The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) indicted the four. The Russian MFA reacted labeling the JIT findings as “unfounded accusations.”
Meanwhile, the investigative website Bellingcat has published a new investigation into the MH17 crash, naming even more people who allegedly played their role in killing 298 civilians over the southeastern Donbas.
The Joint Investigation Team (JIT) was formed by national investigative agencies of Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands, and Ukraine to jointly probe into the crash of the Malaysia Airline Flight MH17. As the investigation found in 2016, a Russian-made Buk missile was used to shot down the Boeing 777 over territory in eastern Ukraine held by Russian-led militants on 17 July 2014. The passenger airliner traveled between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur.
In 2018, JIT concluded that the Russian 53rd Antiaircraft Missile Brigade transported the Buk TELAR (transporter erector launcher and radar) in 2014 from Russia’s Kursk to Ukraine and then back to Russia.
The first Russian media reports after the incident celebrated shooting down another Ukrainian military plane. However, when the Russian-hybrid forces discovered that they hit the civilian airliner, Russian media started producing a number of contradictory theories to whitewash Russia and blame Ukraine.
Official Russia continues to vehemently deny its involvement and instead blames Kyiv.
What JIT told
For the first time since the beginning of the probe, the prosecutors of the Dutch-led joint investigation team (JIT) charged four suspects with murdering 298 passengers and crew of the Malaysian Boeing 777 shot down over the battlefields of the East-Ukrainian Donbas region five years ago.
The suspects were named as Russian citizens Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov, and Ukrainian national Leonid Kharchenko. The prosecutors have issued international arrest warrants for the four suspects. The court trial will begin on 9 March 2020 and the suspects will be tried in the Netherlands under Dutch law whether they will be present in court or not.
SBU issued notices of suspicion to all four persons suspected by JIT.
Who are the suspects?
Igor Girkin, also known by his nom-de-guerre Strelkov, is a 48-year-old retired colonel of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) who had fought in Moldovan Transnistria, Bosnia, and Russian Chechnya before the Donbas events.
Back in fall 2014, he admitted that he was the one who sparked the war in the Ukrainian Donbas by capturing the cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk in April 2014. The Ukrainian anti-terrorist operation, which later spiraled into a full-fledged war, was initially a Ukrainian response to the Girkin’s attack on the two cities.
“I was the one who pulled the trigger of this war,” he said then, “If our unit had not crossed the border, everything would have fizzled out — like in [the Ukrainian city of] Kharkiv, like in Odesa.”
At the moment of the MH17 crash, Igor Girkin was the so-called defense minister of the Russian-run Donetsk People’s Republic (“DNR”), one of two pro-states in eastern Ukraine considered as terrorist organizations under Ukrainian laws. The flight was shot down from the area controlled by the “DNR” as it flew over it.
Bellingcat has identified Igor “Strelkov” Girkin on one of the intercepted conversations with Sergey Dubinskiy dated back to the morning of 18 July, in which they discussed the removal of the Buk from the Ukrainian territory to Russia.
As per JIT, Girkin was in direct contact with the Russian Federation as a top military officer of the proto-state. Russian national Borodai, then “DNR prime minister,” could be regularly found in Moscow in June and July 2014. And both Girkin and Borodai had frequent telephone contact with persons in Russia during that period.
For example, according to wiretapped phone calls presented by JIT, Girkin appealed to Sergey Aksyonov, PM of Russia-occupied Crimea, for artillery, anti-aircraft systems, and other heavy weapons to stop the Ukrainian offensive and Kremlin’s handler for the Donbas Vladislav Surkov told Borodai how he had been lobbying for the Russian heavy equipment and complained that the process went somewhat slow:
For now, Putin’s aide Vladislav Surkov has been the Russian representative at the direct US-Russia negotiation on Ukrainian issues, as well as he took part in Normandy Format talks as one of the Russian negotiators. Meanwhile, he continues overseeing the “T1” and “T2” (“T” stands for “Territory”) – this is how the occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts were called in his leaked correspondence.
Both Girkin and Borodai returned to Moscow in 2014-2015 and are not in charge of the “DNR” anymore.
Aleksandr Borodai told RTL Nieuws that he is “absolutely not worried” about a possible lawsuit. “I don’t feel responsible,” he said.
Girkin denied the JIT’s accusations, he wrote on his page on VK Russian social media platform,
“The militia didn’t shoot down the Boeing. I give no comments regarding this tragedy, as well as about the progress of the investigation,” he wrote. Earlier he said that the so-called Donetsk militia “lacked the equipment that could have shot down [MH17].”
Speaking to news wire AP, he called evidence against him “fake,” as well as denied any involvement and said that he would not testify in the case, commenting to the Russian news agency Interfax.
However, just as the airliner was shot down, an update on the VK page “Communiques from Igor Ivanovich Strelkov” emerged, bragging that a Ukrainian military An-26 aircraft was shot down near the city of Torez. Just as the “militants” realized that it was a passenger plane, the message was deleted.
Then the Russian media and officials began to blame Ukraine for the crash, producing multiple conflicting versions, from a bomb set off aboard or a hit of an air-to-air missile launched by a Ukrainian fighter jet up to a hit of a Ukrainian BUK missile. The most notorious change of the narrative could be seen in a news show of the Russian TV channel LifeNews, when a host wearing the same outfit came back minutes later to reverse the whole story, telling without a second thought that it was the Ukrainian military who shot down the Boeing and that “militants” didn’t have the armament capable of shooting down planes at high attitudes.
Russian military intelligence GRU colonel Sergey Dubinsky, a 56-year-old veteran of the Soviet-Afghan war, was one of Girkin’s deputies and headed “DNR” intelligence service as of 17 July 2014. He was in regular contact with officials in Russia as well as Girkin, according to JIT.
On the next days after the MH17 crash, the Ukrainian Security Service published a video featuring several tapped phone calls by the person they had identified as Serhey Petrovskyi call sign Khmuryi, Girkin’s deputy. In the conversations, “Khmuryi” is apprised of the arrival of the Buk-M1 from Russia with its crew and gives instructions who should escort it and where it should be deployed. The identity “Petrovskyi” emerged to be a cover name and later in February 2015 Bellingcat discovered that the real name of “Khmuryi” was Sergey Dubinsky. Two years later, the Ukrainian investigative community InformNapalm found more details on Dubinsky, and the Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta corroborated that Khmuryi’s voice on the SBU’s tapes indeed belongs to Russian Army’s colonel Sergey Dubinsky.
The most recent Bellingcat’s investigation demonstrates that Dubinsky personally coordinated the transportation of the arriving Buk to the launch site and was involved its removal back to Russia. Moreover, he ordered his subordinates to secure the launcher near the launch site south of Snizhne.
A Ukrainian court ordered the arrest of Sergey Dubinsky in December 2017. According to the SBU, he was charged with participation in a terrorist act.
As Interfax reported, Dubinsky is not going to testify in the case either. Asked by The Guardian on WhatsApp messenger whether he wanted to clear his name, Dubinsky said, “I know that neither I nor my subordinates had any connection to MH17. That’s enough.”
In his comment to the Russian service of BBC, Sergey Dubinsky said that he didn’t leave Donetsk on the day of the MH17 crash. Asked to comment the JIT accusations against his subordinates Oleg Pulatov and Leonid Kharchenko, Dubinsky said,
“Neither me in person nor the people I know received or sent any orders to shoot down aerial targets on 17 June . Respectively, I don’t know who could give such an order and whom,” Dubinsky said.
However, the investigators never stated that Dubinsky personally escorted the BUK or that the Russian BUK was under his command.
A veteran of Afghanistan and Chechnya wars, 52-year-old former lieutenant colonel in the Russian Armed Forces Oleg Pulatov was a deputy of Dubinsky at the moment of the MH17 crash. His chief mentions Pulatov by the call sign Gyurza in one of the conversations tapped by SBU in which Dubinsky says that “Gyurza” will be one of the convoys who will secure the Buk-M missile launcher from Donetsk to Pervomaiske, an urban-type settlement near the town of Snizhne.
He fought against Ukraine until 2018, when Luhansk occupation authorities put him behind bars. As per Bellingcat, Pulatov recently wrote on social media that moved back to Russia.
Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko, 47, is a local of the city of Kostiantynivka located some 50km north from regional capital Donetsk. He had no military experience at the moment when war broke out in April 2014.
But already in June Kharchenko led a “DNR” military intelligence unit as a commander and was a subordinate to Pulatov. Kharchenko secured the Buk near the launch site south of Snizhne.
At 16:48 on 17 July 2014, some 30 minutes after the MH17 crash, Kharchenko reported to Dubinsky that “they [BUK crew] are already at the spot and have already downed one Sushka [a military jargon term for Sukhoy fighter jets],” the SBU’s suspicion notice reads.
Chain linking “DNR” to Russia
The Joint Investigation Team states, “Together they formed a chain linking the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic with the Russian Federation. It was through this chain that the suspects were able to get heavy military equipment from Russia to the battlefield in eastern Ukraine. And in this way, the BUK TELAR of the [Russian] 23rd brigade could be transported to the agricultural field in Pervomayskyi and its missile could be fired with terrible consequences.”
At the press conference, JIT presented a number of wiretapped conversations showing the involvement of the four charged persons. Dutch prosecutor Fred Westerbeke stressed, “The courtroom is the only venue where we as public prosecution service can speak openly what based on the findings of the investigation.”
In Dutch criminal law, the persons who were not present themselves during the implementation of a crime but did play an important organizing role are just as liable as the persons who have actually committed the crime. Thus, according to Mr. Westerbeke, even though the four suspects didn’t push the button itself, they are suspected of closed cooperation to obtain the BUK TELAR and put it in the position of the launch site with the goal to shoot a plane. Therefore they can be considered to be suspects of shooting Flight MH17.
“We won’t demand their extradition because Russian and Ukrainian law forbids the extradition of their nationals. But we ask Russia once more to cooperate — many of our questions remain unanswered,” Mr. Westerbeke told the press conference.
Multiple people played their roles in the downing of MH17, thus the decision to prosecute four persons doesn’t mean the end of the investigation, JIT says.
Head of the investigative department of the Dutch police Wilbert Paulissen said the investigation will continue, as there currently “isn’t enough evidence to take the same steps” against any other officials or active servicemen.
In particular, the investigation will continue with regards to the crew of the BUK missile launcher and to those involved in the chain of command in Russia regarding military support of the anti-Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine.
Before the JIT announcement, the Bellingcat investigation team published their latest report in which the digital sleuths identify most of the individuals heard or mentioned on the intercepted conversations related to the MH17 downing. A number of such conversations were previously shared by SBU and JIT.
Five years ago, MH17 was shot down, killing all 298 people on board. We know it was shot down by a Russian missile launcher.
— Newsy (@Newsy) June 19, 2019
Earlier, two of the interlocutors, militant leaders Igor Bezler and Nikolay Kozitsyn, admitted that it were indeed their voices in the intercepts. And the voices of Russian officers Nikolai “Delfin” Tkachev and Oleg “Orion” Ivannikov were confirmed by forensic analysts in two research institutions, as Bellingcat reported in its previous publications.
Here is the organizational chart showing most of the individuals heard or mentioned on the intercepted conversations within the hierarchical structure of the DNR in July 2014, according to Bellingcat. The four suspects charged by JIT – Girkin, Dubinsky, Pulatov, Kharchenko – go down the left column from “DNR defense minister” Igor Girkin:
Besides the four suspects indicted by JIT, Bellingcat also names eight more individuals, who “had a role in organizing or facilitating the transport of the Buk missile launcher that downed MH17”:
- Russian national Eduard Gilazov, call sign “Ryazan” – subordinate to Kharchenko, identified as the one who brought a member of the Buk crew who had lost after the MH17 downing to Kharchenko in Snizhne.
- Ukrainian national Oleh Sharpov, call sign “Zmey” identified as the person who asks Kharchenko in one of the calls the directions to the launch south of Snizhne two hours before downing MH17.
- Russian national Igor Bezler, call sign “Bes” can be heard in one of the taped calls talking to his subordinate Stelmakh who informs that a “birdie” is flying over him and Bezler instructs him to report it “upwards,” thus allegedly facilitating the spotting of MH17 as a Ukrainian military plane.
- Russian national Sergey Povalyaev, call sign “Botsman” from Bezler’s group has no direct link to the downing of MH17, in one of the calls shortly after the MH17 crash Dubinskiy tells him that he received a Buk-M in the morning and that they just shot down a ‘Sushka’ (a Sukhoi aircraft). Died from pneumonia in 2016.
- Valery Stelmakh, call signs “Naemnik” – identified as Bezler’s subordinate who reported him the spotting of MH17 as an enemy aircraft a few minutes before the downing.
- Ukrainian national Igor Ukrainets, call sign “Minyor” – identified as the commander of the Minyor Unit mentioned by Bezler in one of the calls. Although Bellingcat found no evidence that suggests he was involved in the downing of MH17.
- Ukrainian national Aleksandr Khodakovsky, call sign “Skif,” head of the Vostok battalion who likely helped facilitate the arrival of the Buk in Donetsk, since the intercepts indicate that his deputy Aleksandr Semyonov helped coordinate the transport of the Buk in Donetsk.
- Aleksandr Semyonov, nickname “(San) Sanych” – Khodakovsky’s deputy who helped facilitate the arrival of the Buk in Donetsk in coordination with Dubinsky.
The full Bellingcat report either identifies or confirms the identities of 13 persons mentioned or participated in the phone intercepts related to the downing of the MH17 flight.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy welcomed the JIT findings and expressed the hope that not only those four indicted by SBU but all guilty of the brazen murder would be put on trial at an “international tribunal.”
More welcomes came from NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Australian PM Julie Bishop, as well as UK foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt who called on Russia to accept state responsibility for the attack on MH17, “The Russian Federation must now co-operate fully with the prosecution and provide any assistance it requests,” he said according to FT.
“From the very beginning it became a political issue on how to accuse Russia of wrongdoing,” Mr. Mahathir said according to BBC.
Hours after the JIT’s announcement, the Russian Foreign Ministry came up with a statement, saying that the JIT’s accounts on “the alleged involvement of Russian servicemen” in MH17 crash were “utterly regrettable.” The MFA continued playing a victim, stating that
“The Russian Federation once again finds itself the target of completely unfounded accusations intended to discredit it in the eyes of the international community. As was the case at its previous news conferences, the JIT did not produce a single shred of concrete evidence to back up its groundless statements,” reads the statement of the Russian MFA.
Once again, Russia blamed JIT of incompetence, prejudiced attitude toward Russia and was outraged that Russia wasn’t included in JIT while Ukraine became its full participant which gave Ukraine “an opportunity to falsify evidence and completely evade responsibility for failing to close its air space.”
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry welcomed the announcement of the investigation results made by JIT and called on Russia to acknowledge its responsibility for supplying the arms and to cooperate with the investigation. The Ukrainian MFA also highlighted that
“…the fact that the prosecution of suspects in the case of premeditation and committing of crimes related to the shooting down of MH17 is inextricably linked with Russia’s responsibility as a state for violating a number of conventions, thus making these crimes possible,” the statement reads.
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