Identifying the Separatists Linked to the Downing of MH17
The Bellingcat Investigation Team has previously published a number of reports demonstrating that the deployment of the Buk missile launcher used to shoot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) over Ukraine on 17 July 2014 involved senior officers of the Russian Ministry of Defense and its military intelligence agency, the GRU. However, questions still linger over the involvement in the downing of other previously unidentified individuals. Who were the people heard on the intercepted phone calls published by the Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT) and the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) in the aftermath of the downing? What role did infamous separatist leaders such as Igor Bezler, Aleksandr Khodakovsky, and Igor Strelkov play in the operation?
Today’s new report from Bellingcat seeks to resolve these questions and to determine the identity of most of the individuals, hitherto unknown to the public, who were heard and/or referred to on the SBU intercepts. With this, the report provides further context around the intercepted phone conversations and reveals new potential suspects in the downing of MH17.
The first batch of phone intercepts allegedly linked to the downing of MH17 were released by the SBU on their YouTube channel in an attempt to convince the international community that the airliner was shot down from separatist- held territory. The published calls were just a small selection of the total inventory of intercepts captured in the period surrounding incident, and the JIT is known to have received from Ukrainian authorities data on about 150,000 intercepted phone conversations. An unknown portion of these calls contain evidence relevant to the MH17 case, and some were later published by the JIT both on their YouTube channel and during their press conferences as part of a call for witnesses, and as further evidence supporting their assertions regarding the events that led to and followed the tragedy.
Intercepted phone conversations published by a government intelligence service, in this case the SBU, should not be trusted without verification, but there has already been a plethora of evidence from open sources corroborating the authenticity of the published calls. Several of these calls are intercepted phone conversations between separatists and Sergey “Khmury” Dubinsky, the (ex-)GRU officer and former head of the intelligence of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (“DNR”) who oversaw the transport of the Buk-M1 missile launcher that downed MH17 over Ukraine. The transport route of the Buk-M1 discussed in these recorded conversations exactly matches the route along which the missile launcher was filmed and photographed in in eastern Ukraine on 17 July 2014. Furthermore, separatist leaders Igor Bezler and Nikolay Kozitsyn have admitted that it was indeed their voices that are heard on the intercepts, and voice comparisons carried out by forensic analysts in two research institutions have confirmed the identity of Russian officers Nikolai “Delfin” Tkachev and Oleg “Orion” Ivannikov, as described in previous Bellingcat publications.
The report released today provides further evidence that the publicly released phone intercepts are unlikely to have been tampered with, as critics have continued to allege.
In this publication, Bellingcat releases the actual names of several militants who featured on the SBU intercepts along with a preliminary assessment on their respective level of involvement in the Buk transport and/or the downing of MH17. Some of these identities have not been published before by Bellingcat or other media organizations. Below, an organizational chart shows most of the individuals heard or mentioned on the intercepted conversations within the hierarchical structure of the DNR in July 2014 (click here to see the image in full resolution)
The following overview shows the key individuals, who had a role in organizing or facilitating the transport of the Buk missile launcher that downed MH17 on 17 July 2014 is eastern Ukraine:
The Ministry of Defense of the DNR
Igor Girkin/Strelkov, call sign “Strelok”
Date of birth: 17 December 1970
Place of birth: Moscow, Moscow oblast, Soviet Russia
Function in the summer of 2014: Minister of Defense of the DNR.
Link to MH17: We have identified former FSB colonel Igor Strelkov on one of the intercepts with Sergey Dubinsky from the morning of 18 July related to the removal of the Buk missile launcher from separatist-held territory in Ukraine to Russia. Since most of the separatists who can be linked to the downing of MH17 were his subordinates, it is likely that he was also fully aware of the procurement and import of the Buk from Russia. The full report describes his close cooperation in mid-July 2014 with Pulatov and Kharchenko, both of whom are believed to have provided security to the Buk near the launch site.
The GRU DNR
The “GRU DNR” (not to be confused with Russia’s military intelligence agency — the GRU) was the military intelligence agency of the Donetsk People’s Republic in 2014. It was headed by Sergey “Khmury” Dubinsky. The group coordinated the transport of the Buk through separatist-held territory on 17 and 18 July, and also provided security to the Buk at the launch site south of Snizhne. This group may have also been involved in the decision to shoot down MH17. Although the GRU DNR was formally independent from Russia, allegations have lingered that it was actually controlled in whole or in part by the Russian GRU. Given Bellingcat’s previous reporting on the role of GRU’s Oleg Ivannikov in coordinating the delivery of the Buk to separatist-held territory, there is little doubt that the GRU and the GRU DNR closely coordinated at least some of their efforts in the summer of 2014.
Sergey Nikolaevich Dubinsky, call sign “Khmury”
Date of birth: 9 August 1962
Place of birth: Neskuchnoe, Donetsk oblast, Soviet Ukraine
Hometown: Rostov-on-Don, Russia
Function in the summer of 2014: Head of the GRU DNR, subordinate to Strelkov. According to Ukraine’s official position, allegedly also a member of Russia’s GRU.
Link to MH17: Several intercepted phone calls indicate that it was Dubinsky who requested the delivery of a battle-ready Buk missile launcher to aid his forces at the frontline south of Snizhne, and that he personally coordinated the transport of the arriving Buk missile launcher to the launch site on 17 July. He was also involved in the removal of the Buk back to Russia after the downing of MH17. Furthermore, the full report demonstrates that Dubinsky also ordered some of his subordinates to secure the Buk near the launch site south of Snizhne, and that it was his group that may have played a key role in the decision to shoot down MH17 under the presumption that it was an enemy aircraft.
Oleg Yuldashevich Pulatov, call signs “Gyurza” and “Khalif”
Date of birth: 24 July 1966
Hometown: Ulyanovsk, Russia
Function in the summer of 2014: Head of the 2nd Department of the GRU DNR, subordinate to Sergey Dubinsky.
Link to MH17: Oleg Pulatov is a (former) Lieutenant colonel in the Russian Armed Forces who has previously been identified as the man behind the call sign “Gyurza” who is mentioned on one of the intercepts. In the full report we provide new evidence confirming that Pulatov is indeed the man behind the call sign “Gyurza” and that he was likely involved in securing the Buk missile launcher at the launch site south of Snizhne.
Leonid Vladimirovich Kharchenko, call sign “Krot”
Date of birth: 10 January 1972
Place of birth: Kostyantynivka, Soviet Ukraine
Function in the summer of 2014: Head of the Krot Reconnaissance Battalion of the 2nd Department of the GRU DNR since 6 July. Before then, he was the garrison commander in his hometown Kostyantynivka.
Link to MH17: Kharchenko is found to be involved in the securing of the Buk missile launcher near the launch site south of Snizhne. He may have also coordinated the transport of the Buk from Donetsk to the launch site, and the subsequent removal of the Buk from the launch site to Russia.
Eduard Mashutovich Gilazov, call sign “Ryazan”
Date of birth: 27 March 1984 (missing and presumed dead since 27 July 2015)
Place of birth: Yekaterinburg, Sverdlovsk oblast, Soviet Russia
Hometown: Ryazan, Russia
Function in the summer of 2014: Commander of the 1st Reconnaissance Company of the Krot Reconnaissance Battalion, subordinate to Kharchenko.
Link to MH17: Gilazov has been identified as the separatist commander who, in the aftermath of the downing, brought a member of the Buk crew who had lost the rest of the crew to his commander Leonid Kharchenko in Snizhne. He may also have been involved in securing the Buk near the launch site south of Snizhne.
Oleg Anatolevich Sharpov, call sign “Zmey”
Date of birth: 30 May 1972 (died on 3 November 2014)
Hometown: Kostyantynivka, Ukraine
Function in the summer of 2014: Platoon commander within a Reconnaissance Company
Link to MH17: Sharpov has been identified as the separatist named Oleg in an intercepted phone call with Leonid “Krot” Karchenko from 17 July 2014 at 1:09 pm. In this conversation, Sharpov asks Kharchenko about directions to the location south of Snizhne from which the Buk system launched the missile that downed MH17. As this conversation took place more than two hours before the downing, Sharpov was very likely present at the launch site.
The Bezler Group
The Bezler Group is named after “Igor Bezler“ (nickname “Bes”), a former officer in the Russian Armed Forces who, according to the SBU, was in service of the GRU during the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The Bezler Group controlled the area around Horlivka in the summer of 2014. Two telephone intercepts featuring Bezler have linked the Bezler Group to the downing of MH17.
Igor Nikolaevich Bezler, call sign “Bes”
Date of birth: 30 December 1965
Place of birth: Simferopol, Crimean oblast, Soviet Ukraine
Function in the summer of 2014: Commander of the Bezler Group, alleged by Ukraine to be a member of GRU.
Link to MH17: Bezler is heard on the phone intercept with his subordinate Stelmakh who informs him that a “birdie” is flying towards him. Bezler instructs his subordinate to report this message “upwards”, and as such may have facilitated the spotting of MH17 as an enemy aircraft. Bezler is also heard on an intercept in which he reports the shootdown of an airplane to a person whom the SBU identified as a GRU agent named Vasily Geranin. Bezler has claimed that this recording was actually from 16 July 2014 — one day before the downing of MH17 — but in the full report it is explained that it is more likely that the message was recorded on 17 July concerning the downing MH17.
Sergey Sergeyevich Povalyaev, call sign “Botsman”
Date of birth: 10 November 1976 (died of pneumonia in Russia on 6 January 2016)
Place of birth: Kaliningrad, Soviet Russia
Function in the summer of 2014: Deputy commander of the Bezler Group, possibly a Russian GRU Spetsnaz officer
Link to MH17: In an intercepted phone call between Sergey Dubinsky and “Botsman” that took place shortly after MH17 was downed, Dubinsky tells “Botsman” that he received a Buk-M in the morning and that they just shot down a ‘Sushka’ (a Sukhoi aircraft). Aside from how “Botsman” was Bezler’s deputy, there is no direct link between “Botsman” and the downing of MH17.
Valery Aleksandrovich Stelmakh, call signs “Naemnik” (“Naimanets” in Ukrainian) and “Batya”
Date of birth: 1 August 1955
Place of birth: Dzerzhynsk, Donetsk oblast, Soviet Ukraine
Function in July 2014: Militia commandant of Dzerzhynsk until 21 July 2014, subordinate to Bezler.
Link to MH17: Stelmakh has been identified as the person with the call sign “Naemnik” (“Naimanets” in Ukrainian) who reported the spotting of MH17 as an enemy aircraft to Bezler a few minutes before the downing. Bezler also instructed him to report this message to “higher up”, which might indicate that Stelmakh relayed this message to the GRU DNR or another authority that was in contact with the Buk crew. The full report features a reconstruction showing that it is indeed possible that it was this message that had reached the Buk crew shortly before the downing of MH17.
Igor Ivanovich Ukrainets, call sign “Minyor”
Date of birth: 24 December 1971
Place of birth: Verbky, Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Soviet Ukraine
Function in the summer of 2014: Subordinate of Bezler and commander of an infantry unit known as the “Minyor Unit”.
Link to MH17: Ukrainets has been identified as the commander of the Minyor Unit, which was mentioned by Bezler in one of the intercepts in relation to the downing of MH17. Although it has been possible to confirm that Ukrainets was at the time a subordinate to Bezler, we found no evidence that suggests Ukrainets was involved in the downing of MH17. In the full report we discuss the possible explanations why Bezler had mentioned him in relation to the shootdown of the aircraft.
The Vostok Battalion
The Vostok Battalion was one of the largest separatist groups in the summer of 2014 and was based in Donetsk. It was headed by Aleksandr Khodakovsky, a defector from the SBU’s Alpha special forces unit. The phone intercepts indicate that the Vostok Battalion helped facilitate the transport of the arriving Buk missile launcher in Donetsk. Additional evidence suggests that its leadership also knew about the arrival of the Buk from Russia in advance.
Aleksandr Sergeyevich Khodakovsky, call sign “Skif”
Date of birth: 18 December 1972
Place of birth: Donetsk, Donetsk oblast, Soviet Ukraine
Function: Head of the Vostok Battalion and until 16 July 2014 the Minister of State Security of the DNR.
Link to MH17: As the head of the Vostok Battalion, it is likely that Khodakovsky helped facilitate the arrival of the Buk system in Donetsk, since the intercepts indicate that his deputy Aleksandr Semyonov helped coordinate the transport of the Buk in Donetsk. After the shootdown of MH17, he admitted in an interview with Reuters that he knew beforehand that pro-Russian separatists were going to receive a Buk missile launcher that would be transported from Luhansk to Snizhne, but he later retracted these statements saying that they were taken out of context by Reuters. The SBU intercepts also reveal that he had briefly attempted to hide MH17’s black boxes from the OSCE and other parties on behalf of Moscow, which he later also denied. In the full report we will provide further information that suggests Khodakovsy’s statements to Reuters were not taken out of context, and that he was indeed willing to hide the black boxes, most likely on behalf of officials in Moscow.
Alexander Aleksandrovich Semyonov, nickname “(San) Sanych”
Date of birth: 21 December 1967
Place of birth: Yenakieve, Soviet Ukraine
Function: Deputy commander of the Vostok Battalion and the DNR’s Deputy Prime Minister of Economy, subordinate to Khodakovsky.
Link to MH17: The phone intercepts indicate that Semyonov helped facilitate the arrival of the Buk in Donetsk in coordination with Sergey Dubinsky. One day before the downing, Semyonov was also informed by Dubinsky that the latter wished to receive a missile launcher for operations at the Marynivka front.