The recently released 2014 phone conversations between the Russia-backed leaders of occupied Donbas and high-profile Russian officials show further proof of Russia's involvement in the war happening in the east of Ukraine, says a lead researcher at Bellingcat investigative outlet.
The Joint Investigative Team (JIT) released the intercepted calls on November 14. But, according to Aric Toler, Bellingcat's Eastern Europe and Eurasia lead researcher, these are just the tip of an iceberg that the team is building in the form of a case proving Russia's role in the MH17 downing in July 2014.
These conversations recently released by the JIT are pretty explosive and they quite clearly point finger at Russia’s direct involvement in the war in the Donbas. Can they be used as direct evidence that this is a war between Russia and Ukraine in your opinion?
Of course, there is some very minor elements of the civil war within this, but of course it’s predominantly a conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and so-called separatists who are either controlled by Moscow or heavily financed and supported by them.
But this is stuff we knew already back from 2014. The new calls published by the JIT last week are actually important that they actually hear things that we’ve known since 2014 from the mouth of some high-ranking Kremlin and “DPR”/”LPR” officials. You have [Alexander] Boroday who used to be “prime minister” of the “DPR”, and [Vladislav] Surkov who of course is the presidential aide in the Kremlin who are saying the things that we’ve known for years, and years, and years - that “DPR” is directly managed, and financed, and controlled by Kremlin actors.
But it also shows that the situation wasn’t super streamlined and easy to control cause you had competing interests between the FSB, the GRU, the presidential administration, and the Ministry of Defense to some extent within the “LDPR”. So you had the FSB and the GRU working both with and against one another with Donbas being kind of a playing field for their internal conflicts.
You’ve mentioned some of the big profile names like Surkov and Boroday. But some of the people in conversations are like “Vladimir Ivanovich” or “Sasha” - like we don’t really know who they are. And I saw on your Twitter that you said that you already have some sort of ideas about who this guy Vladimir Ivanovich is. Could you tell a bit more about that please?
Well, I’m not gonna say it here because we haven’t confirmed it 100%. But we know that he’s a pretty senior officer in Russian security services. So we know who most all of the people on these calls are. Some of them have been identified by us previously. Or some others are just widely known. Most of them are relatively senior officials or commanders within Russian military or Russian security services.
For example, there is some guy who calls - he’s actually an officer within the Russian military base out of Crimea. I think his name is Sergey or something like that.
This Vladimir Ivanovich guy is definitely the most important person who has not been publicly identified yet because he clearly is a go-between the Russian security services and Ministry of Defence - I think he mentioned Shoigu at some point - and with “LDNR”. So yes, he is the big fish, I guess, that the JIT wants to identify and get a hold of.
But there is also some other people who are a little bit lower on the totem pole, who have been either publicly identified already or it’s pretty easy to think who they are just based at the phone numbers. Because the JIT actually provided the phone numbers everyone and you can reverse search with these phone numbers in some databases and find them pretty quickly. Or based on context by what they are talking about.
When can we expect the further revelations about these people cause you said you’re doing some investigation?
Soon. I don’t know yet. Whenever we finish it. We haven’t published it yet because we haven’t got a complete confirmation yet. Hopefully maybe this week, maybe a little bit later. I’m not sure. But hopefully soon.
And how do you think all these conversations and all these revelations, the information we see is going to affect the upcoming trial that starts in March 2020?
I think that the March 2020 when the criminal trial begins, they’ve already mentioned four suspects - three Russians and one Ukrainian who are relatively low-level, but they are people within the “DNR” and commanders of the “DNR” - Girkin, [Leonid] Kharchenko, [Oleg] Pulatov, and [Sergey] Dubinskiy, but they aren’t senior Russian intelligence or security service members.
But the release of these calls from the JIT shows that maybe later on down the road during the criminal trial they’re not going to only be focusing on the people who are in Donbas at the time of the shootdown like the four people who have already been mentioned, but also they’re going towards the leadership within the Kremlin and also the high brass within the Russian security services and the military.
The fact that they published these calls which don’t have any direct tight to MH17 because in these calls that they published last week no one mentions the Boeing, there is no mention of a Buk or anything like that. There is no direct one-to-one connection between the downing and the conversations, but it does show further context and background information about how the Russian ministry of defense and security services were directly coordinating with and sending military equipment to the Donbas. This would only be done, and the only reason they would publish this information, is they later on wanted to build their case to include Kremlin and Russian security service officials in the criminal case, because there are many provisions in international law where if some weapons were provided without proper instructions and safeguard measures – which obviously didn’t happen with the Buk, considering we’re talking right now – then Russia could also be found liable for negligence of military equipment and the personnel that they provided. Even if MH17 being shot down was an accident, which it was an accident, they didn’t mean to shoot down a passenger plane. Russian officials could still probably be held liable due to their negligence of when they provided this military equipment without proper oversight and instructions.
So you mentioned that one of the reasons they just released these conversations is because they’re planning to build this case – did you mean specifically this MH17 case so they’re going to release more materials specifically regarding the MH17 case itself?
Yes, so the reason they released all this information about Boroday, Surkov, and everyone else is because they’re building a case within the MH17 criminal investigation, within those proceedings, to include top Kremlin officials and Russian military commanders, because if you could show – which they’re doing very clearly – if the Dutch investigation can show that the DNR, the L/DNR was supported and led by the Kremlin, then therefore the actions that they took within, by their fighters and within the military equipment that Russia sent over, the Kremlin could be held liable for this. So this isn’t just in the sense of the current case in the European Court of Human Rights between Ukraine and Russia, this is separate from this. You know the evidence that’s being provided by the JIT could, of course, be used in the ongoing case in the European Court of Human Rights, but this specifically, this phone call relates – and also they did some other calls between Surkov, Boroday, and others – a previous call for witness and information by the Dutch. So in 2019 they’ve now had two different releases of phone calls and information between Kremlin officials and Donetsk officials about showing how there’s a direct tie between them and how the actions carried out by Donetsk could also be liable, could be attributed to the Kremlin, which is of course what the legal endgame is for this.
It’s been said, by you as well, you’ve also mentioned that the JIT gave Russia plenty of chances to cooperate, and that’s why previously the phone numbers, some of the names have been hidden – so do you think now that this is all about a message to Russia that it’s time to stop playing around and to own up to their actions?
Yeah, I think so, because if you were to very carefully look at the different JIT public communications starting back when the criminal investigation opened, in 2014-2015, up to now, they’ve had a very very slow escalation. Because they’ve known – of course, they and all of us knew – that the Kremlin was responsible for the downing from Day 1. But they’ve given Russia plenty of chances to recant and at least stay back and at least take some responsibility. If Russia, I mean, looking back what they should’ve done from Day 1 is to say, y’know, the separatists did this, they’re rogue actors, stop supporting them, all that stuff, then Russia could avoid a lot of sanctions and other consequences. But instead of taking a relatively easy way out, which is maybe they don’t say they shot down the Boeing, but they say the separatists did, right, kind of like a compromise situation. They’ve gone the other way completely, they’ve tried to discredit the investigation from the beginning, they’ve tried to hack the investigation. So the Dutch Safety Board, which is the technical investigation of MH17, there were a lot of hacking attempts from the Kremlin onto these investigations. They’ve tried to impede or disrupt the investigation from the start, and because of that – and also their hostile actions towards the investigation from the beginning – the Dutch aren’t waiting for them. They aren’t giving them a chance to come around, to have some sort of compromise solution anymore. Now they’re just publishing all these calls from encrypted communications between Surkov and others, which shows that they’re only releasing it – I’m sure that they’re only releasing a fraction of the information that they have. So in the future, of course, there will probably be more publications from the JIT framed as a call for witnesses but really more trying to show a signal to the Kremlin that they have a lot of compromising materials on they could release that could be embarrassing individually to these people, because Surkov looks like a joke right now after some of these calls were published.
What political repercussions can these revelations have for Russia, especially in the light of some European leaders like Emmanuel Macron calling on lifting sanctions against Russia?
I'm not sure. It's good to talk and speculate about all the different damages that the Dutch investigation could do to Russia, but the reality of the situation is that you can't convince the French and the Germans to do something just based off of – no matter how damning and interesting and impactful these calls are. It doesn't matter if Macron doesn't back it up. So realistically, it may not actually make any difference, it just may make it a little bit more painful for some of the European leaders to have some kind of a welcoming-back Russia to the international community, but it's possible that with the Dutch investigation that goes on that you could just see Russia withdraw from international bodies. They won't pay any damages out. They aren't going to turn over any suspects to the Dutch, they're not going to cooperate with the investigation or recognize its consequences or its verdict anyway. We may just end up seeing Russia withdraw from international bodies just to avoid having to deal with the final verdict from the Dutch investigation.
I would also like to ask about the mentioning of this "Rinat" because that caused quite a reaction in Ukraine. Do you think – you suggested it yourself that Surkov spoke about the Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov – this can be viewed as evidence that Donetsk-born oligarch Akhmetov communicates directly with Moscow and the Kremlin?
Yeah, you can't take it out of the context too much because this is just one snippet of their call. Surkov could have just mentioned offhand that he was meeting with Akhmetov. We don't know for sure how often they were meeting: maybe this was a one-time thing, maybe they meet for coffee every week, so you can’t take it too much out of context. But clearly, back in 2014, there was definitely some communication between Surkov and Akhmetov. I don't know enough about the politics and all the different oligarchs and Ukraine, because I’m sure they’re all dirty in their own ways but Akhmetov is from Donetsk, he already was a little more suspect in having potential ties to Surkov and other Russian bodies. I don't know for sure but that's definitely [worth] following up more to see. If you can corroborate this further information, and going back to 2014 reports if you can find other reports about cooperation or communication. Who knows how much cooperation there has been, but for sure there was communication between Akhmetov and high-level Kremlin officials like Surkov.
Does Bellingcat do its own investigation at the same time as JIT? What can you say about the work that you specifically are doing with regard to the MH17 case?
We're still investigating all these things. Of course, we're digging into all the different specific bits of information that came from the JIT last week. We're still doing research on MH17. The basic facts of the case are long since established and done: we know the murder weapon, the main suspects and everything else. It's just some little details around the edges we’re trying to figure out: the exact hierarchy and chain of commands. So we know pretty much who was with the “Buk” when the shootdown happened: largely findings that have been published by the Dutch investigation. We know who some of the bodies were that were responsible for this: so you have of course the GRU, to a lesser extent you have the FSB, you have the so-called “Ministry of Defense of the Donetsk People’s Republic” – they were the ones who were the most responsible for the downing. But some of the smaller details about exactly what the hierarchy was, who was reporting to whom and who were the real identities of some of these people who were being reported to, who were the colleagues of the people most responsible and things like that. We're still working on those things and we're digging around. We have a pile of names. We have some things established that we just haven’t been published yet because we're just waiting for the right time and context to do so. But those are just relatively minor things that only 1% of people watching and listening could really care about and understand because they're very highly in-the-weeds details about the exact military hierarchy of the Russian intelligence services and what was happening in the summer of 2014 in Donbas, who was the commander of so-and-so in Moscow and who was across the Don at the time, and all those details. But the main stuff is done. It's just some of the minor details that we are still working on establishing, and we're going to keep publishing on this and tell "we've run out of stuff” which may never happen. So we'll keep working on it.
What outcome do you think this can have for Russia with regard to specifically the MH17 case and the trial? How can it all end?
It would be wonderful if it turns out there was a very firm and conclusive determination by the Dutch within a few years and Russia adhere to it and they turn over suspects, but of course, that's never going to happen. Realistically, what is going to happen is Russia will never recognize the verdict, everyone who is tried and who's convicted in the case will never leave Russia again, they'll never be extradited. They'll probably be national heroes because they’re being pointed out by American or Western conspiracy. Realistically, probably nothing will happen. The only thing that'll happen is that people who are convicted will never be able to go on vacation to the south of France or Greece again because they'll never be able to enter countries outside of Russia. But who knows, maybe Putin will have some epiphany, like “a Road to Damascus moment” and turn everyone over but I don’t think anything will realistically happen, but maybe other GRU or FSB operations can be disrupted based on different findings of the JIT. Because all this research into MH17 has led to a bunch of other interesting findings and uncovering of GRU and FSB activities around Europe, and of course in Ukraine especially. Even if the specific people around MH17 never face justice, at least there are other peripheral effects about how we now understand how the GRU and FSB work and how we have information about other cases that they've carried out, even if those people will never be in the Hague unfortunately.
/By Maria Romanenko