Sat, 16 Nov 2019

The father of the bride grinned as he walked his daughter down the aisle.

The July 29, 2017, wedding took place on the shores of Lake Senezh, a quiet, tree-lined body of water about 50 kilometers north of Moscow. Dozens of guests applauded the beaming bride as her father escorted her to the front to deliver her vows. After dinner and dancing, fireworks lit up the sky.

Among the smiling guests was a man in a suit and cuff links, wearing a beard and a mustache, his hair parted neatly on the left, with an expensive watch on his left wrist and a drink in his right hand.

Less than a year later, that man was publicly identified by British police as one of two Russian military intelligence officers operating under cover names who allegedly planted a highly toxic nerve agent called Novichok at a house in Salisbury, England, in a bid to poison a Russian double agent. The target, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter survived the poisoning. A British woman with no connections to Russia died, apparently after accidentally coming into contact with the substance.

The presence of the poisoning suspect, Anatoly Chepiga, at the wedding adds to the already substantial body of evidence linking him to Russian military intelligence, commonly known as the GRU. It also further undermines his widely mocked claim that he is simply a nutritional-supplements salesman named Ruslan Boshirov who traveled to Salisbury in March 2018 to admire its architecture.

Three different images of Anatoly Chepiga. Left to right: 1) A photo of Chepiga in Gatwick airport in March 2018 released by British authorities; 2) The same man at the wedding of a daughter of a Russian military official in 2017; 3) Calling himself Ruslan Boshirov, Chepiga as he looked when interviewed by a Russian TV station shortly after the Skripal affair hit the headlines in 2018.

The man who walked his daughter down the aisle is Major General Andrei Averyanov, the secretive commander of a Russian military unit that Western intelligence officials have reportedly linked to a range of malfeasance in Europe. And Chepiga and his family were no ordinary guests, a joint investigation by RFE/RL and the open-source research group Bellingcat has found.

Special Guests

Chepiga's attendance at the nuptials was first reported in an October 8 article in The New York Times. The report cited unidentified European intelligence officials as assessing that Averyanov's unit, 29155, was involved in a series of high-profile incidents across the continent, including the Skripal poisoning, the attempted poisoning of a Bulgarian arms dealer in 2015, and a failed coup attempt in Montenegro in 2016.

But while the Times report included a cropped image of Averyanov that it said was taken at his daughter's 2017 wedding, the newspaper did not publish an image of Chepiga at the event.

An investigation into Averyanov's family tree led to social media posts and other online resources that RFE/RL and Bellingcat scoured to determine the time and location of the wedding at Lake Senezh.

Videos shared on Instagram by guests provided fleeting glimpses of Chepiga at the event, including one in which Chepiga's blurred face can be seen among the guests as Averyanov walks his daughter to the altar.

Chepiga can also be seen briefly in another video posted to YouTube, including by an account whose user name matches that of Averyanov's son-in-law.

But the clearest visual evidence of Chepiga's presence comes from photographs posted on two wedding-themed websites that offer relatively clean shots of his face -- and show that members of his family attended the event or, at the very least, were on the guest list. A child of Chepiga was also given the honor of participating in the marriage ceremony.

Another image that appears to show Anatoly Chepiga at Andrei Averyanov's daughter's wedding.

Chepiga's last name also appears in a photograph showing the seating arrangement for the wedding, though not together with his first name. The first and last names of his family members do appear on the seating arrangement, as does the name 'Aleksei Chepiga' -- possibly a pseudonym.

The man who seems to be Anatoly Chepiga photographed from another angle at the Averyanov family wedding.

The seating arrangement shows 'Aleksei Chepiga' was assigned to the same table as the father of the bride, Averyanov, the head of Unit 29155.

'Special Achievements'

There is little public information about the activities of Unit 29155, though a 2018 investigation by RFE/RL found Defense Ministry orders from 2012 that awarded merit bonuses to its members of one of its subunits for 'special achievements during the course of service.'

Public records list Averyanov as the head of Unit 29155, which is wholly controlled by the Russian Defense Ministry. But like many Russian intelligence officers, GRU or otherwise, his public activities are not well documented. Records show that he graduated in 1988 from the Tashkent Military Academy, known by the acronym TVOKU, in what was then Soviet Uzbekistan.

He is believed to have fought in both Chechen wars in the 1990s and 2000s, and he was awarded Russia's highest honor, the Hero of Russia, in January 2015, The New York Times said in its report, without identifying its source for the assertion.

A YouTube video of celebrations for the 100-year anniversary of TVOKU, in July 2018, shows a board featuring short biographies and photographs of prominent alumni. One of the bios seen in the videos is heavily redacted but still reveals the person's rank, the first and last letters of his last name, and the initials of his first name and patronymic -- all of which matches information for Averyanov.

In place of a photograph, the biography shows only a black silhouette. It states that the person is a recipient of the Hero of Russia award. Wording on the board suggests that it honors alumni who are no longer living.

An image of Major General Andrei Averyanov posted in 2012 on a Russian social-networking site

If the person indicated is, indeed, Averyanov, it is unclear whether his inclusion on this board was a mistake or deliberate. Averyanov remained listed as the head of Unit 29155 as of publication time, according to public records.

Both Chepiga and his alleged accomplice, Aleksandr Mishkin, appear to have been awarded the Hero of Russia title in 2014, according to investigations by RFE/RL's Russian Service, Bellingcat, and the Russian news site The Insider.

The Kremlin dismissed the Times report about Unit 29155's alleged connection to the Skripal poisoning and other incidents in Europe as 'pulp fiction.'

Other than the photographs from the wedding of Averyanov's daughter, very few images of the Russian major general are available online. RFE/RL and Bellingcat did manage to locate one photograph of him posted in 2012 on the Russian social-networking site OK.ru.

Suspect Tourists

Russia has also strenuously denied any connection to the March 2018 poisoning of Skripal, a longtime former GRU officer who was arrested in Moscow by officers from Russia's main domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), in 2004. He was accused of passing classified secrets to British intelligence, convicted of treason, and sentenced in 2006.

Four years later, he was released from Russian prison and sent to the West as part of a swap for 10 Russian agents who had been uncovered and arrested in the United States.

The poisoning of Skripal and his daughter, who survived, outraged Britain, which, along with the United States and other allies, kicked out dozens of Russian diplomats.

British law enforcement, meanwhile, released detailed video and photographic evidence about the Russians and their movements in Britain under the names Ruslan Boshirov and Aleksandr Petrov at the time of the poisonings, alleging that they were GRU officers. Bellingcat later published evidence identifying the men under their true names. Acquaintances of the men subsequently told Russian and international news outlets that they recognized the men accused by Britain as Chepiga and Mishkin.

In September 2018, British prosecutors filed criminal charges against both of them.

In their lone media appearance since the poisonings, the two suspects were interviewed by RT, the state-funded Russian TV network formerly known as Russia Today. During the interview, which many observers said did nothing to counter the British charges, Chepiga and Mishkin gave the pseudonyms under which they traveled to Britain.

They claimed to be innocent tourists who simply wanted to visit Salisbury's 'famous' cathedral and its 123-meter spire and clock.

The seating arrangement for the wedding of Averyanov's daughter also includes the name Aleksandr Petrov -- the pseudonym Mishkin used when he traveled to Salisbury at the time of the Skripal poisonings.

Bellingcat and RFE/RL could not determine, however, whether Mishkin was also in attendance. Open-source photographs and video of the event do not show a man resembling Mishkin.

RFE/RL has asked the Russian Defense Ministry to comment on Averyanov, including whether it could identify him in images from his daughter's wedding, and confirm or deny whether he was honored with the Hero of Russia award.

RFE/RL has also asked the ministry to provide details about the activities of Unit 29155 and say whether Chepiga serves or has served in that unit.

The ministry had not responded as of publication time.

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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