The downing of the Malaysian Airline MH17 over Donbas in 2014, which killed all 298 passengers and crew members, was one of the most shocking moments from the early days of the conflict in the occupied eastern territories of Ukraine.
After four years of speculation as to who or what may have been behind the tragedy, answers are starting to emerge.
Last week, Dutch investigators confirmed that the Buk missile used in the attack had come from the Russian military. What’s more, shortly after this revelation, investigative group Bellingcat announced that they had further established a suspect in the case – Russian citizen and military officer Oleg Ivannikov.
Hromadske spoke to Bellingcat’s lead Eastern Europe and Eurasia researcher Aric Toler to dig deeper into the details of the ongoing MH17 investigation.
[Is there] proof that the Minister of Defense, for example, [or] the head of general intelligence office, knew about the Buk [missile]?
Yes, I mean of course they knew. I'm not sure what the highest level of awareness is, I don't know if it goes up to Shoygu or the head of the GRU or higher. But we know that Ivannikov was a very high-ranking officer in the GRU and he was the one in charge, not of everything in the LNR, but he was kind of like a curator in the LNR, and he worked alongside and even above Igor Plotnitsky, who, at the time, was Minister of Defense of the LNR. We know this because we know from separatists and Russian mercenary interviews afterward that he even sent recommendations to Vladislav Surkov – he recommended that Plotnitsky stay as Minister of Defense, which, obviously was a bad decision because he was replaced later on. So yes, I mean obviously the GRU and FSB, and I'm sure "Minoborony" [Ministry of Defense], were all aware of the transfer of the Buk from the 53rd brigade in Kursk to fighters in the DNR, and also possibly, if not likely, soldiers of the 53rd brigade were operating the Buk when it shot down MH17. But that is something for the Dutch investigation to determine, not for us to determine. There's no anti-aircraft, no PVO complex, that we reckon was transferred over to Ukraine. But we know of course that's not true because obviously the Buk was transferred but also the Pantsir was transferred over in Mikerka in January-February 2015, and also earlier in the Donetsk oblast in 2014. And the Pantsir S1 has never been exported to Ukraine, and it's only used in Russia and a handful of other countries like in Syria and so on. So unless someone drove a Pantsir from Syria or Iraq up to Ukraine, there's only one place this Pantsir could have come from because Buk is used, as you know, in the armament of the Ukrainian armed forces, but not the Pantsir. We know when the Minoborony about there being no anti-aircraft complex sent from Russia to Ukraine, we know that's not true just because of the Buk but also the Pantsir. They could very easily prove that they are telling the truth by first letting Oleg Ivannikov give a public interview – also with video so we know it's his face – because he has a very distinct, high-pitched voice where Roman Dobrokhotov said it was a “zhenskyi golos” (woman's voice), it was a very distinct, very high voice. They should just let him speak so we can hear his voice so we can know for sure that he's under Ivanovich – or Ian as he's called by the joint investigation team. Also, I'm sure they keep good records about where their military equipment is. Buk Dealer 332, which is from the 53d Anti-Aircraft Brigade has not been seen since July 18, 2014. If they can show the Dutch investigation where this missile launcher is right now, then that would help this investigation a lot because it can't vanish into thin air. I doubt that it's actually in Kursk now. If you were to ask me right now I'd probably say at the bottom of the Black Sea or Caspian Sea, but they can definitely clear their name if they think they're innocent. If they think they're innocent they should allow Ivannikov to speak to the joint investigation team and also show the current whereabouts of Buk 332 which shot down MH17.
One more question, what more do you need to find out? Because we know about Khmuryi, we know about Delfin, Dolphin, we know who Orion is, but what more do you need to find out?
Those are the three most important people, I would say. Because Dubinsky, who was the one to organize logistics in the DNR, he was the head of intelligence under Girkin/Strelkov, Delfin and Orion, they are the ones who were in Krasnodon and Luhansk who handled the logistics of procuring, getting the Buk across the border from Russia and sending it back across, and also organizing. They are probably the highest level of people we are aware of. There are a handful of people we could still research. There's a guy named Biblioteka, it’s either a person or a group, he was referred to the leader of the group. We don't know who this is still. He's a very interesting, mysterious person. When they intercepted phone calls from the JIT they talked about the Gruppa Biblioteka (Biblioteka Group), who were transporting the Buk. There are a few other handfuls of people, Gruza who was the deputy to – we believe – Dubinsky who was in charge of intelligence under Strelkov/Girkin, but those are things that may or may not be possible to discover for Bellingcat. But for the JIT, the true question I'm most curious about and that I'm sure they already know or are close to asserting, is, who was in the cabin of the Buk? Who was "za rulyom" (at the wheel), who was actually in there to fire the missile. The answer is going to be either some separatist people who were familiar with the Buk, because of course there are Russians and Ukrainians who served in PVO who are familiar with how to handle the Buk. But probably more likely, though not 100% certain, that it was active servicemen from the 53d brigade from Kursk who were operating the system.
/Interview by Nastya Stanko
/Introduction by Sofia Fedeczko