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Skripal Poisoner Attended GRU Commander Family Wedding

October 14, 2019

By Bellingcat Investigation Team

  • In a series of investigative reports in 2018 and this year, Bellingcat and its media partners disclosed the existence of an elite unit within Russian military intelligence (GRU) engaging in clandestine overseas operations. This unit consists of approximately twenty graduates of elite Russian military schools, most having received hands-on combat experience in the wars in the Caucasus, and most of whom are in their late 30’s and early 40’s. 
  • The unit was set up ten years ago, when the first undercover identities of these operatives were forged. We have previously reported on this unit’s clandestine operations in the last five years, including the poisoning of an arms manufacturer in Bulgaria (2015), a failed coup in Montenegro (2016), operations linked to the anti-doping agency in Switzerland (2016-2018), and the Novichok poisoning in Salisbury (2018). At the same time, we have tracked this unit’s undercover trips to at least eighteen countries, starting with Tajikistan in 2011, and spanning all of central Europe, Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, China, Turkey, and the Middle East. Many of these operations are subjects of our ongoing investigations.
  • On October 9th, the New York Times, citing undisclosed intelligence sources, reported additional details on this clandestine unit, including its military unit number (29155), the name of its commander (Maj. General Andrey Averyanov), and the fact that a key suspect in the Novichok poisonings – Anatoliy Chepiga – attended the 2017 wedding of the daughter of the GRU unit’s commander. The latter allegation is highly relevant in view of official Moscow’s continued denials – including personally by President Putin – that Anatoliy Chepiga – who traveled to Salisbury under the alias of “Ruslan Boshirov” – was anything more than a civilian with no links to the Russian state. Bellingcat and our investigative partner The Insider first unmasked Col. Chepiga as a recipient of Russia’s highest state award, Hero of Russia, in September 2018.
  • While the New York Times reporting largely corroborated Bellingcat’s earlier disclosures, it contained certain new facts and assertions that were sourced anonymously. Bellingcat and its partner media set out to validate these new facts using objective evidence.

Multiple photographs and videos discovered by Bellingcat and journalists at Radio Svoboda show Anatoliy Chepiga, one of the two GRU intelligence officers accused of carrying out the Skripal poisoning in Salisbury in 2018, at the 2017 wedding of the daughter of Major General Andrey Vladimirovich Averyanov, the commander of the GRU military unit 29155. Bellingcat and our investigative partner The Insider first unmasked Chepiga as an undercover GRU colonel in September 2018. These newly discovered photographs and videos of Chepiga, who claims to be sports nutrition salesman Ruslan Boshirov, provide additional incontrovertible proof of his identity as a decorated GRU officer who, alongside his colleague Alexander Mishkin is the main suspect in the poisoning of Sergey Skripal and his daughter, and in the accidental death of Dawn Sturgess.

Composite showing “Ruslan Boshirov” (top-left and bottom-left) and the passport photograph of Anatoliy Chepiga (middle-left) with three images of Chepiga at the wedding of the daughter of GRU commander Andrey Averyanov (right column)

Maj. General Andrey Averyanov, whose daughter’s wedding was attended by Chepiga, serves as the most senior commander within the GRU unit that has attempted (with varying degrees of success) numerous clandestine operations across Europe, including the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and a failed coup attempt in Montenegro. This article will first detail the structure and activities of unit 29155, then discuss the biography of Averyanov, before detailing the visual evidence showing Chepiga at his boss’s daughter’s wedding.

Structural Sub-Unit of GRU Military Unit 29155

In its October 8th story, the New York Times reported on the existence of a secretive military unit with the number 29155, part of Russian military intelligence (commonly referred to as the GRU). The report, based on intelligence sources, linked the actions of this group to a number of disruptive Russian operations in Europe, including the Skripal poisonings, the failed coup attempt in Montenegro, and the 2015 poisoning of a Bulgarian arms trader. In fact, the New York Times sources indicated that the elite clandestine GRU unit previously disclosed by Bellingcat is namely unit 29155. There was no doubt that the unit described by the New York Times and the elite team previously disclosed by Bellingcat are in fact the same unit: both the specific clandestine operations and the list of (cover) names published by the Times are a subset of the full list of operations and cover identities monitored by us.

The existence of military unit 29155 has been previously reported on by Radio Svoboda in the context of a mysterious 2012 bonus allocation “for outstanding service achievements”. A defense ministry decree from 20 March 2012 refers to a “structural sub-unit of military unit 29155” being entitled to special bonuses, in a package deal with another military unit, 99450. Military unit 99450 is known as the Command Center for Special Operations, and is based at a Spetsnaz training base at the village of Senezh outside Moscow. While there’s scant public information on the essence of military unit 29155 proper, discussion on Russian military forums from 2012 suggest that it was set up to serve as a training center for GRU special operations, and has its roots in the reorganization of the Russian central military command structure undertaken in 2009.

The packaging of military units 29155 and 99450 in the 2012 Russian Ministry of Defense decree suggests a close linkage between the two, especially between Unit 99450 and the unidentified “structural sub-unit of Unit 29155” that was subject of the bonus allocation.

Based on our analysis of this and other public documents, we believe that the elite foreign operations team previously identified by Bellingcat is in fact a structural elite sub-unit of the overall “special operations training” military unit 29155. This elite sub-unit is closely integrated with the Command Center for Special Operations in Senezh, i.e. with unit 99450. This conclusion is corroborated by geolocation data obtained on the routine daily movements of a senior member of the elite team: Major General Denis Sergeev, who traveled to London to oversee the Skripal poisoning operation under the alias Sergey Fedotov.

Cumulative map of movements of Maj. Gen. Sergeev’s phone in 2016-2018. Red circle denotes Senezh military base, while green circle denotes Skhodnya base

As seen from the distribution of Maj. Gen. Sergeev’s cell-phone data of a 3-year period during business hours (2016-2018), he spent a significant amount of his work time at the Senezh base, home to the Command Center, in addition to attending other known GRU-run bases in and around Moscow, including a base in Skhodnya known to belong to unit 29155 . His visits to the Senezh command center intensified in the six-month period prior to the Salisbury operation.

An additional argument for the hypothesis of the linkage between the elite sub-unit of 29155 and the Command Center (99450) can be found in the overlapping tasks of the two. The official summary of the tasks of the Special Operations Center found on Russia’s Ministry of Defense defines them as “reconnaissance-sabotage, subversion, , counter-terrorism, counter-intelligence, guerrilla, anti-guerrila and other activities“. Several unofficial military blogs are more outspoken about the operational of the Command Center’s overseas operations – many of which draw direct parallels of the operations of the elite team previously disclosed by us: “Organization of anti-government actions, rebel and partisan movements for destabilizing countries and removal of governments, intelligence gathering, subversions, deployment and stockpiling of weapons for subsequent wartime operations, distortion or destruction of information or interception in transit, psychological operations, disinformation and overt and covert sabotage of government operations”

The New York Times report ties a number of Russian GRU officers previously unmasked by Bellingcat to Averyanov’s GRU (sub) unit. In addition to Anatoliy Chepiga, these are:

Several other undercover personas named by the New York Times story have been identified by us and are subjects of ongoing investigations

A Commander Without a Face

Russian military units are usually incorporated as legal entities, which provide a certain degree of transparency as to its location and commanding officers. This fact permitted us – and many Russian media – to quickly identify in public databases the commander of unit 29155 as Major General Andrey Vladimirovich Averyanov.

However, no other public references to Gen. Averyanov could be found in official sources, and it appeared that previously published information – including postings by him on web forums – had been cleansed in the years after the establishment of unit 21995.

By scouring a collection of previously leaked Russian offline residential and car-ownership databases, as well as residual citations of previous posts by Maj. General Averyanov on public internet forums, we were able to partially recreate his background.

Andrey Averyanov was born in 1967 in Turkmenistan, and graduated from the Taskhent Military School (TVOKU) in then Soviet Uzbekistan in 1988. In the 90’s he lived – likely as a result of military deployment – in a village near the southwestern Russian city of Samara, and later in the southern Russian city of Krasnodar. As of early 2000’s he was already deployed in Moscow, and resided with his family at the dormitory of the GRU Academy, at Narodnogo Opolchenia 50.

The character of his military services in the early 2000’s is yet unknown to us; however, he continued posting under his own name at the website of his alma mater, and displayed an energetic activity in keeping tabs on its former alumni – and even publicly arranging help for ill or injured former classmates. While many of these posts were deleted after 2011, some snippets of his posts remained in quotes by other military school alumni – one even included his telephone number.

A reverse search in contact-list sharing apps under this and other telephone numbers linked to his name shows that he was listed under names such as “Director 1”, “Andrey Crimea”, and “Andrey – Senezh”. Notably, our investigative team has been able to establish that Andrey Averyanov – just like Colonel Chepiga and Dr. Mishkin – is a non-disclosed recipient of the Hero of Russia award, which was bestowed namely for his participation in the Crimea annexation operation.

Contrary to what New York Times’ sources indicated, Maj. General Averyanov does not reside at a Soviet-era flat, nor does he drive a modest Soviet car. By consulting various real-estate ownership and car-insurances databases, we have identified that while his official residence is indeed in a two-room flat near the headquarters of his military unit, he in fact lives at an exclusive closed compound in Moscow’s suburbs, and in the last 10 years has owned and used at least two luxurious Western cars, including most recently 270-HP Range Rover, which replaced his 2012 Land Rover Discovery.

Photograph of Maj. General Andrey Averyanov taken from the Odnoklassniki account of a family member

Bellingcat and Radio Svoboda have studied dozens of online accounts of Averyanov’s classmates from the Tashkent Military School (TVOKU) that he attended in the mid-late 1980s, including those whom he mentioned on message boards and digital guest books. We noted that Averyanov was not present in any of the frequent reunions of TVOKU graduates, including at Moscow events, and Averyanov was also not mentioned on TVOKU’s website listing out “Our Generals” and its alumni who received the Hero of Russia award.

However, while he was apparently not physically present at these reunion events, he was there in spirit. In a video (see 5:38) showing a June 2018 event commemorating the 100th Anniversary of TVOKU, a booth is visible with the description “School Graduates – participants of wars and military conflicts, dead and those who fell while carrying out combat missions“. A silhouette with the name “Major General A-V, A.V.” can be seen, with a description listing this man as receiving a Hero of the Russian Federation award and the holder of three awards for courage. While it cannot be unequivocally proven that this “A-v, A.V.” is “Averyanov, Andrey Vladimirovich” (the way his name would be written in formal Russian) , the biographical details and name structure match up to him. Additionally, despite the title of the exhibit, not everyone in this graphic is a “fallen hero”, as Sergey Voronin — the right-most person in the screenshot below — is still alive.

Bellingcat is continuing its investigation into the background and possible operational involvement of Maj. Gen. Averyanov in overseas missions.

The GRU Wedding Crasher

In the New York Times report, a fascinating anecdote is mentioned — Chepiga was apparently at Averyanov’s daughter’s wedding in 2017, a year before the Skripal poisonings, thus providing additional proof of Chepiga / “Boshirov” being more than a mere nutrition salesman, as he claimed in an interview with RT.

The New York Times chose not to publish this photograph or further information about the wedding. Bellingcat and Radio Svoboda sought open-source information about this wedding, and after a week of searching, found numerous photographs, videos, and accounts of the wedding — alongside new, unexpected information about Chepiga and Averyanov’s close ties.

Luxury Wedding Provides Countless Clues

After dozens of hours of searching, we were finally able to determine Averyanov’s family tree, and locate his daughter and son-in-law on social media. These findings led to a wealth of photographs and videos of the GRU commander’s daughter’s luxury wedding that took place in late July 2017, with guests that include Anatoliy Chepiga and his family.

Videos shared on Instagram by the guests at the wedding provided quick glimpses at Chepiga during the wedding. For example, in the video below (now deleted from Instagram, but achived here), a blurry Chepiga can be seen while GRU commander Averyanov walks his daughter to the altar, to a befitting music accompaniment.

The couple hired a videographer to film the wedding, with the final product found on Averyanov’s son-in-law’s YouTube account, as well as on the YouTube account of an employee of the wedding venue. Chepiga can be seen a couple of times throughout the video, but only for brief moments and with his back and fragments of his face. Averyanov’s son-in-law made the video private, but we archived it and saved it here, and can also still be found on a hotel employee’s YouTube account:

During this video, Averyanov can be seen in the exact position as the photograph from the New York Times piece, showing that this is the source for report’s image of the GRU commander.

Screenshot from the New York Times article showing Averyanov (Source)

Screenshot of Andrey Averyanov at his daughter’s wedding, matching the same perspective as the NYT report (Source)

While these guest snapshots and the glamorous video show fragments of Chepiga’s face, high-resolution photographs from a wedding planning company, Zvonova Weddings, leave no doubt that he attended the wedding. The website for the wedding planners published a whimsical design showing the wedding table arrangements, revealing (alongside photographs of them at the wedding) that Chepiga and his family attended the wedding. While Anatoliy Chepiga is not present on the guest list under his real name, he apparently used the pseudonym of Aleksey Chepiga, while the rest of his family attended under their real names. In fact, one of Chepiga’s children even participated in the wedding ceremony and his family sat at the same table as the father-of-the-bride. Arguably, the humble “sports nutrition salesman” was no wedding crasher, but is close enough Maj. Gen. Averyanov to be invited to an all-important family event.

Table arrangement for 2017 wedding of GRU commander’s daughter (source)

On the wedding website, Chepiga and his family are visible in multiple photographs throughout the ceremony, including a fairly clear shot of Chepiga’s face below.

Anatoliy Chepiga at the wedding of the daughter of a high-ranking GRU commander in 2017 (Source)

The clearest views at Chepiga’s face come from the wedding photographer’s personal website (archived here and here), with three shots of Chepiga’s face during the wedding.

Below, we attempted to artificially colorize one of the key photographs showing Chepiga (original black & white photograph found here), with Averyanov walking his daughter down the aisle:

Artificially colorized photograph, original black & white photograph found here (archive)

Previous images of Anatoliy Chepiga (“Ruslan Boshirov”) compared to the new ones can be found below, revealing a clear match with the facial hair pattern, a distinctive mole above the right brow, hair, and general facial features. Other distinctive features also align, such as exactly matching ear lobes and wrinkles from Chepiga and “Boshirov”.

The now confirmed presence of the key suspect in the Skripals poisonings, Anatoliy Chepiga – and not of Ruslan Boshirov – at the wedding of GRU Maj. Gen. Averyanov’s daughter, is nothing short of damning evidence against Russia’s implausible attempt to deflect any links to the Novichok poisonings. Crucially, this evidence is open source, and available for anyone to verify with their own eyes. Any further prevarication from the Kremlin – which, if history is any sign, will be quick to follow – will need to account for a coincidence which is likely to prove too improbable to swallow, even for the most ardent denialists of Russia’s role in this botched extrajudicial assassination.

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71 Comments

  1. Francine

    When Russia plays fair as a global citizen and stops murdering its defectors abroad we may consider extending the same courtesies to your kind. Until then this and other actions by Russia have historically been viewed as an act of war.

    Just be happy that you can sit comfortably in your flat enjoying Western freedoms on Western websites on the Internet the US invented as your compatriots plot manipulation of the next US election while your puppet Trump still sits in office..but with a new president in office you may that your new indefinite nuclear winter will be even worse than your Russian winters.

    Reply
  2. S.D.S.

    It is surprising (ironic?) that with all the news about Russians trying to influence elections and the like that they would be on a site like this posting comments trying to influence opinion. I mean, the article is clearly pointing out evidence that Russia was responsible for the Skripal murder, and here you have anonymous (probably paid) Russian trolls trying to what, deny it happened? Hilarious!

    Reply
    • Servus

      You have a point, Russian trolls’ activity at this site is a blatant failure. Why do they persist though ?
      Its a bit like asking why a cancer grows, well because it is it’s nature, they can’t do anything else.
      Or maybe it’s a punishment, can’t be fun to be laughed at and despised.

      Or maybe it’s an exercise in style,
      Apart from primitive semi automated trolls arriving in waves, second generation trolls try to gain some credibility by attempt to create a constant « innocent » « social site » type chatter, transparent and childish activity. But when needed, never hesitate to defend a brutal murder or a chemical attack mass murder.

      Such is the stinking profession of the internet prostitutes,

      Reply
      • Gerhard

        They persist because it’s their job and they don’t have many options, and like many articles state they reap huge potential rewards for very little investment vs. traditional intelligence work. And it’s the kind of intelligence work that only lesser-qualified drones with probably histories of drug abuse or criminal records would find appealing (beats working at Burger King, right?) So they just repeat the same approved tropes over and over that are probably written on a whiteboard in their office in the “characters” that you described (childish, fun, tough, questioning, etc.) much like the Amazon PR article on Bellingcat.

        But when confronted they are clearly instructed not to engage or address the likelihood that they are acting on behalf of Russia (i.e. “You are a Russian troll!” Typical response: “Why are you so paranoid? “Look at park bench,” “That is rude,” etc. Anything but the fact that they are paid Russian operatives. Despite the fact that reams of official announcements from all around the world have already outed them and proved that they have influenced or have attempted to influence dozens of elections, they are trained to counter that this prospect is outlandish.

        It is a different story somewhat on Bellingcat because most readers are too sophisticated to be susceptible to the usual garbage. But their level is such that they still try to play anyway and fail miserably (because they’re just not good enough), since the stakes are so high (many of these articles are very detailed and honestly greatly damaging to Russia). I’m sure they try hacking it on a daily basis. But Bellingcat got into the news, and they were assigned to “cover” it. Therefore they’re here, and sometimes entertaining. But the audience and the subject matter are simply a bit of a stretch for the level of their prowess, and it shows in their coordinated efforts in the Postol investigation and others (where the good guys won for once).

        I’ve said it, and I’ll say it again: Russia is a stinking, miserable cesspool of humanity and wasted opportunity. Russians who leave are smart, those who stay are patriotic, but to anyone who posts here or elsewhere on behalf of the Russian government in any capacity to sway opinion, the world is on to you, and you will be targets in your own country and abroad in ways you have not yet begun to fathom. Stay away from our democratic institutions, stay away from our citizens, stay away from defectors smart enough to leave, and stay away from our conversations. If you have genuine, unsolicited opinions, go forth. If your contribution ideas come from Glavset, I recommend you reevaluate your life and your place in the world, and go do something constructive for yourself, your family, and your country.

        Reply
        • Anonymous London

          Ok…so how can a reasonable, independent, thinking UK citizen question the official narrative without being automatically labelled a ‘Russian Troll’? No doubt the Ruski ‘trolls’ do exist on here. But after what happened in Iraq and the fake WMD’s; a lot of people genuinely don’t trust their government and are displeased at quite obvious psy-ops occurring on their home turf. There are a lot of loose ends and coincidences in the Salisbury incident which simply don’t make sense or not enough sense to point the blame on Russian beyond reasonable doubt. Yes, I agree Chepiga and Co may have worked for the GRU at one time but the fact Putin claimed they are ‘civilians’ means it’s possible they were doing some off the books work and could have been lured to Salisbury. Yulias interview also seems to have taken place at RAF FAIRFORD which is an American base which makes me think the US could have had something to do with this as well; especially since it was mentioned that Skripal could have been involved in the Steele Dossier – possibly giving false info.

          The truth is, only a handful of people from both sides know what really happened and for those on this forum who are outside of that circle and genuinely believe Russia tried to poison Skripal – it would be decent if people could at least try to be open minded and give cynicism a chance. Bellingcat would be a great resource if it didn’t seem to have political fuel running its engines.

          Reply
  3. Tracey Thakore

    You are all forgetting one thing, Sergei Skripal is Russian.
    He was also working for this country’s Intelligence Service.

    Reply
    • Jeroen

      In the 1990s, Sergei Skripal was an officer for Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) and worked as a double agent for the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service from 1995 until his arrest in Moscow in December 2004. In August 2006, he was convicted of high treason and sentenced to 13 years in a penal colony by a Russian court. He settled in the UK in 2010 following the Illegals Program spy swap. So Russia let him free after about 4 years in prison.
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poisoning_of_Sergei_and_Yulia_Skripal

      Reply
  4. samantha

    You have to laugh.
    Russia wants James Bond type agents, but end up with Johnny English (aka Mr Bean) type agents

    Reply
    • AB

      The reason why this happens is because these people do not get their jobs on merit, just like their military titles. It is based on what you did to get it, corruption and incompetence is the norm. If you show that you are corrupt you get the promotion or the job and is one of the gang. These people got a job based on something else than merit so they have to be smart, at least that is what they think of themselves. But you find this garbage in any country especially where the health care is “free” but the health care is so watered down that not even the “politcians” that decided about this go to the public health care outlets. An idiot named Rand Paul wrote a book about this, but he did not manage to check out cimple facts.

      This Russian thing is like the French stalker I have in my apt. building. If you get filmed that you sit infront of the key hole and open the front door the second after me and I film it and it gets published on internet that you do it all the time, is it smart or is it just “French”?

      If watching where the Russian idiots frequently enter the EU, it is most of the time through France, an open border cesspool. And they enter Bulgaria, another shithole cesspool, where corruption and incompetence is wide spread. Where the border police are not corrupt and are awake, the Russian filth keep away from those places, they send freelance idiots that are even worse, like the Russian idiot that shot the dissident in Berlin and threw the e-scooter and his wig into the river in broad daylight and got caught shortly after the deed or they enter a border far away and ride the train to their destination so they do not get suspicious from the border police at the destination country. This approach is not even normalintelligent, must be some corrupt idiot that came up with this scheme.

      Reply
  5. Tracey Thakore

    I wouldn’t of thought so.
    Whilst James Bond agents are probably from your love of the films with the same name, most people’s intelligence is derived not contrived.

    Reply
    • Gerhard

      Diversion. There’s nothing funny whatsoever about the site..only the tacky wedding at which the Russian operative was spotted. Do you deny that he was there or that the attempted murder of Skripal occurred? Your use of “corporate” in this case is also meaningless. Poor English usage and deflection..not effective. Your rating: 3/10.

      Reply

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