Intercepted phone calls show MH17 suspects’ connections to Russian military and Kremlin

David Nelson of Australia Federal Police (L) and Andy Kraag of the Dutch Police (R) announce the JIT's witness appeal. Screenshot: Youtube 

Russian Aggression, War in the Donbas

Today, November 14, the Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT) investigating the 2014 downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine’s east has released a further batch of the intercepted phone conversations. According to the international prosecutors, the wiretapped calls include conversations between high-ranking Russian military officials, Russian president’s aide Vladislav Surkov, and leaders of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) – Russia’s occupation force in Ukraine’s Donetsk Oblast.

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur five years ago on 17 July 2014 over the Russia-occupied area of Ukraine’s far-eastern oblast of Donetsk, killing all 298 passengers and crew members on board. As the JIT found earlier, the passenger airliner was shot out of the sky using a Buk-M2 surface-to-air missile (SAM), launched from a self-propelled BUK transporter erector launcher and radar (TELAR) deployed in an agricultural field near the town of Snizhne. The team traced the entire route of the BUK TELAR from a Russian military unit near the city of Kursk to Ukraine’s Donbas region, and the route of its subsequent evacuation back to Russia via Luhansk Oblast after the MH17 crash.

The newly-released intercepts dating back to March-August 2014 are published in JIT’s new witness appeal. The investigators are seeking new witnesses who are able to testify about the military and administrative hierarchy who enabled the shooting down of MH17 and about the role that Russian officials might have had. Each group of the published conversations is concluded by the questions the JIT poses to the potential witnesses.

June charges

girkin

Igor Girkin in 2014

Earlier this year, on 19 June, the JIT charged four persons – Russian nationals Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov, and Ukrainian citizen Leonid Kharchenko – with downing Flight MH17. The court trial will begin on 9 March 2020 and the defendants will be tried in the Netherlands under Dutch law whether they will be present in court or not.

As the Joint Investigation Team stated, “Together [the four suspects] formed a chain linking the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic with the Russian Federation.”

The intercepted phone calls released by the JIT in June showed that “DNR” leaders maintained contact with Russian government officials, in particular, with Russian-appointed leader for occupied Crimea Sergey Aksyonov and Putin’s aide Vladislav Surkov on the issue of Russian military support.

Key findings

The reason for today’s appeal for witnesses is a “recent analysis of witness statements and other information revealed that Russian influence on the DPR went beyond military support and that the ties between Russian officials and DPR-leaders appear closer” [“DPR” is an anglicized acronym for “DNR”] and that “The intensity of Russian influence is relevant to investigating further individuals involved in the downing of MH17,” according to the international investigators of the JIT.

Russia’s military and security control of “DNR”

First row right to left: Kremlin’s aide Vladislav Surkov who controls fake Donbas states, DNR leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko, DNR ex-PM Aleksandr Borodai at the opening of the monument “to the heroes of the Donbas.” 16 October 2017, Rostov-on-Don, Russia. Photograph: Twitter

The intercepted conversations suggest further evidence of Russia’s control over the occupied part of Donetsk Oblast.

Russian citizens Alexandr Borodai and defendant Igor Girkin, “DNR prime minister” and “defense minister” at the moment of downing MH17, publicly stated that they volunteered against Ukraine as private citizens and denied any involvement of Russian officials in the Russia-orchestrated rebellion.

The JIT, however, says that several witnesses who were “DNR” members in summer 2014 stated that “key figures of the [“DNR”] armed group were directed from within the Russian Federation.” Moreover, in one of the intercepted calls dated 3 July 2014, allegedly Borodai himself makes it clear that he executes orders coming from Russia,

“I’m carrying out orders and protecting the interests of one and only state, the Russian Federation. That’s the bottom line,” he says.

In another call, dated 1 July 2014, a DNR-member tells a local commander that “men are coming with a mandate from Shoygu” to “kick the local warlords out of the units,” and “people from Moscow” are going to take over the command. Sergey Shoygu is the defense minister of Russia and the information is aligned with subsequent assassinations, expulsions, or just suspending from command of most pro-Russian warlords in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts.

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In the 18 July conversation, two “DNR” members admit that they both receive orders from Moscow, but one of them from the FSB security agency, and the other from the GRU military intelligence agency.

The JIT says that several former “DNR” members gave their testimonies about Russia’s military influence. For example, a “senior member” said that local warlords “discussed military matters with representatives of the Russian intelligence services in Moscow.”

Numerous calls intercepted in July 2014 when “DNR” was engaged in heavy fighting with Ukrainian forces shows the involvement of a not yet known person mentioned and addressed as “Vladimir Ivanovich” in overseeing military activities in the Donbas. In one of the conversations, he is referred to as a “higher-ranking boss” “who flew over from Moscow.” In the conversation dated 31 July 2014, “DNR defense minister” Girkin says that “Vladimir Ivanovich” gives orders to him, however, he himself commands his people.

One of the conversations shows the role of the commander of Russia’s Southern Military District, General Serdyukov in delivering the military equipment for a mission, which was coordinated, as other conversations show, by Aksyonov with FSB director Bortnikov.

Surkov’s control of the occupation administration

In an August 2014 interview, “DNR defense minister” Girkin apparently admits that on Surkov’s direction he was ordered to transfer command to another warlord, Alexandr Zakharchenko,

“I was ordered to transfer command to Zakharchenko. […Q: And why do you think that he was chosen?] Well, I don’t know, he and Borodai went to meet with Surkov. And apparently he was chosen, that is for the formal head of command. And why and how this happened… Surkov’s choices are always shit,” told Girkin.

Vladislav Surkov is Putin’s aide who oversees the political and economic issues of the Russia-occupied areas in Georgia and Ukraine.

In the intercepted call of 3 July 2014, Surkov encourages “DNR PM” to appoint Vladimir Antyufeyev he sends in place of Alexander Khodakovsky as “head of the GB [‘gosbezopasnost’ – ‘state security’].” A week later at his press conference with Girkin and Borodai in Donetsk, Antyufeyev tells that he arrived from Russia to take the “state security, home affairs, and justice of the DNR” under his responsibility.

One of Surkov’s leaked emails had an attached list of candidates for the “DNR government.” Not all candidates from the list got their appointments and a wiretapped conversation between Borodai’s assistant and current “DNR head” Denis Pushilin shows that “government” appointments required Moscow’s approval.

The record is dated 15 May 2014 – the day when Pushilin became head of “DNR’s” fake parliament. Borodai’s aide tells Pushilin that “Moscow approved the closed list” but one of DNR leaders, Andrei Purgin, proposed for the “DNR security council,” was excluded from the list.

Russian funding

The JIT reports,

“Various sources, including witness statements, indicate that the self-proclaimed DPR government was financed by Russian beneficiaries. According to a high ranking DPR-member, nearly the entire DPR budget was paid by Russian funds.”

In a phone conversation recorded on 12 July 2014, “DNR PM” Borodai discusses money issues and mentions that he’s running out of money spending his funds to warlords and that someone named “Kolya” had promised him “180,000,” however, the money was still in Moscow requiring confirmation for payment.

The Joint Investigation Team concludes that the new evidence indicates that “the influence of the Russian Federation extended to administrative, financial and military matters” in the DNR. The mutual contacts intensified in the first half of July 2014 up to almost daily phone conversations between “DNR” leaders and their Russian handlers. Meanwhile, “Communication mostly took place via secure telephones provided by the Russian security service,” according to the JIT.

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