On September 20 and September 14, Bellingcat and The Insider released two joint reports providing some details of alleged movements and passport data of “GRU operatives” Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov. The September 14 report was entitled “Skripal Poisoning Suspect’s Passport Data Shows Link to Security Services“, the September 20 – “Skripal Suspects Confirmed as GRU Operatives: Prior European Operations Disclosed“.
The both reports are based on “uncovered passport data” including “original records from the central Russian passport and residential registration database” and “confidential Russian sources familiar with the identity of at least one of the two persons”. Bellingcat and The Insider alleged the following:
Point #1 (source):
“Alexander Petrov’s passport dossier is marked with a stamp containing the instruction “Do not provide any information”. This stamp does not exist in standard civilian passport files. A source working in the Russian police force who regularly works with the central database confirmed to Bellingcat and The Insider that they have never seen such a stamp on any passport form in their career. That source surmised that this marking reserved for operatives of the state under deep cover.
Adding additional credence to the hypothesis that Alexander Petrov’s persona is a cover identity comes from another page in his passport file, which is reserved for input of biographical data. In Mr. Petrov’s case, this page is left blank, and in addition to the same stamp “Do not provide information”, a hand-written note is added with the text “There is a letter. S.S.”. Per the same source interviewed for this story, S.S. is a common abbreviation for “sovershenno sekretno”, Russian for “top secret”.
Another clue pointing to the non-civilian status of Mr. Petrov is the absence from his passport file of any information about his international passport, which he used to travel to the United Kingdom. The passport number is listed in the Aeroflot passenger manifest reviewed by Bellingcat. However, the passport file shows no international passport belonging to Alexander Petrov, in contrast with regular practice – under which the file contains a list of all government-issued ID documents, both national and international passports, expired and currently valid.”
Point #2 (source):
Bellingcat and the Insider have obtained documents proving that the number on the suspects’ stamps indeed is identical to a telephone number that belongs to the Ministry of Defense, and is located at Khoroshevskoe Chausse – where the Headquarters of the GRU is based.
In a centralized database called “Unified State Telephone Directory of the Moscow Region”, dated 2012, the telephone number from the dossier stamps – 1957966, preceded by the Moscow prefix 495 – is found to belong to a telephone exchange with “zone of operation: Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation”
Additionally, many listed telephone numbers in the Moscow telephone database that start with 1957*** have addresses located at Khoroshevskoe Chausse, such as the Ministry of Defense-owned magazine “Foreign Military Review”. The only military unit at or near Khoroshevskoe Chausse is the headquarters of the GRU.
Point #3 (source):
However, it’s two other numbers that provide the most corroborative link between the two Skripal suspects and the GRU. It’s their international passport numbers.
As discussed in the previous installment, the two suspects’ international-travel passports were not recorded in their passport files – which is atypical for the Russian passport dossier system. This suggests the passports were issued by a special agency that does not report to the centralized registrar of government-issued ID’s, commonly known in Russia as the “FMS database”. Such a “disconnect” would be logical if this agency issues covert international passports under cover identities.
A “special issuing agency” would explain also the proximity of the passport numbers between the two suspects – only 3 intervening digits (as one would assume that Russian, internationally active secret-service agents are a finite, relatively small number).
Bellingcat and the Insider have previously investigated and reported on a different GRU officer who also traveled under a cover persona and passport. This was the case of Col. Eduard Shishmakov, a former Russian Military Attaché in Warsaw expelled by Poland in 2014 for espionage. Col. Shishmakov, using an undercover (albeit not very creative) persona and passport in the name of Eduard Shirokov, travelled to Serbia in October 2016 to supervise – as alleged by the Montenegro special prosecutor – a failed coup against the pro-Western government in Podgorica. In a previous report, the Insider identified that Col. Shirokov wired funds to a co-conspirator in Serbia via Western Union, using the address of the GRU headquarters as the “Sender” address.
Bellingcat compared the passport number on Col. Shishmakov’s cover-identity passport, with the numbers of the (cover-identity) passports of “Petrov” and “Boshirov”. The numbers were from the same batch, with only 26 intervening passport numbers between “Petrov”’s (654341297), and “Shirokov”’s (654341323) number. “Shirokov”’s passport was issued in August 2016, implying that Petrov’s and Boshirov’s passports were issued by the same special authority earlier that year. Indeed, as we will see in their international itinerary below, they start travelling in early April 2016, suggesting that only 26 passports were issued by this special authority between April and August 2016.
Point #4 (source):
Bellingcat and the Insider further claimed that they have obtained the border crossing data of Petrov and Boshirov “for the period of validity of their international passports (mid-2016 through today).”
“The second trip Petrov takes up is perplexing. On July 11th 2016, he crosses the border from Russia into Kazakhstan by bus, and reports to Kazakh border authorities “Beijing” as his final destination. It is uncertain as to how he planned to reach the capital of China, given the more than 5000 km between the border-crossing point and Beijing. It is possible that he gave that destination as a decoy, or that he planned to ride to Astana and then take a plane to China. Whatever his plans were, we lose track of him for the next 15 days, when he shows up again on a flight back to Moscow – from Israel’s capital Tel-Aviv.”
Point #4 (source):
Bellingcat also speculated citing “a source in a Western European law-enforcement agency” that Petrov and Boshirov “were arrested on the territory of the Netherlands.”
“No information was provided as to the time and context of such arrests. European media have previously reported arrests and deportation of two unidentified Russian spies on Dutch soil; leaked police information linked the arrests with attempts by the two to smuggle hacking equipment to Switzerland, with the goal to infiltrate the Spiez laboratory. The Spiez lab worked on investigating the chemical attacks in Syria, and later on determining the poisoning agent in the Skripal case.”
Summing up the reports released by Bellingcat and The Insider, it should be noted that all their claims and speculations on the identity of Petrov and Boshirov as well as their links to the GRU are based on the data, which cannot be verified independently right now. The key document, a screenshot of the alleged “biographical page” of Petrov with “top secret” markings is highly likely a forgery.
The MSM and Western experts widely speculated that documents recently provied by the Russian Defense Ministry to confirm the involvement of the Ukrainian Armed Forces into the MH17 shootdown in 2014 could be faked. On the other hand, the MSM covers allegations of Bellingcat and The Insider based on suspicious screenshots almost as confirmed facts.
At the same time, the proximity of the passport numbers of Petrov, Boshirov and Shishmakov is an intersting fact, wich cannot be ignored. Nonetheless, real secret agents will never get passports via a “special issuing agency”. They would get their passports as common Russian citizens because of security issues. So, as some have already speculated, Petrov and Boshirov may be linked authorized persons of some Russia-linked entities or oligarchs. As to the alleged arrest of Petrov and Boshirov in the Netherlands, this is a common speculation not confirmed by any evidence.
While a part of the data provided by Bellingcat and The Insider spark interest, the core of the “analysis” looks like a fabricated disinformation or a journalistic fiction. The reports provided are produced in the best tradictions of the Western propaganda when real facts and interesting information are mixed with fake news and pre-planned disinformation.