One of the two suspects behind 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 in 2014, 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 Moscow's GRU military intelligence service.
Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins and researcher Christo Grozev told reporters at an event in the British parliament Tuesday that they discovered Mishkin had taken part in undercover operations in Ukraine and the breakaway republic of Transnistria.
Higgins and Grozev said that Mishkin was made a Hero of the Russian Federation by Putin in the autumn of 2014.
The investigative group has previously identified GRU colonel Anatoly Chepiga as the other suspect behind the March poisoning attack and said that he too had received Russia's highest award the same year in a secret ceremony in the Kremlin.
"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."
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.
He graduated in 2003 or 2004 from the Russian military's medical academy in St Petersburg, where he specialised in "deep underwater physiology".
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.
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.
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