required (as on Yulia Skripal’s throat in her video interview). A nerve agent interrupts receptors between the nerves and muscle tissue. Example, lungs fail to pump. They just don’t move at all. In Fentanyl, the muscles would move, but they’d be spasming (as the Skripal’s were found).
    You would NOT use a tracheotomy on a nerve agent victim. You WOULD need to manually pump their lungs and heart, but their breathing passage would NOT be restricted of blocked, as with Fentanyl.
    4. Novichoks can be stored indefinitely, but once activated, they only have a 48 hour window of effectiveness. Originally designed by the US Army in the 1950s under the “G series”, “GJ” was given to the Soviets via the FBI in Operation Shocker to the Soviet GRUs. This is what cause the Foliant program in the 1970s.
    Fentanyl effects can last up to 3 days and stay in the system for a couple of weeks. The damage done by Fentanyl can be long term to permanent.
    SO… WHY does Yulia have a tracheotomy performed instead?
    WHY did Theresa May wait “a couple of weeks” before calling in the OPCW?
    NOTE: according to the OPCW Fact Finder sheets, the native government that requests the OPCW, MAY help assist in retrieving the samples for testing.

    Introduce to Fentanyl.
    Treat for Fentanyl (saves their lives).
    Change to treatment for nerve agents (manual assistance to breath and heartbeat. non fatal).
    PREVENT victim’s Embassy from any contact (violation of UN Treaties).
    Refuse to submit samples to victim’s government (violation of UN Treaties).
    Demand victim’s government to provide samples instead. (If UK received these samples, they could have applied it to the blood samples so they could honestly say it “came from Russia”. But no samples came from a nation that has none, so change of plans by the UK.)
    Falsely accuse victim’s government and do as much damage as possible.
    BURN TIME (so Fentanyl can take “a couple of weeks” to leave the system).
    Since you NEED a sample of a nerve agent to compare it to in a lab in order to properly identify it, the fact that Porton Down identified it CONFIRMED that Porton Down HAS Novichok (Avoiding observation of this fact at all costs was VERY CAREFULLY done).
    Publically state to the entire world that the Novichok was on the front door of the victim’s house, in the form of a GEL. (This is VERY important.)
    Wait for Fentanyl to leave the blood system in the victims.
    Call in the OPCW.
    Use the OPCW’s process of retrieving samples (as designated on the website) and PLANT the Novichok from Porton Down in the samples being handed to the OPCW.
    OPCW confirms Novichok in the blood samples and makes the comment “VERY FRESH SAMPLES OF NOVICHOK” (Avoiding observation of this fact at all costs was also VERY CAREFULLY done).

    According to the UK government, a chemical weapon 5-10 times stronger than something that can kill in SECONDS, took 7 HOURS to take effect and failed to kill.

    4 months later…
    A woman finds a SPRAY bottle and sprays her wrists with it multiple times, thinking it’s perfume. 15 minutes later, she has Fentanyl symptoms, such as rash on contact, fever, RESTRICTED breathing, and collapses in the bath tub.
    the next Sunday, she was pronounced killed by Novichok.
    FACT: A young female journalist interviewed the victim’s relatives and was told the nurses turned off the victim’s AIR. In further investigation, the UK Government contacted the nurses on duty and gave them the order at 6:30pm to turn off the victim’s air supply (not the entire life support apparatus). At approximately 8:20pm, the nurses entered the victim’s room, turned off her air supply and the victim died from carbon monoxide poisoning, NOT because her lungs weren’t pumping, but because her bronchial tube collapsed because they failed to induce her early on with a drug called “NALOXONE” (which relaxes the muscles from Fentanyl overdosing) and failed to give the victim a tracheotomy (to bypass the obstructed airway, as they did for Yulia Skripal).
    Publicly to the entire world, the UK PM lied to and told everyone that Novichok killed the victim.
    OBSERVATION: How does a SPRAY bottle apply a GEL on a door, and then SPRAY a LIQUID onto someone’s wrist 4 months later? And why does it work FASTER after so much time, past its 48 hour window of effectiveness? And WHY once again did a CW “5-10 times more powerful than VX” (that kills in seconds) not kill her IMMEDIATELY?

    (Months later)
    “After 11,000 hours of CCTV footage” (Theresa May), the UK government published 2 men walking around in Salisbury, looking at coins in a collector’s store, getting on the train, getting off the train, walking around, smiling….
    NO FOOTAGE OF: the actual crime, CCTV from the park where the Skripals were found, NO VIDEO of the 2 men, NO TIME STAMPS on any of the CCTV footage, failed to mention their train was late due to inclement weather, failed to mention there WERE other Russians in Salisbury on vacation also,

    HOW do you travel on a train that’s LATE, 3 hours to London, get on a plane at 5:00PM wen you don’t have enough time?

    And will someone explain THIS??

    And (proof there was NOTHING on the house door handle of Sergei Skripal), how do you explain THIS?!?!?!?!
    (Seconds 7-10 confirm in high def that UK LIED. Notice that this journalist was told to NOT PUBLISH this video clip. On the right side you’ll see “unpublished” and more details. THIS VIDEO CONFIRMS RUSSIA IS INNOCENT “beyond reasonable doubt”, and the entire thing was performed by the British Government.)
    I just finished spending over 600 hours investigating this case. And dear Theresa May, you just got BUSTED.

    • Grubbie

      You spent 600hours on this bullshit?My advice would be the same as I have given to other deniers, go and study the Russian agents past and childhood.

      • eggmunkee

        Grubbie – your response to the apparently aptly named “Logic and Reality” does nothing to cast doubt on his analysis, and it points to that either you can’t or don’t want to consider this type of evidence. Don’t you think evidence of the “Russian” chemical agent would be important to show proof of (despite the fact the UK and US have a large catalog of chemical weapons)? I’ve read some of this info elsewhere, particularly the report from OPCW which states there is fresh, non-broken down (paraphasing) Novichok in the sample, but it wasn’t a fresh sample at all. Use basic logic, or a contradicting source, and tell us why we should believe this claim by the UK.


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)

You can support the work of Bellingcat by donating through the following link: