The MH17 Trial Part 2: The Bezler Tapes, a Case of Red Herrings?
When Dutch prosecutors of the court in The Hague read out their case against four suspects charged with complicity in the downing of MH17, they also explained why individuals previously linked to this crime were not (yet) indicted. One of them is former Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) separatist leader Igor Bezler, a Russian citizen with ties to Russia’s military intelligence agency (known as the GRU) who currently lives in Russian-annexed Crimea.
The main pieces of evidence that previously linked Bezler to this crime concern two of his phone calls that were originally intercepted by the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU). One of the recordings was part of a conversation with alleged GRU officer Vasily Geranin in which Bezler announces the downing of an aircraft just twenty minutes after MH17. The SBU had released this recording on the day of the downing along with the accusation that the Bezler Group was directly involved in the downing of MH17.
The other intercepted conversation was released one week later and became known as the “birdie conversation”. In this call, which according to the SBU was recorded just two minutes before the downing of MH17, Bezler is informed by someone with the call sign “Naemnik” (“Mercenary”) that a “birdie” – i.e. an aircraft – flew towards him. Both calls have been the subject of much speculation in the media, and were also the subject of analysis in previous Bellingcat reports.
In this article we will reanalyse the birdie conversation against the backdrop of new information provided by the prosecution. In addition, we also go over a full version of the Geranin–Bezler call and a testimony that Bezler gave to the JIT, both of which have never been published in full. Based on the new details released during the trial, we conclude that the evidence against Bezler is inconclusive, but that it also cannot be excluded that he was involved in the operation that led to the downing of MH17. At the same time, we also provide evidence from open sources that show Bezler has repeatedly lied about these recordings and that there is no reason to believe that they were falsified or post-dated by the SBU, as he and pro-Kremlin outlets have repeatedly alleged.
The birdie conversation and the spotting of MH17
The Birdie conversation was uploaded to YouTube on 25 July 2014. Our most recent translation of this conversation is as follows:
Bezler: Yes, Naemnik
Naemnik: […spotted] a birdie fly towards you.
Bezler: A birdie flying towards us?
Naemnik: Yes… [just] one, for now…
Bezler: A reconnaissance [aircraft] or a big one?
Naemnik: Not visible behind the clouds… too high…
Bezler: I see… roger… report upwards.
Back in 2019, we had published the first analysis of the birdie conversation in our report A Birdie is Flying Towards You, in which we explained (on page 9) that “Unless MH17 was somehow spotted and misidentified a second time by another unit, it was Stelmakh’s message that must have eventually reached the Buk crew one way or the other”. Our main findings were as follows:
- The person with the call sign “Naemnik” was identified by us as Valeriy Stelmakh; a Ukrainian citizen who was at the time the DNR’s militia commandant of the town of Dzerzhynsk (Toretsk) and a subordinate to Bezler.
- In the call, Stelmakh tells Bezler he does not know what type of aircraft it is because it is flying beyond the clouds, suggesting that it concerned an aircraft flying at a high-altitude.
- Several minutes before the downing, MH17 flew over Dzerzhynsk and then the city of Horlivka at a cruising altitude in the direction of Snizhne. Therefore, Stelmakh could have indeed reported to Bezler about the spotting of MH17 – his unit was stationed in Dzerzhynsk, and the Boeing 777 flew over Dzerzhynsk in the direction of Horlivka where Bezler had his headquarters.
- Bezler instructs Stelmakh to report this message “upwards”, which could have meant that he was to pass on the message to someone higher in the chain of command. We speculated that this could have been 1) officers of the DNR’s intelligence agency (the “GRU DNR”) who organized the Buk transport that day (three of its members are currently prosecuted by the Dutch court); 2) the Minister of Defense of the DNR, Igor Strelkov (currently also prosecuted by the Dutch court); or 3) a member of a Russian security services (who helped organize the dispatchment of the Buk across the border into Ukraine and back).
At the same time, we also explained that there was a problem regarding this hypothesis: the SBU had reported that the phone call was made two minutes before the downing of MH17, and by then the plane had already flown past Horlivka and was about to fly over Yenakieve, meaning that the plane that Naemnik reports about was no longer flying “towards” Bezler in Horlivka. We considered the following two possible explanations for this (Birdie page 7):
It is still possible, however, that Naemnik made an error when estimating where the plane was flying at the time of the call to Bezler, or that the SBU time stamp of the recording was simply off by one or two minutes, with the phone call actually taking place three or four minutes before the downing when the aircraft was still flying in-between Dzerzhynsk and Horlivka.
On 9 March 2020, the opening day of the MH17 trial, the Dutch prosecutors first explained why Bezler was not indicted for involvement in the downing of MH17: JIT investigators were unable to establish that the birdie conversation “truly contributed to the downing of MH17”, and that it is actually questionable whether the birdie conversation could have contributed to the shoot-down because it took place so shortly before the launch of the Buk missile. This led them to state that they “did not, and as things currently stand in the investigation still do not, consider that there is a provable criminal case against Bezler in relation to flight MH17”.
On 9 June, the Dutch Public Prosecution Service further elaborated on this by releasing a new video of the birdie conversation with further information about the recording. Some of our findings were confirmed: the person with the call sign “Naemnik” is indeed named Stelmakh, and telecom data indicates that Stelmakh and Bezler were indeed stationed in/near respectively Dzerzhynsk and Horlivka at the time of the call. However, they also released a more precise time of the call – namely from 4:18:07pm to 4:18:44pm Kyiv time – and explained that this timestamp casts doubt on whether the spotted aircraft could have actually concerned MH17 considering that the plane had already flown past Dzerzhynsk two minutes prior to the the call.
The prosecution further stated that an inquiry into the phone lines of both Bezler and Stelmakh “did not yield any information about any previous call to Stelmakh before this conversation”, and as such there is no information about who the original spotter was. From telecom data they could also not derive that the spotting of the birdie was “passed on to anyone else after this conversation”.
While this in itself does not exclude the possibility that such messages were sent via a different communication channel, there is currently no evidence that supports this theory.
If the spotted plane did not concern MH17, the question remains: what aircraft was Stelmakh talking about instead? All the available radar data, including the ones provided by the Russian Federation, have indicated that the closest aircraft to MH17 was Singapore Airlines Flight 351 (SIN351). The prosecution stated that just before Stelmakh made his call to Bezler, SIN351 was flying 25km north of Stelmakh’s mast site at Dzerzhynsk while MH17 was by then further away at a distance of 30km. This means the investigators are considering the possibility that Stelmakh’s unit actually mistook this other passenger plane for a Ukrainian military aircraft.
Historic flight data indeed shows that two minutes before the downing of MH17, SIN351 was flying over Artemivsk (Bakhmut) in a southeastern direction. Unlike MH17, SIN351 did not fly directly towards the cities controlled by the Bezler Group (Dzerzhynsk, Horlivka, Yenakieve), but in theory it is possible that Stelmakh’s unit may have expected that it would. Although Stelmakh is heard telling Bezler that he is unable to identify the type of plane because it is flying “behind the clouds”, him or his spotters could have briefly seen part of the aircraft from afar without being able to properly distinguish it from a civilian airliner due to cloudiness.
A spotting of SIN351 rather than MH17 could, in theory, still have contributed to the downing of MH17. As the JIT graphic shows, Both passenger airliners flew within the range of the Buk radar when the missile was launched. On the missile launcher’s fire dome radar, both planes would have shown up as small dots flying towards the Buk operators at the Snizhne front before they locked on to MH17. Since intercepted conversations indicated that the Buk crew mistook MH17 for a Ukrainian military plane, it is possible that they also mistook SIN351 for an enemy aircraft. The Buk operators could have turned on their radar in response to the spotting of SIN351 rather than MH17 before deciding to shoot down the latter, which was the closer of the two.
This scenario could also explain why DNR leader Igor Girkin (Strelkov) later informed the Russian authorities that he first learned about the downing of MH17 when he was informed by one of his subordinates that “the air defence had hit one of the two Su-25 aircraft of the Ukrainian air force” – possibly MH17 and SIN351.
Still, based on our own calculation, the possibility that the “birdie” concerned MH17 also remains a possibility when we consider our previous argument that Stelmakh may have “made an error when estimating where the plane was flying at the time of the call to Bezler”. Since Stelmakh reported a plane that could not be identified because it was not visible behind the clouds, it is possible that the spotting was mostly or exclusively based on hearing the plane rather than seeing it as it flew overhead, or that there was a long gap of time between the spotting and the call to Bezler. This can be the case if we consider the following two factors as plausible scenarios:
- An acoustic identification would have had a latency due to the speed of sound. MH17 flew at an altitude of 33,000 feet, and a spotter standing in the vicinity of Dzerzhynsk could have heard the airliner as it flew overhead in the direction of Horlivka with a latency of about 30 seconds. When we also take into account MH17’s flight path and ground speed (914 kilometers per hour), we can estimate that a spotter standing in or near Dzerzhynsk could have heard MH17 fly over between 4:16:30 and 4:17:00. It may have taken more than a minute for a spotter to report to commandant Stelmakh and/or for Stelmakh to reach for his mobile phone and call his commander Bezler at 4:18:07.
- Stelmakh probably believed that the spotted plane was not flying as fast as a cruising airliner, and as such wrongfully assumed that MH17 had not reached Horlivka yet when he made the call to Bezler at 4:18:07, prompting him to still warn Bezler about an unidentifiable incoming “birdie”. To this it should be added that Stelmakh actually told Bezler that the plane had been observed flying in his direction at the time of the spotting, and not that they were certain that the plane was still flying in his direction.
Whether the birdie conversation concerned MH17 or not, the more precise timestamp of the recording does raise questions on the theory that Bezler and Stelmakh could have directly contributed to the downing of MH17 by passing this message onwards to people connected to the Buk after the conversation.
The intercepted conversation reportedly ended at 4:18:44, and in the prosecution statement it is mentioned that the Buk missile was likely launched at 4:19:31 – exactly 32 seconds before it struck MH17. After the call ended, there would only be 47 seconds left in which the Buk operators could have received a message from one of the two men before they launched the missile.
The prosecution explained that the greatest doubt arises from the fact that a Buk missile launcher requires at least 2 minutes and 30 seconds to switch from readiness phase 2 to readiness phase 1. This means that the birdie conversation could have only contributed to the downing of MH17 if the missile launcher was already in phase 1 by the time they received a message about an incoming flight from the Bezler Group. In phase 1, the Buk’s on-board radar is activated, allowing the crew to select and lock in on an aerial target, but it also exposes the missile launcher to enemy radar with the risk that a Ukrainian aircraft could destroy it.
It is indeed debatable if the operators would have brought the Buk into such a vulnerable and easily detectable phase 1 already before they had received intel on any approaching aircraft. This scenario is still possible, however, if we take into account that the Buk crew operated without a Snow Drift target acquisition Radar vehicle nearby, and therefore could have decided to switch the Buk into readiness phase 1 in order to use the Buk’s on-board radar to monitor any potential incoming enemy aircraft, despite the risks attached. One reason why the Buk operators could have done this is because, if they only relied on aircraft spotters, they would have been extra vulnerable to enemy aircraft approaching them from southwest of the Snizhne front – territory that was under the control of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
Another scenario in which the “birdie” could still have been about MH17 is that the spotter(s) of the aircraft had already communicated to others in the DNR about the incoming aircraft before Stelmakh informed Bezler about it. This would mean that a warning about an incoming aircraft had reached the people with the Buk at Snizhne already before the birdie conversation had ended. At the same time, this would still mean that the birdie conversation itself did not contribute to the downing of MH17.
Bezler has also commented about the birdie conversation in his answers to the JIT. Apart from alleging that the SBU has manipulated the time and date of both the Birdie and Geranin conversations, he has also claimed that his words “report upwards” (or “to the top”) did not refer to a unit higher up in the chain of command, but to his air defense units who were literally on higher ground:
Yes, I remember the conversation. “To the top” – this [meant] to the crews of ZU-23-2 (one unit was on the roof of the UVD), [as well as] observers with Igla MANPADS on the roofs of buildings and on the tops of the spoil tips of the “Kochegarka” and “6/7” mines.
The UVD was one of Bezler’s headquarters in Horlivka, and the “Kochegarka” and “6/7” spoil tips are also in Horlivka. When we consider that Stelmakh was the commandant of Dzerzhynsk, and that he was located in this town at the time of the call, it seems illogical that he would have understood “report upwards” as an instruction to relay the message to anti-aircraft units on rooftops and spoil tips in neighbouring Horlivka. However, it cannot be excluded that Bezler actually gave this order to one of his men who was standing next to him in Horlivka during the call, thereby creating the false impression on the recording that he gave the instruction directly to Stelmakh shortly before their line disconnected (having heard the original recording, we can confirm that the conversation ended right after this instruction).
Whereas in our 2019 report we considered the possibility that the birdie conversation was recorded more than two minutes before the downing of MH17, this turned out not to be the case. While it is still possible that Bezler and/or Stelmakh played a role in the operation that led to the downing of MH17, we now realize that the recording on its own appears to be inconclusive as evidence of direct involvement in this crime as too many questions surrounding it remain unanswered. For the Dutch prosecution a very high burden of proof is necessary to indict a foreigner over a crime that took place outside the Netherlands. It is therefore understandable that without any additional evidence Bezler or Stelmakh have not been indicted over this recording by the court in The Hague.
The Bezler–Geranin conversation revisited
So far, the prosecution has not explained why Igor Bezler was not indicted over the other intercepted conversation in which he appears to link his subordinates to the downing of an aircraft that later turned out to be MH17. This is despite the fact that it was one of the first recordings released by the SBU to the public (fewer than six hours after the crash) along with an explicit accusation in the video that the Bezler Group had shot down the aircraft using a “Russian anti-aircraft missile system”.
The call in question was between Bezler and a man identified by the SBU as his GRU curator in Russia named Vasily Geranin who is shown to be calling with a Russian phone number rather than a Ukrainian number. Ukraine has always accused Bezler of being a GRU agent, and one year ago we revealed evidence that Bezler very likely traveled to Crimea in October 2014 using a fake passport under the name “Igor Nikolaevich Beregovoy” that had the same hallmarks as other GRU-issued passports.
According to the SBU’s timestamp, the conversation took place twenty minutes after the MH17 downing. In the clip the following conversation is heard:
Bezler: Erm, just shot down a plane. The “Minyor” unit. It fell beyond Yenakieve. Now went…
Geranin: The pilots? Where are the pilots?
Bezler: …went to search for and photograph the downed plane. Emitting smoke…
Geranin: How many minutes ago?
Bezler: Well, about 30 minutes ago.
Although Bezler does not explicitly claim responsibility for the downing of the aircraft in this call, it does sound as if he’s telling Geranin that the “Minyor unit” – commanded by him – was responsible for it.
In the first chapter of our Birdie report, we also analysed the Geranin conversation. We noted that the public file only contains a fragment of a longer conversation because no greetings between the two men are audible. Still, we were able to reach the following conclusions about this fragment:
- Bezler was indeed most likely talking about MH17 in this call. He mentioned that the downed aircraft fell behind/beyond [за] Yenakieve, and from his stronghold of Horlivka both the crash site and the point where the Buk missile struck MH17 were indeed beyond the outskirts of Yenakieve. Bezler is also heard saying that the crashed plane is still emitting smoke and that his men went out to find and photograph the wreckage. Although MH17 crashed quite far from Yenakieve, a Boeing 777 crash makes a lot more noise and leaves a much larger smoke plume than a crashed fighter jet, so that for many the shootdown initially appeared closer than it actually was (also evidenced by live social media posts from the vicinity of Yenakieve).
- It remains unknown why Bezler mentioned the “Minyor unit” in relation to the downing of the aircraft. We described in detail that this was a unit led by Bezler’s subordinate Igor Ukrainets, a Ukrainian citizen who went by the rather unique call sign “Minyor”, that was at the time headquartered in Yenakieve. However, we concluded that it seemed highly unlikely that this poorly armed infantry unit had members that could control a sophisticated Buk anti-aircraft system. We could also not definitely link this unit to the downing of MH17 in any other way.
On 28 September 2016, Bezler posted an angry rant about the results of the JIT investigation on his VK page. In this post he also alleged the SBU had falsified the time and date of the Geranin conversation, claiming instead that the intercepted conversation was actually about a Sukhoi jet downed near Yenakieve almost 24 hours before the MH17 crash.
Ukraine had indeed lost an Su-25 aircraft in the evening of 16 July 2014, but in our report we explained in detail (pages 19-27) that this was an unrelated incident that happened near the border with Russia, much further away from Yenakieve than the MH17 crash site. The fact that Bezler seemingly made a false statement about this recording made his further statements of non-involvement less trustworthy.
On the first day of the MH17 trial (9 March 2020), Bezler joyfully responded to the news that he was not being indicted with a public post on VK and Facebook in which he revealed that he had given “oral and written evidence to the Dutch investigators regarding all the questions they had asked me”. He repeated his claim from 2016 that the date of both calls were falsified by the SBU, but now suddenly stated that the talk concerned the downing of an aircraft that had attacked the Horlivka UVD – the police department captured by Bezler that served as one of his two headquarters in Horlivka. In his posts he also stated that the JIT believed him and that this is why he has not been indicted by the Dutch court.
In reality, there is nothing that suggests the JIT believed him. At the start of the trial, the prosecution also noted how Bezler had alleged that the SBU had falsified the date of the Geranin conversation. They stated that by examining “telecom data and information from the content of the conversation” the investigation team was unable to confirm that the conversation “could indeed have taken place on a different date”.
Recently we obtained copies of emails that Bezler had sent on 24 July 2020 to high-ranking GRU official Andrey Ilchenko and CC’d to a lawyer from the law firm Ivanyan & Partners. The emails contained previous mail correspondence between him and the JIT, which includes several audio files of intercepted conversations featuring Bezler as well as a list of answers that Bezler had sent them in October 2019.
In his statement to the JIT, Bezler contradicts his earlier claim that the recordings were from 16 July 2014 by alleging that they were from an even earlier date. After the JIT sent him the full versions of the Birdie and Geranin conversations, Bezler gave them the following answers:
I remember these two conversations. But the SBU falsified their dates. The air raid on the Horlivka UVD was on 14.07.2014. Conversations took place: The first one on 14 July 2014, at about 4:30 in the morning. The second – 14.07.2014 at about 6.00 in the morning. What the SBU posted is a fake. I am sending you a video with the date and time of the raid. (…)
The plane that attacked the Horlivka UVD was shot down on 14.07.2014. It fell behind Yenakieve. Watch the attached video 00.02.28 the moment the plane was shot down. It was shot down by a ZU-23-2 system. (…)
After shooting down the Ukrainian attack aircraft that attacked the UVD, I gave the order to look for ejected pilots. (…)
I shared my joy with my friend. I did not report to anyone. I was not subject to DNR leadership. They were nothing more than allies. Moreover, on July 1, the anti-terrorist operation was announced against me. (…)
As I said already, the ejected pilots were blown by the wind to the Ukrainian side. Request a flight map from the Ukrainian Armed Forces. One plane was shot down, the second returned to the airfield in Chuhuiv. (…)
In an undated audio file containing part of Bezler’s oral testimony, which recently appeared online, Bezler gives further details about the strike on the Horlivka UVD:
On that day, we were attacked by a Ukrainian SU-25. And this one was shot down at an altitude of 800m above Horlivka and fell behind Yenakieve. The pilots ejected, and my people went to look for them. The pilots dropped on the Ukrainian side, but we later showed the pilot chutes, it’s all on the internet.
Although Bezler mentions 14 July 2014 as the date of the two calls, the video compilation that he provided to the JIT is from 14 June 2014, evidenced by the upload date and the timestamp in the dashcam footage. Existing reports and videos confirm that the Horlivka UVD was indeed struck by Ukrainian jets at 4:30 in the morning on 14 June, resulting in at least seven casualties among the separatists and extensive damage to the building. Therefore, also taking into account that there are no claims from his militia that they downed a plane on 14 July 2014, it appears that Bezler confused these dates and actually meant to claim to the JIT that the Birdie and Geranin conversations were from 14 June 2014.
On the day of the raid, Russian state-controlled media indeed reported that one of two planes that had attacked the Horlivka UVD was shot down. At noon, Russian state-owned news-agency RIA Novosti quoted Horlivka-based separatist as saying that they “managed to hit one of the planes with return fire, its fate is unknown”. Two hours later, the same website quoted the separatists as saying that the crash site of the plane – reportedly an Su-24 jet – was found and the pilot was being interrogated. A shootdown was also reported by pro-Kremlin outlet Life.ru, though they claimed it concerned an Su-25 jet. Later that day, Russia Today (RT) quoted an eyewitness as saying that “The plane fell outside the village of Kayutove, the pilot was found, and is now being taken to the central UVD department”. The village Kayutove lies on the outskirts of Horlivka about seven kilometers north of Yenakieve, which probably explains why Bezler decided to argue that the Birdie and Geranin conversation concerned this incident.
The origin of Russia Today’s claim is unknown, but in the morning of 14 June 2014, a user on the pro-separatist local VK community “Horlivka Self-Defense” had already claimed that they were looking in the vicinity of Kayutovo for a downed plane. However, an actual crash was subsequently disputed by several other local members of this community. Furthermore, on 15 June 2014, the Ukrainian Armed Forces (which generally admitted to all of their aircraft losses) issued an explicit denial that they lost an aircraft to the Bezler Group. Such an incident can also not be found on Lost Armour, a website that tracks aircraft and armour losses based on photo and video evidence.
Despite repeated claims throughout 2014, there is actually no evidence that the Bezler Group had ever successfully shot down a plane, or that any other plane crashed closer to Yenakieve than the MH17 crash site before 17 July 2014. Furthermore, in an interview from 16 July 2014 with RIA Novosti, Bezler was asked to elaborated on the unconfirmed shootdowns and gave the following answer:
Q: How many planes did you shoot down? Reports keep coming from Horlivka, but not all have been confirmed.
A: Four. We cannot find all the downed ones, because they fall on the Ukrainian side. But we posted photos of pilot chutes. We found six of them.
Here, Bezler himself claims that the aircraft shot at by his air defense units generally crashed outside separatist-held territory. Moreover, the statement about finding six pilot chutes casts further doubt that any of the claimed shootdowns resulted in a plane crashing in the vicinity of Yenakieve – a city in the middle of the DNR that remained fully under control of the Bezler Group before 17 July 2014. A message that the Bezler Group had found six pilot chutes had already appeared on VK on 18 June 2014, but with the explicit mention that they were found in the vicinity of Karlivka – a village on the frontline west of Donetsk (where Bezler’s units were also stationed), far removed from Horlivka and Yenakieve.
On 10 August 2020, Ukrainian vlogger/journalist and opposition figure Anatoly Shariy (or Sharij), known for his pro-Kremlin views, played fragments of a longer version of the Geranin conversation in his video blog. Shariy took Bezler at his word that the call was from another date, and also alleged that the SBU had falsified their evidence by deliberately leaving out crucial parts of the full conversation. He claims that the files were sent to him by someone anonymous, but speculated that it was sent to him by the SBU. However, it is perhaps telling that this video blog came online just 17 days after Bezler had emailed parts of this exact dossier to GRU officer Ilchenko.
We noticed that Shariy did not play the full recording either. Although Bezler had received and forwarded the full version of the recording, Shariy’s version misses important fragments that contain important clues which indicate the recording has not at all been manipulated.
The full version of the recordings reveal that only a small part of the conversation, namely the beginning, is actually about the downing of the aircraft, with the only new public information being that Bezler claimed a Sukhoi jet (“Sushka”) was shot down:
Bezler: Yes, Vasily Nikolaevich
Geranin: Erm, Igor, tell me, have you already figured out the deal with tha… KIA?
Bezler: Yeah, he’s already being carried off to Crimea, it’s ok
Geranin: Ah, and I had all hands on deck here.
Bezler: Erm, just shot down a plane. The “Minyor” unit. It fell beyond Yenakieve. Now went…
Geranin: Pilots? Where are the pilots?
Bezler: …went to search for and photograph the downed plane. Emitting smoke…
Geranin: How many minutes ago?
Bezler: Well, about 30 minutes ago
Geranin: So around half an hour ago, right? And which one? A Sushka again?
Bezler: Yeah, a Sushka.
Shariy has argued that the SBU deliberately left out the part about the “Sushka” because it shows Bezler was not talking about the shootdown of a passenger airliner. However, this statement is unfounded. Since the start of the trial, the prosecution has favoured the scenario that the perpetrators had mistaken the passenger airliner for a Ukrainian military aircraft, evidenced by audio intercepts that revealed that the officers of the GRU DNR initially also believed that their side had downed a “Sushka”. The SBU did not hide this from the public either because shortly after the downing of MH17 they had already released one of these recordings (the conversation between Sergey “Khmuryi” Dubinsky and Sergey “Botsman” Povalyaev). Furthermore, the uncut versions of all of these calls were included in the approximately 150,000 phone intercepts that Kyiv provided to the JIT, which illustrates that they were willing to be transparent with all the evidence.
In the immediate aftermath of the downing, Kyiv was primarily interested in showing the world what the Russian side was guilty of, and therefore published a selection of quickly-found phone intercepts that they believed were linked to the crime. Nowhere was it implied that the YouTube versions were the full recordings, and having been hastily put together some of them also had bad transcriptions and small mistakes in the added descriptions. In this particular call, for example, they had added a photo supposedly showing Vasily Geranin, but this turned out to be a photo of someone else (who had attended an event that Geranin reportedly also attended in 2013). In another case, the SBU video editor(s) accidentally repeated the same times for two different calls in their YouTube clips, another mistake resulting from carelessness rather than deception. These errors suggest a hurried reaction to fast-moving events rather than a pre-planned conspiracy.
In another part of the call Bezler informs Geranin that they are sitting on a large stockpile of Ukrainian-made “Skif” anti-tank guided missiles found inside a captured factory. Geranin, who is calling from a Moscow number, instructs Bezler to transfer the missiles to a certain group of people and to send him samples so that they can “figure out” what to do with them (a fragment that fits the SBU’s allegation that Bezler was coordinating his war effort with the GRU). Furthermore, the Skif missiles are not known to have ever been used by the separatists, probably because, as Bezler told Geranin, the actual launcher of this system was missing. Moscow could also not supply them a Skif launcher because this system has, to our knowledge, never been used by the Russian Armed Forces (unlike other anti-tank missiles used by the separatists).
The capture of a factory with a stockpile of Skif missiles is interesting because reports seem to indicate that this happened after 14 June, which would contradict Bezler’s statement that the call was from that day. One known report concerned the Donetsk Government Plant of Chemical Products which contained explosives and ammunition and was taken over by the DNR on 28 June 2014. One day after the take-over, the Andrei-bt blog reported that this factory contained an assembly of “anti-tank guided missiles with dual-charge and high-explosive fragmentation warheads RK-2S, RK-2OF“, which are part of the Skif system. Bezler similarly told Geranin that the missiles inside the factory were types “RK-2IS” (IS rather than S means “inert warhead” and is used for training) and “RK-20F” (here Bezler appears to have read the “O” as a zero), suggesting it was the same stockpile. The fate of the missiles is unknown, but the Donetsk plant would be rocked by a series of fires and massive explosions in the months thereafter (the first of which reportedly took place on 19 August 2014).
Another part of the conversation also indicates the SBU has not changed the date of the call, but appears to have been deliberately left out in Shariy’s version of the recording. This part followed the talk about the downed plane:
Geranin: So around half an hour ago, right? And which one? A Sushka again?
Bezler: Yeah, a Sushka. And our guys are now working on an accumulation of vehicles near Rozivka, guys on the rooftop tell us they see explosions. Now there’s a block…
Geranin: Are those our vehicles?
Bezler: No, we are working with Grads [i.e. artillery rockets]. Fucking ’em up…
Geranin: Ah. Are there many vehicles there?
Bezler: Yeah, a lot.
Geranin: Send me by MMS, I asked for the photos, send me all that shit by MMS.
Bezler: But we… I got you, but we are shelling from 16 kilometers away, we’re not getting closer, it’s hard to get close… the bridges were blown up, they ran into them, bundled together, and now we’re fucking them up.
Rozivka (nowadays Oleksandropil) mentioned here is a small village with just a few hundred inhabitants that lies exactly 16 kilometers to the west of Horlivka on what was then the frontline. The village was part of the larger Rozivka village council (nowadays the Oleksandropil village council) which also included several surrounding settlements. While there were other villages with the name Rozivka in the Donetsk Oblast, none of them were on the frontline. Furthermore, we believe we also found the blown-up bridges that Bezler refers to. A railroad overpass near the village of Novobakhmutivka (at 48.244678, 37.741289) was blown up right when an 11-wagon cargo train drove over on 7 July 2014, resulting in massive carnage and a partial blockage of the main road from Donetsk to Sloviansk – some traffic was subsequently rerouted via neighbouring Rozivka thereafter. Another railroad overpass near Horlivka (at 48.277672, 38.010358) was blown up in the late evening of 15 July 2014 effectively stopping all train traffic from Horlivka to Novobakhmutivka thereafter.
Multiple sources indicate that there were indeed rocket attacks in the vicinity of Rozivka in the afternoon and evening of 17 July 2014. During the daily noon briefing on 18 July 2014, Ukrainian army spokesman Andrey Lysenko mentioned Rozivka as one of 19 areas where Ukrainian forces had taken fire the day before. These attacks are also evident from live social media postings on local VK community pages on which residents from the conflict area regularly exchanged information on bombardments. For example, from 4:32pm to 5:15pm, members on the community page for locals from Dzerzhynsk and surroundings tried to locate the origin of explosions in the vicinity of Rozivka and Horlivka:
- At 4:32pm, Lena from Novhorodske (a village 5km northeast of Rozivka) asks if anyone else heard powerful explosions. One minute later she says it concerns four explosions and asks where they came from, and at 4:33pm she added that it occurred somewhere in the vicinity of Stepnoy (the name of an old state farm 5.5 kilometers north of Rozivka, as well as an alternative name for the village of Sukha Balka three kilometers north of Rozivka).
- At 4:36pm, Maya from Dzerzhynsk report hearing explosions from the direction of Horlivka, while Nikita from Dzerzhynsk reports hearing six explosions from the direction of Novhorodske.
- At 4:37pm, Lena responds by saying that the she hears the explosions “definitely more to the south than Novhorodske”
- At 4:50pm, Sasha from Novhorodske writes about “six shots from a very large-caliber type Grad or artillery gun”. One minute later, he reports hearing another seven or eight shots from what he now believes is a Grad system. At 4:52pm, Sasha mentions that the explosions are at “Veterok, Rozivka, Verkhnotoretske”, and three minutes later he elaborates that explosions are “either at Rozivka, Veterok, or Stepnoy”.
- At 4:57pm, Yana from Novhorodske says it seems like it’s coming from the side of Horlivka.
- At 5:04pm, Anton from Horlivka, reports that he is in the Stroitel neighborhood of Horlivka and that “the volleys could be heard as if they were 100 meters away from me. A field at Shyroka Balka or Stepnoy is on fire, I see this area from the balcony:(:(:(”.
- At 5:06pm, a certain Olesya writes “I can hear everything clearly from Petrivska Hora [in Novhorodske]. Single explosions were from the direction of Horlivka – now it is written that the plane was shot down in Torez [i.e. MH17]. And from where the volley [fire came] was not clear – sort of like from the direction of Veterok.”
- At 5:15pm, a user on the community page for Avdiivka also asked about hearing explosions in the Novobakhmutivka area.
Although some of the locals seem confused about which side is firing, the messages generally fit with Bezler’s description that his forces were trying to hit a Ukrainian army column near Rozivka with Grad artillery rockets. These projectiles are fired in volleys from truck-mounted Grad multiple rocket launchers that are known for their loudness and imprecision.
The shelling would continue later that day:
- At 8:42pm, a member of the South-East pro-DNR page asks about hearing something near “245k” – the Block 245 neighborhood of Horlivka. One user from Novhorodske responds by saying that he also heard it.
- At 8:44pm, Sasha writes “just again !!!! !! not fewer than ten shots” on the page for Dzerzhynsk residents and later elaborates that the shots seem to come from Horlivka.
- At 9:20pm a message appeared on a community page for the entire Donbas region saying “Now at Roz[i]vka (near Ocheretino) in the Yasynuvata district there is artillery shelling, machine gun bursts can be heard, it looks like the DNR is advancing…”.
The Block 245 neighborhood mentioned here is right next to the aforementioned Stroitel neighborhood, and both are on the western outskirts of Horlivka. This suggests that the Bezler Group were firing the Grad volleys from near the western outskirts of Horlivka close to the Horlivka Reservoir. That this area was of strategic importance for the Bezler Group is also apparent from Bezler’s statement from 28 September 2016 in which he challenged the JIT’s conclusion that the Buk transport drove through Yenakieve on the day of the MH17 downing by arguing that: “five minutes after entering Yenakieve (my territory) this imaginary BUK would be on duty standing somewhere in the vicinity of Lake Horlivka”.
The shelling of the Rozivka area was a rare event, and we have been unable to find reports or live social media posts about such attacks on any of the earlier dates that Bezler claimed were the real dates of the call with Geranin. According to the official timestamp, the call took place on 17 July at 4:40:10pm, which is just eight minutes after the first reports about the Grad shelling came in. As such, there is no indication that the SBU had falsified the time and date of this recording.
That the SBU initially believed that Bezler was directly involved in the crime is not surprising when we consider that they had intercepted a conversation in which he linked his men to the downing of a Sushka that turned out to be MH17. However, also taking into account that the birdie conversation may not have contributed to the downing of MH17, we now believe that it is possible that at the time of the call with Geranin, Bezler wanted to take credit for something that he erroneously believed had been accomplished by his subordinates.
The big question remains why Bezler linked his Minyor unit to the downing of Sukhoi jet that later turned out to be MH17. So far, the name of this unit or its commander, Igor Ukrainets, has not been mentioned during the trial in The Hague.
In our Birdie report from 2019, we considered the following three explanations:
- Bezler had a history of claiming responsibility for shooting down enemy aircraft that actually never crashed, and as such may have only been bragging to Geranin about having shot down what he believed to be a Ukrainian military plane;
- The Minyor unit may have played a role in the spotting of MH17 and/or facilitating the Buk transport, prompting Bezler to exaggerate their role;
- Bezler may not have expressed himself clearly and only wanted to say that the Minyor unit had reported the shootdown to him.
Perhaps a more straightforward explanation is that once he received information that a plane had crashed behind Yenakieve, Bezler wrongfully assumed that his Minyor unit was responsible for this simply because this unit had its headquarters in Yenakieve at the time.
In his testimony to the JIT, Bezler also explained that he was generally informed about the shooting down of Ukrainian attack planes by ground observers who stood on top of spoil tips. One of them could indeed have contacted him after observing a huge smoke plume beyond Yenakieve. Since Bezler probably placed his air-defense units on high alert in response to the intel received 22 minutes earlier that an enemy aircraft – the “birdie” – was seen flying towards Horlivka, it would have been a plausible assumption on his part. This is also in line with Bezler’s initial response given to RIA Novosti one day after the downing in which he did not yet dispute the date of the SBU recording:
We really did discuss over the phone the searches of an aircraft, but those who think that we shot it down [i.e. the Boeing] have too much kefir in their brain. On the tape, it is clearly audible that the talk was about an aircraft in Yenakieve. The Boeing fell in the area of Snizhne. There are 100 kilometers between them, I don’t have weapons capable of downing planes at such a distance.
A pattern of lies
If the Bezler Group was not at all involved in the downing of MH17, as Bezler claims, the question remains why Igor Bezler has bothered to repeatedly lie about the SBU recordings, something which in our opinion only made him more suspicious.
When answering questions to the JIT, Bezler also gave dubious answers about two other intercepted conversations between him and official MH17-suspect Sergey Dubinsky (who headed the GRU DNR) that were also never published online. The first concerns an SBU intercept from the night of 17–18 July at 00:02am in which Dubinsky instructs Bezler to send a “very trustworthy person” such as “Botsman” or “Major” to Donetsk in connection with a very important message that cannot be delivered over the phone.
The second concerns a follow-up conversation from the morning of 18 July at 9:14am. In this conversation Bezler told Dubinsky that he had spoken to his men in relation to the “urgent task”, and added: “Well, we need to chop and cut this whole thing at the root”. This conversation ended after Dubinsky asked him to move to a secure channel so he could provide him with additional information that he received that same morning.
When the JIT asked which person he had sent to Donetsk in response to Dubinsky’s request, Bezler answered: “a man with the call sign ‘Major’ – the commander of the Mayorsk checkpoint” who “passed in 2015”.
The person with the call sign “Major” concerns Igor Afonin, a Ukrainian citizen from Horlivka who reportedly committed suicide on 20 March 2016 at the age of 48. In our Birdie report, we expressed our belief that this was the person heard on intercepts with “Grek”, in which the former erroneously reports that a plane had been shot down by a Cossack unit that manned the Chernukhino checkpoint. The same “Major” then approaches the crash site and reports how, to his chagrin, the downed plane turned out to be a passenger plane (MH17). These recordings went viral after they were published by the SBU several hours after the downing.
Bezler answered that the calls were in relation to two men arrested by Dubinsky after they tried to scrap a laser cutter from the Makiivka factory who claimed they acted on his orders. The two men were then brought to Horlivka where Bezler supposedly interrogated them and found out who had ordered this theft in his name.
Whether Bezler had truly dispatched “Major” to Donetsk is unknown. What is certain, however, is that Dubinsky was at the time under an extreme amount of stress and busy with coordinating the removal of the Buk missile launcher back to Russia, as revealed by other intercepts (the Buk was still in separatist-territory at about 5am on 18 July when it was filmed driving in Luhansk towards the Russian border). As such, a small dispute over the theft of a machine from a factory was quite obviously not the reason for these secretive midnight and morning calls.
Bezler’s overall behaviour suggests a willingness to mislead the official investigation by turning his case files into red herrings. While it is possible that he did this under the instructions of the GRU, he has also shown a personal disregard of the trial by regularly posting photos of himself meeting and even partying with key MH17 figures. This includes two official MH17 suspects with international arrest warrants who are still wandering out freely in Russia: on 27 October 2019 Bezler shared photos of himself at a boat party with Geranin and official MH17-suspect Dubinsky in Russian-annexed Crimea; and on 22 September 2020 he shared a photo at a restaurant in his hometown (Simferopol, Crimea) with Dubinsky and another official suspect, Leonid Kharchenko. He added the lyrics from an old Soviet war song about fighter pilots: “First of All–Planes … and the girls–later”, plus a winking smiley – possibly a cynical reference to discussing MH17.
Unless new evidence appears directly linking the Bezler Group to the downing of MH17, it is doubtful that Bezler will ever face prosecution over this case.
The JIT has stated that the arriving Buk that was used to shoot down MH17 was escorted through Yenakieve towards Donetsk in the morning of 17 July 2014, something which Bezler himself said could not have happened without his personal approval. Nevertheless, the Dutch prosecution has only pressed charges against individuals suspected of having played a major role in the crime, whereas individuals who may have only played a supporting role, such as, for example, in the transport of the Buk or in the covering up of the crime afterwards, have not faced prosecution. The prosecution explained this as follows:
Only those who played a leading role can be prosecuted in the Netherlands. Of course, there should be no impunity for individuals who played a smaller role, but they can be prosecuted in Ukraine. Many DPR fighters played a minor role, taking no individual initiative themselves. This is true, for example, of those involved in transporting the Buk-TELAR, or in guarding it before and after the downing of flight MH17. Their cases can better be heard in Ukraine, and in several instances this has already occurred. These individuals have already been prosecuted in Ukraine, not specifically for the supporting role they played in the downing of flight MH17, but more generally for their participation in the so-called DNR, as members of a terrorist organisation.
That said, Bezler remains a controversial figure. Not only did the GRU-linked officer play an important role in Russia’s covert invasion of Ukraine, a conflict which has cost the lives of more than ten thousand people, he is also still wanted in Ukraine on charges of kidnapping, torture, and premediated murder of three pro-Ukrainian activists. Furthermore, in a UN report from 2017 it was also alleged that members of the Bezler Group were guilty of kidnappings, torture, and rape.
Up until now, Bezler, who proudly carries the nickname “the Demon” (also a play on his surname) always appeared unfazed by such accusations of wrongdoings. To the contrary, in his interview from 16 July 2014 he stated that some Ukrainian prisoners of wars deserved to be executed. His boldness is perhaps most apparent from a video released on 5 June 2014 in which he orders the execution of two captives in a basement, an event which he later claimed was a staged event meant as a warning to Kyiv to show them “how it really can be”.
Igor Bezler, whom we contacted the morning of 15 October, did not respond to any of our questions as of publication time. We will update this article if he does respond to our inquiries.
Following our publication, Anatoly Shariy has responded to our investigation on Twitter. He maintains that he had received the Bezler files from an anonymous source and stated “I don’t care about the source, I gave a more complete record than the one that was published by the SBU”. Shariy also wrote that he received the full recording of the Geranin conversation, but left out the part about the shelling of Rozivka because he believed it was “insignificant”. He subsequently shared a video of him playing the full recording on his computer which revealed that his file was the same size and carried the same filename as the one that Bezler emailed to a high ranking GRU official and to a Russian lawyer from the law firm Ivanyan & Partners on 24 July 2020, just 17 days before Shariy’s vlog came online.