The Real Russia. Today. Laughing about Russia's GRU assassin, poison and mercenaries in Africa, and burning bridges to the West
Friday, September 28, 2018
This day in history. On September 28, 2010, President Dmitry Medvedev fired longtime Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, citing a “loss of confidence.” In the week before Luzhkov's dismissal, state-controlled television stations broadcast investigative reports criticizing the mayor's handling of peat fires earlier that summer. Luzhkov had fallen out with Medvedev, after the president temporarily halted the construction of a new highway through Khimki Forest amid protests by environmentalists.
- The Kremlin mocks photographs linking a Salisbury suspect to GRU colonel
- Alleged Salisbury suspect's former academy commander says he was trained as a soldier, not a spy
- Former Russian intelligence officer claims he was poisoned when he started investigating Russian mercenary groups
- In a new interview, Pyotr Verzilov says journalists' death in Central African Republic was a ‘high-level, professionally-organized operation’
- Documentary filmmakers killed this July in Africa were reportedly investigating Russian arms shipments to mercenary groups
- Reporting from other outlets on a prime minister's death in Abkhazia, British police allegedly finding a third Salisbury suspect, continued safety problems for Russia's LGBT community, and The Washington Post adds corroboration to the Chepiga-Boshirov connection
- Opinions about the Chepiga unmasking: Oleg Kashin says Salisbury was about ‘burning bridges,’ Mark Galeotti wants people to understand the Spetsnaz better, and Galina Arapova says The Insider could be in for a fight
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday that he's unaware of anyone named Anatoly Chepiga receiving the Hero of the Russian Federation medal, insisting that officials checked the Defense Ministry's records.
Peskov also mocked photographic evidence that Anatoly Chepiga is actually the cathedral-obsessed, possibly gay fitness instructor “Ruslan Boshirov,” which British officials say is the cover identity for one of the GRU agents who carried out a nerve-agent attack this March in the town of Salisbury that killed British citizen Dawn Sturgess and hospitalized former double agent Sergey Skripal and his daughter.
“All this speculation about who resembles whom... We've still got 10 Stalins and 15 Lenins running around Red Square. And they all look remarkably like the real thing,” Peskov said.
Anatoly Chepiga's former commander at the Far Eastern Military Command Academy told the news agency RIA Novosti that media reports about Chepiga's alleged role in the Salisbury attack are “a bit schizophrenic.” Alexander Borzhko said the academy trained Chepiga to be a soldier, not a spy, and he confirmed that Chepiga fought in Chechnya.
Who's Tolya? In a report published on September 26, open-source intelligence researchers at Bellingcat and investigative journalists at The Insider claimed that Chepiga was awarded the medal (probably by Vladimir Putin personally), citing an announcement still posted on the website of the Far Eastern Military Command Academy (DVOKU), where Chepiga studied. The state-run volunteer website Dosaaf28.ru makes the same claim, stating that Anatoly Chepiga (DVOKU class of 2001) received the award in December 2014 for his role in a “peacekeeping mission.”
A former officer in one of Russia’s intelligence agencies told the independent television network Dozhd that he survived an attempted poisoning in August 2018. The man, who only agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, suspects that he was targeted because he was investigating the activities of various private military companies.
The officer says he started investigating information about mercenary casualties after one of his close friends died in eastern Ukraine. Afterwards, he began to receive threats and then in August someone attacked him in the elevator at his apartment building. As the doors were closing, someone sprayed an odorless gas into the elevator compartment. The officer says he believes it was a nerve agent.
The man says he administered himself an “antidote” and then went to the hospital, where he spent the next three days. Doctors reportedly treated him for organophosphorus poisoning, noting that exposure to psychotropic substances could have produced similar symptoms. Without any witnesses or traces of the gas, the police have refused to open a criminal investigation.
Dozhd reports that Mediazona publisher and Pussy Riot member Pyotr Verzilov was hospitalized on September 11 with similar symptoms. Doctors in Germany later determined that he was likely poisoned. Verzilov himself says he believes he was poisoned by a Russian intelligence agency. The activist had planned to accompany three documentary filmmakers to the Central African Republic in July to capture evidence of Russian mercenary activities in the country. After the murder of those three men, Verzilov launched an independent investigation into their deaths and was received the investigation's preliminary conclusions just before he fell ill.
The African stuff
“I feel like it had more to do with the African stuff,” Pyotr Verzilov told Meduza in a new interview. Verzilov said he was investigating the murder of three Russian journalists in the Central African Republic — they were killed in July not far from a checkpoint where they’d been stopped. The group was investigating a security firm called Wagner, which is owned by Evgeny Prigozhin.
In the course of investigating the ambush, Verzilov said, the “six or seven people” he’d been coordinating had uncovered information that pointed the fingers for the killing to the very top of the Russian government. He’d received the first report just a few days before he fell ill, he said. "The report had come to an ironclad conclusion: [the killing] had been a very high-level, professionally-organized operation,” Verzilov said.
- Read an English summary of the interview at BuzzFeed here, or click here for the full text in Russian at Meduza.
Before his murder on July 30, Russian journalist Orkhan Dzhemal was reportedly investigating the possible shipment of Russian firearms to private military companies operating in the Central African Republic, sources told the independent television network Dozhd. One source close to the Russian Federal Security Service claims he had advised Dzhemal about the weapons transfers, saying that the reporter went to Africa to film documentary evidence of the shipments.
Dzhemal allegedly learned from his sources in the Russian Defense Ministry when to expect a shipment of guns to a mercenary group. Nadezhda Kevorkova, Dzhemal’s friend and fellow reporter, says she spoke to him several weeks before his death, when he said he worried about being arrested. Another friend told Dozhd that Dzhemal stopped using his telephone, fearing wiretaps.
One Defense Ministry source told Dozhd that the ministry raised the secrecy level of information about Russia’s operations in the Central African Republic, after the killing of Dzhemal and two other reporters.
What happened in the Central African Republic? The journalists Orkhan Dzhemal, Alexander Rastorguyev, and Kirill Radchenko planned to film the giant Ndassima gold mine, which is reportedly being developed by the company “Lobaye Invest” and guarded by the “Wagner” private military company — two companies associated with Evgeny Prigozhin (the same catering magnate with close Kremlin ties and his own “troll factory”). Lobaye Invest supposedly “represents Russia’s interests” in CAR. The journalists planned to meet with a member of the UN peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic, who was supposed to help them get access to the mines.
Read it elsewhere 📰
💀 RIP in Abkhazia
On September 8, Gennady Gagulia, the 70-year-old de facto prime minister of the breakaway republic of Abkhazia (recognized by just five countries, including the island nation of Nauru), died in a car collision, not long after meeting with Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, where Abkhazian dignitaries signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation. Valeria Costa-Kostritsky reports on “doubts” about the official account of Gagulia’s death. Read the story here at the London Review of Books.
🕵️♂️🕵️♂️🕵️♂️ A third spy
British police have identified a third suspected Russian military intelligence officer who allegedly conducted reconnaissance before two GRU agents traveled to Salisbury to carry out the nerve-agent attack against former double agent Sergey Skripal and his daughter. British police and security services reportedly think the third Russian agent visited Salisbury, as well, to help plan the attack. The newspaper The Telegraph broke the story but did not name the new suspect. Read the story here.
🏳️🌈 Dashed LGBT hopes
Writing for Openly, Daria Litvinova reports that the Russian same-sex couple that made global headlines earlier this year when they briefly got Moscow officials to recognize their Danish marriage certificate are now living in the Netherlands, fearing for their safety in Russia. Sociological evidence shows that hate crimes against Russia’s LGBT community have spiked since 2013, when lawmakers banned so-called “gay propaganda,” which Vladimir Putin has arguably used to “draw closer to his electorate, most of whom are Orthodox Christians.” Read the story here at Openly.
🔗 Corroborating the Chepiga-Boshirov connection
Adding to a report by the newspaper Kommersant on Thursday, two people in a village in Russia’s Far East told The Washington Post on Friday they apparently recognized a suspect in recent nerve-agent poisonings in Britain as a former fellow villager and decorated military officer. Read the story here at The Washington Post. (Fun fact: After sending a reporter all the way to the town of Berezovka, in Russia’s Amur region, to interview Anatoly Chepiga’s childhood classmates, Kommersant declined to publish the story in its print edition the next day.)
Opinions about the Chepiga unmasking
🔥 Kashin on burning bridges
In an op-ed for Republic, columnist Oleg Kashin argues that the nerve-agent attack against Sergey Skripal was intended to cause a scandal that would further ostracize Russia internationally, insulating a “large and influential social group” made up of “new Cold War beneficiaries” like Anatoly Chepiga himself. Kashin believes that the GRU consciously staged the attack during Yulia Skripal’s visit to England, to guarantee that Sergey’s poisoning wasn’t mistaken for the complications of old age. Kashin says the entire operation against the Skripals was less about “punishing a traitor” than about “burning bridges” to the West, to ensure that men like Chepiga (and, by extension, anyone in Russia’s defense industry) never have to stand trial at home or abroad for the crimes of Moscow’s Crimea annexation, support for armed separatists in eastern Ukraine, intervention to save the Assad regime, and so on. “In this sense, for Colonel Chepiga, Russia’s isolation literally becomes a matter of personal survival,” Kashin writes.
🐱👤 Galeotti on “ninja supermen”
In an op-ed for Raam op Rusland, Russia expert Mark Galeotti argues that the unmasking of “Ruslan Boshirov” as GRU Colonel Anatoly Chepiga necessitates a better public understanding of the Spetsnaz, which isn’t the “legion of ninja supermen” some would have you believe. On the other hand, Galeotti points out, these “light infantry and intervention troops” perform a “crucial role in the kind of vicious, smaller scale wars and deniable operations that increasingly characterize modern conflict.” Setting aside the units that use the term Spetsnaz generically, Galeotti says the “real” Spetsnaz are 17,000 or so special forces attached to the GRU, comprising some eight brigades, an additional regiment, and a ‘point’ of Naval Spetsnaz equivalent to brigades attached to each of the four fleets.” They formed “the bulk of the so-called ‘little green men’ who seized Crimea,” Galeotti writes, noting that Chepiga’s apparent path from “commando” to “spook” is relatively uncommon.
🤫 Arapova on state-secret laws
In comments to the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Mass Media Defense Center director Galina Arapova warns that the editorial team at The Insider risked the felony charge of disclosing state secrets when it published Anatoly Chepiga’s personal data. Arapova says the journalists, namely chief editor Roman Dobrokhotov, will have to rely on the protections offered by Russia’s laws on mass media and personal data, which grant reporters the right to disclose private information when it serves the public interests. Given these competing legal guidelines, Arapova argues, enforcement will come down to the authorities’ political calculations, where prosecuting the journalists who outed Chepiga would be perceived as an admission that he is in fact a GRU colonel. Arapova cites a precedent from the 1990s, when a television crew was invited into a secret GRU Spetsnaz barracks, and Russia’s media regulatory determined that the journalists couldn’t be prosecuted for reporting information handed over to them. “But that was in the 1990s,” the Novaya Gazeta story concludes pessimistically.
Coincidentally, Roman Dobrokhotov returned to Moscow on September 28 and passed through passport control without being arrested. (He tweeted about his return to Russia before going through a checkpoint at Moscow Domodedovo Airport, warning his readers that he might be arrested.)