GRU general: Poison Skripal

In London, Denis Sergeyev ordered over the phone two colonels to assassinate their former colleague

Skipal and his daughter Yulia, who had barely survived the poison.

Senior Russian military intelligence officer Denis Sergeyev commanded the team suspected of the poisoning of the former GRU colonel Sergei Skripal. This is suggested by new evidence obtained by the BBC’s investigation and unveiled on its Newsnight late programme on 28 June. The developments came mere hours after British Prime Minister Theresa May, during her meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Osaka, called for the poisoners of Skripal and his daughter Yulia to be brought to justice immediately.

Maj Gen Sergeyev operates internationally under his GRU alias Sergei Fedotov. The spy has visited Bulgaria on three occasions. The other two official suspects of the Salisbury poisoning are GRU colonels Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, whose real names are Alexander Mishkin and Anatoliy Chepiga, respectively.

Back in February, the British media reported that, along with agents Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, a third individual, named Sergei Fedotov, arrived in London and participated in the operation. At the time, the investigative group Bellingcat and the Russian media outlet The Insider published an article revealing that the real name of Fedotov might be Denis Sergeyev. BBC, however, has managed to ascertain that Sergeyev is a major general of GRU.

Independent sources have confirmed for BBC correspondent Mark Urban that Sergeyev commanded the team behind the poisoning and that he stayed in contact with senior officers in Moscow following his arrival in London. He phoned a number entered in his contact list as Amir-Moscow to ask for instructions, reveals data from a messaging application he used.

According to the sources, Maj Gen Sergeyev arrived at London's Heathrow airport on the morning of Friday 2 March 2018, and left on the afternoon of Sunday 4 March, after Novichok nerve agent was placed on the Skripals' front door handle in Salisbury, Wiltshire. 

Position data from his phone shows that Sergeyev stayed at a hotel near Paddington station in west London, whereas the other two men (Petrov and Boshirov) took a room in Bow, east London. Details surrounding Sergeyev’s visit to the UK have emerged after the international investigative group Bellingcat obtained data from his mobile phone and shared it with the BBC. During his visit, Maj Gen Sergeyev shunned wi-fi networks, using 4G and 3G connections to access the internet hundreds of times. His billing records show that he used secure messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Viber and Telegram, mostly to receive photos (likely from the surveillance of Skripal).

Although he spent much of his 2018 visit to the UK secreted away in Paddington, the phone data shows that on the morning of 3 March, after two phone calls from Amir, Maj Gen Sergeyev made his way to the centre of the city, passing by Oxford Circus on his way to the Thames Embankment. It was there, as shown by correlating his position data with police information about the other suspects, that there was a 30 to 40-minute window when he could have met the others before they caught a train from nearby Waterloo station to carry out their final reconnaissance in Salisbury (agents Petrov and Boshirov recently admitted that they were indeed in that part of London on that day and time but cited buying sports shoes as their reason) and before the general called Amir.

While in London, Maj Gen Sergeyev only spoke to a single telephone number, a Russian "ghost mobile" (Amir) believed to be his connection to GRU headquarters. Although it resembles a pay as you go SIM, this number produces no cell tower or IMEI (the unique serial identifying the handset using a SIM card) information, and has for years remained unregistered to any individual, a violation of Russian law. Maj Gen Sergeyev took 10 calls from the Russian number while in London – and phoned it himself before departing Paddington on Sunday 4 March.

Records obtained by Bellingcat show that, using his Sergei Fedotov alias, Maj Gen Sergeyev had visited the UK before, in 2016 and 2017. On the latter occasion, almost exactly one year before the poisoning, Colonel Alexander Mishkin was also in the country at the same time. British investigators believe that the Salisbury plan may have taken shape during this 2017 visit. Although the evidence suggests long-term GRU surveillance of Mr Skripal and his daughter, as well as planning for an operation, it seems that the decision to take action in March 2018 may have been a last minute one. Christo Grozev from Bellingcat says the phone records show Maj Gen Sergeyev "frantically calling travel agents" on 1 March in order to book flights to London.

Denis Sergeyev was born in 1973 in Usharal, Southeastern Kazakhstan, Bellingcat reported earlier. BBC managed to confirm this information the day before yesterday quoting a source researching several Russian data bases. It is probable that Sergeyev chose his military career already as a teenager, as a person with these names and date of birth is featured on the site of the Suvorov Military School in Ekaterinburg, alumnus 1990. After 2000 Sergeyev comes to Moscow and enrolls in the Military Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Defence, Belingcat notes. This educational establishment is known as the “Conservatoire” and is a hatch place for military intelligence staffers.

According to BBC, a man with such name is indeed registered in Moscow at 50/1, Narodnoe Opolchenie St., the address of the Conservatoire. His wife Tatyana is also registered at the same address. This February, Tatyana Sergeyeva confirmed to BBC over the phone that her husband’s name is Denis Vyacheslavovich Sergeyev and he was born in Kazakhstan. This agrees with the information of Bellingcat. However, she called the information about his service in GRU a “fairy story” and refused to answer questions about her husband’s real occupation. BBS called up Sergeyev’s wife once again asking to comment on the new disclosures but she flatly denied to answer their questions.

Bellingcat and Insider maintain that Sergeyev was “transformed” into Fedotov in 2010. Then Sergei Fedotov received his international passport at the same department of the Federal Migration Service of Russia where agents Petrov and Boshirov received their documents. The passport numbers of all three of them differ only in the last digits, disclosed Fontanka website.

The analysis of general’s movements around Moscow shows that his everyday itinerary includes trips from his place of residence to several places where GRU operations take place. The fact that this everyday itinerary remains unchanged from 2017 to the end of 2018 bears out the hypothesis that he worked for GRU at the time when Skripal was poisoned. Bellingcat and Insider managed to find out that general Sergeyev goes to work to GRU now too. According to the information about his movements, every day he goes to his office at 76, Khoroshevskoye Shosse where the headquarters of Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Army is located.

Sergeyev entered Bulgaria three times

Again in February of 2019, the State Revenue Agency and Prosecutor’s Office confirmed that the abovementioned Sergeyev three times entered the Bulgarian territory with the documents to the name of Sergei Vyacheslavovich Fedotov. In fact this identity was false and the actual Russian citizen is a top officer of GRU. According to Bellingcat, Sergeyev is implicated in the poisoning of Bulgarian arms dealer (in all probability Emilian Gebrev is meant). The authors of the inquiry disclosed that “Russian authorities have taken extraordinary measures in the past two months to blot out all publicly available archive data concerning the existence of Denis Sergeyev as well as Anatoly Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin, the two main suspects in the poisoning of Skripal.”

From Zorge to London

On the morning of 1 March 2018, Denis Sergeyev is in his new apartment, by ironic coincidence located at Zorge St. Richard Zorge is one of the most famous Soviet spies during the WW II. At 10.51 a.m. Timur Agafonov called at his office phone in GRU. Probably he was an agent, because a reference in the data base shows that there is no person with such a name. The conversation lasts nine seconds. Later Sergeyev receives confirmation of his trip to London. 

Owing to newly acquired metadata from the telephone number registered to the name of Sergei Fedotov, Bellingcat and Insider managed to analyse how Sergeyev used the telephone, including the calls and data connections over the time span of May 2017 – May 2019. A separate analysis of geolocations makes it possible to reconstruct the movements of Sergeyev in Russia and abroad, as well as the model of communications during his foreign operations. Bellingcat got hold of the telephone metadata of Denis Sergeyev thanks to an officer of one of the Russian mobile operators who was sure that he doesn’t violate personal data protection rules because the person to whose name the telephone was registered does not exist in fact. 

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