Ukraine arrests head of Snizhne anti-aircraft defense in summer 2014, possible MH17 case witness

volodymyr tsemakh

Volodymyr Tsemakh (left). 23 May 2018, Savur-Mohyla Hill, occupied part of Donetsk Oblast. Image: ok.ru/Сергей Кулешов 

War in the Donbas

BBC News Ukraine has reported that at the end of June, Ukrainian special services conducted a special operation in the territory of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (“DNR”) and detained the former “chief of the air defense unit” of the city of Snizhne, Volodymyr Tsemakh, according to Tsemakh’s daughter and his attorney Roman Hontarev.

Tsemakh’s daughter Mariia, who resides in the ORDLO (occupied part of Donetsk Oblast), speculates that Ukrainian operatives could be interested in detaining her father because he served in “DNR” armed formations in Snizhne at the time when the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down in the vicinity of the city.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian special services have neither confirmed the information nor gave any comments on the topic.

As per BBC Ukraine, Tsemakh’s daughter and his Kyiv-based attorney Roman Hontarev insist that former “DNR” operative, 58-year-old Soviet-Afghan war veteran Volodymyr Tsemakh, was detained on 27 June in his apartment in occupied Snizhne and then smuggled across the line of the contact in the Ukraine-controlled territory.

“On 28 June, the Ukrainian Constitution Day, [Tsemakh] was brought to Kyiv, and on 29 June Shevchenkivskyi District Court of Kyiv ruled to arrest him for two months,” Hontarev told BBC Ukraine and refused to disclose more details citing secrecy of the investigation.

Tsemakh’s daughter told BBC Ukraine that his wife was the first person who found that Volodymyr Tsemakh had gone missing when she returned home from work and saw “traces of blood and signs of a struggle.” The relatives tried to search for him until the evening of 28 June when they received a letter from a Kyiv-based attorney informing that a court set considering the Tsemakh’s arrest for the next day. According to her, the attorney said that Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) relocated him across the front-line.

The detainee was charged under Part 1 of Article 258-3 of Ukraine’s Criminal Code “Creating a terrorist group or a terrorist organization, leading such a group or participating in it.” If his guilt is proven, he is facing from eight to fifteen years of imprisonment.

Operation behind enemy lines?

If the details told by BBC sources are true, it means that the SBU conducted an operation far behind the front line between government-controlled and “DNR”-controlled territory. The city of Snizhne lies just 18 kilometers away from the Russian border, the distance to the closest point of the front – the Svitlodarsk bulge – is about 50 kilometers. The nearest official entry-exit checkpoint, Mayorsk in Horlivka, is situated more than 70 kilometers away from Snizhne.

Donetsk pro-Russian blogger Roman Manekin stated citing Tsemakh’s former colleague that the detainee was relocated in his own car via the checkpoint Maryinka in Donetsk, situated some 100 kilometers away from Snizhne. Manekin’s source blamed rather the Ukrainian military Special Operations Forces (SSO) than SBU. According to him, two “blonde men” hit Tsemakh on his head with a bottle and transferred him across the checkpoint “on a wheelchair as a paralyzed father” using forged IDs.

BBC Russia’s anonymous source close to “DNR military leadership” stated too that it was the SSO who detained Tsemakh.

Ukrainian special services, both the SSO and SBU, didn’t comment on Tsemakh’s appearing in free Ukraine and don’t give any details on their participation in the transfer operation that could have taken place.

MH17 case witness?

According to the international investigators of the Joint Investigation Team (JIT), the BUK missile that downed the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was fired from a field near Snizhne.

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Mariia Tsemakh believes, “They will now try to pin the Boeing on him.”  She argues that her father became an “air defense commander” in Snizhne only in October 2014 “simply because he was the only specialist of this kind,” three months after MH17 was brought down earlier in July 2014.

“When the Boeing was downed, he wasn’t a key figure, he was an ordinary serviceman simply securing a checkpoint. He came out to fight as all supporters of the peaceful living in our land,” Tsemakh’s daughter told BBC Ukraine.

Nevertheless, the DNR is recognized by the Prosecutor General’s Office as a terrorist organization whose members are treated by Ukrainian courts as terrorists, and the mentioned “fighting for a peaceful life” is legally participation in such an organization. And if the court’s ruling on Tsemakh’s arrest shared by BBC Ukraine is genuine, then the “DNR” commander is now charged with participation in a terrorist organization (Article 258-3 Part 1 of the Criminal Code), not with conducting a terror attack or abetting it (Articles 258 or 258-4).

According to Myrotvorets, the online database which collects personal data of the persons allegedly involved in anti-Ukrainian activities, Tsemakh took an active part in military actions in summer-fall 2014, led the Zu-23 detachment formed in Snizhne.”

The Zu-23-2 is a Soviet-times anti-aircraft gun, which is actively used in the military actions in the Donbas by both Ukrainian troops and Russian-led armed groups. In recent years, they are mostly used to hit unmanned aerial vehicles, though back in 2014 Ukraine didn’t use UAVs and Zu-23’s were used against Ukrainian fighter jets which operated in the frontlines until July 2014.

The photographs Tsemakh shared on his profile in the Russian social media ok.ru on 24 August 2014 feature two Zu-23, both mounted on military trucks Ural-4320. If Mariia’s account that he was only local air defense specialist in Snizhne is true, then it doesn’t matter whether he became an air defense commander later that fall since he should be in charge with the two anti-aircraft guns he had shown on social media.

Tsemakh mentioned on his ok.ru profile that he was a graduate of the higher anti-aircraft missile command school in Poltava, then he served in military unit 98933 which was stationed in Faizabad, Afghanistan. The old photographs from the 1980th suggest that he was trained to operate the anti-aircraft systems 9K35 Strela-10 and ZSU-23-4 Shilka – much more sophisticated equipment than the very basic anti-aircraft gun Zu-23-2 shown in his August 2014 photographs from Snizhne.

BBC Ukraine reports that the data in Tsemakh’s “DNR military ID” shows that the so-called “DNR defense ministry” promoted him to colonel on 23 October 2014 and at that moment he was already holding the position of the “chief of an air-defense brigade.” Another record in the same document shows that he was dismissed in March 2015 and sent to register with the “Donetsk military commissariat.” In 2017, pensioned off to the reserve due to age (he was 56).

Mariia Tsemakh told BBC Ukraine, that she discussed the MH17 crash with her father, “He told that it was strange how it had happened. Discussed its angle of fall, how much it managed to fly. The guys said that the situation was very complicated.”

Anyway, as a man in charge of local air defense of Snizhne in 2014, Tsemakh should at least know that a Russian anti-aircraft missile launcher with a Russian active-duty crew was deployed in his area of responsibility. And this makes him a potential witness in the MH17 case.

Not first DNR leader in Ukrainian custody

Volodymyr Tsemakh is not the first “DNR” leader who emerged in free Ukraine either behind bars or under the SBU witness program “You are expected at home.”

In mid-June, the Security Service of Ukraine detained Roman Lyagin, the former head of the so-called DNR Central Electoral Commission, one of the masterminds behind the 2014 separatist Donetsk referendum. Lyagin lived in occupied Crimea for a few years but suddenly crossed the peninsula’s administrative border into Ukraine where was arrested. According to Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yurii Lutsenko, Lyagin was accused of high treason.

Read also: Donetsk separatist referendum organizer: “Return to Ukraine is inevitable, Donbas is Ukraine”

This March reports emerged that a “DNR” tank regiment’s commanding officer, Svitlana Driuk, defected to Ukraine. In occupied Donetsk, she was a local TV propaganda celebrity presented as a local civilian who rose to the defense of her Donbas motherland from “Ukraine’s invasion” and became a successful female warrior.

In August and September 2018, the SBU informed that two former “DNR ministers” surrendered to Ukrainian law enforcers. The two emerged to be Yuri Lekstutes and Aliya Kamara who respectively held posts of the “DNR minister of agroindustry and food” and “DNR minister of culture and tourism” back in 2014.

In July 2017, the Border Guard Service detained Colonel of the Russian Airborne troops Valery Gratov while he tried to cross the state border heading to the Russia-controlled Transnistrian region of Moldova. Gratov participated in the Donbas war opposing Ukrainian government forces from 2014 until his arrest in Ukraine.


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