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Identifying the Separatists Linked to the Downing of MH17

June 19, 2019

By Bellingcat Investigation Team

Translations: Русский

The full report can be viewed here (mirror)

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.

Images of several recorded intercepted phone calls that were published by the SBU.

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 “KhmuryDubinsky, 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.

Screenshots of videos of SBU recorded intercepted phone calls, released by the JIT.

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
Nationality: Russian
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
Nationality: Russian
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
Nationality: Russian
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
Nationality: Ukrainian
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
Nationality: Russian
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”

Oleg "Zmey" Sharpov

Date of birth: 30 May 1972 (died on 3 November 2014)
Hometown: Kostyantynivka, Ukraine
Nationality: Ukrainian
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
Nationality: Russian
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”

Sergey "Botsman" Povalyaev

Date of birth: 10 November 1976 (died of pneumonia in Russia on 6 January 2016)
Place of birth: Kaliningrad, Soviet Russia
Nationality: Russian
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
Nationality: Ukrainian
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
Nationality: Ukrainian
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.

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90 Comments

  1. Karel koky

    Hi, goid job guys, just want to know whether you working on oil tank attack? Solving this would have great impact.

    Reply
  2. Karel koky

    Good job guys, just want to know whether you working on oil tank atack? Solving this would have great impact.

    Reply
  3. Alun Jones

    The world owes you their thanks, for the work you have put in since MH17 was shot down. Your reports have been first class and your dismantling of the Russian propaganda has been second to none.

    Reply
  4. Abz

    I tried to read at least half, but I could not. Sheer nonsense. No one has yet studied how the Buk system works. Everything that I saw on the Internet is just amateurish reasoning. Buk can only work as a system. And one machine can not work. In addition, self-propelled fire installation 9A310 ZRK Buk-M1-2 weighs 32 tons, and each rocket 750 kg. Total 35 tons. If it is loaded onto a conveyor, the total weight for transportation will exceed 40 tons. The Donbass area is very flooded and there are many bridges, but large bridges that withstand a maximum of 32 tons are very few and will not allow military equipment on them. I think the Russians are still keep silent and are waiting for the official verdict. And they have a lot of trumps in their hands. And my opinion – the plane was stolen on March 8, then it was just blown up over Ukraine. There is a lot of evidence, but they are all in Russian. But it will not always be so. I repeat Russia is just waiting like a cat for mouse.

    Reply
    • TJ

      You fail to understand that the BUK system has built in redundancy and the TELAR is designed to function completely on its own. This redundancy was built into the BUK system after lessons learnt during the Arab-Israeli conflicts. Absolutely nothing remarkable about a BUK TELAR operating on its own and independent from the full up system. It was designed to be that way. Your claims are just ridiculous.

      Reply
      • concerned citizen

        Actually a Buk launcher on its own cannot shoot down a plane at the speed and altitude of MH17. The radar doesnt have the elevation necessary to target the plane in time to hit it. It could only be done with the full Buk system including radar vehicle.

        Reply
        • Jeroen

          Actually a Buk launcher on its own can not make a “touristical trip” from 53th Air defence brigade barracks in Kursk, Russia to Snizhne, Ukraine without a lot of Russians coordinating that move.

          Why did de Colonel Sergey Borisovich Muchkaev not report in 2014 that he was missing a Buk System to Moskou?

          Reply
        • Jeroen

          Concerned citizen probably gets his information directly from Alamz-Antey.

          Was it not that very same Russian arms company who claimed that the 9M38M(M1) missiles were already replaced in Russia in 2011?

          How strange those same type missiles were still demonstrated to Putin on an Russian army (102nd) base in Gyumri as visible on a presidential photo officialy published in 2013, and in paraded 9 May 2015 in Chita.

          Reply
          • Cactus

            There are pictures of Buks still in Russian service in 2015.

    • TJ

      “Stolen on 8th March” Are you serious? Explain how aviation photographers
      can photograph it at various location around the world? Think how many passengers will have flown on 9M-MRD from 8th March 2014? Your claim is just utter non-sense!

      July 5, 2014 Hong Kong

      https://www.jetphotos.com/photo/8250344

      Apr 26, 2014 Bangladesh

      https://www.jetphotos.com/photo/8190321

      Mar 30, 2014 Amsterdam

      https://www.jetphotos.com/photo/7922683

      May 30, 2014, Germany

      https://www.jetphotos.com/photo/7897254

      Reply
    • Ian

      A simple web search reveals photographs of that plane in service in various locations around the world after March 8th. Do you think unsophisticated lies are likely to go unchallenged?

      Reply
    • Cactus

      False. The Buk vehicle is perfectly able to operate solo. It is equipped with Firedome targeting radar and made a near perfect intercept of MH17 at near maximum range.

      Another bad day for Russian trolls. Another win for the good guys.

      Reply
  5. Rurik Wasastjerna

    I am unable to feel much hatred or even indignation toward these people. They might have been incompetent and careless and they were probably under great pressure. To what extent any of them were aware of the risk I can’t say. I’m sure they all sincerely believed they were defending a just cause (and I don’t completely disagree). Shit happens, particularly in war. Maybe a few years in prison for gross negligence. What pisses me off is the denial and lying and smokescreening at the highest levels of Russian government.

    Reply
    • Richard

      Your “just cause” is just a fabrication. They were invading an independent country. Look up something on how Russia turned Ukraine into a colony (Tsar Catherine) or the Soviet period how the Ukraine and Ukrainians suffered (the Holodomor). When the Ukraine became independent again after the collapse of the SU, Russia became all the nuclear weapons and the Ukraine became a territorial guarantee. Oh yes, they also could keep Chernobyl. Btw, the new Chernobyl sarcophagus was paid for by the EU. These people were invaders. And before you mention it, just as illegal as the US/Britisch invasion of Iraq.

      Reply
      • Rurik Wasastjerna

        The just cause I imagine them thinking of is defending themselves against the Ukrainian army shelling their cities. That goes for the separatists. The Russians involved hardly saw a moral problem in helping them against such brutal tactics. I’m not saying that’s the truth of the matter but it’s obvious enough and hardly ever mentioned in the west as if that point of view doesn’t merit any attention or doesn’t exist. Can’t remember seeing a critical comment about the ATO either.

        Reply
  6. Archaos

    Good to see that these people are being uncovered. it is sad to see how far from human decency Russia and its clients have strayed. No state should be able to do this. The dark legacy of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 still lingers – this must not be allowed to happen again. Civilians must be safe and those who put people in danger must be brought to justice, whatever their political affiliation or nationality.

    Reply
  7. Andrew

    One question that I cannot find anyone asking is WHY? Why was this plane shot down in the first place? Was it a mistake? This should be the very first answer in this article.

    Reply
    • Chris

      Read the Bezler and Botsman info, that pretty explicitly says that they spotted an aircraft and thought it was something else. After shooting down the plane they immediately reported that they shot down an enemy aircraft. So yes, it was a mistake. Does that really matter? If you accidentally murder 300 people does it matter why?

      Reply
      • Martin

        Chris – Yes I believe it was a terrible mistake, and yes it does matter because you can’t accidentally murder 300 people, that’s called manslaughter (at least in the UK). Putin and the Russians look incredibly foolish denying any involvement in the tragedy.

        Reply
      • Cactus

        It was premeditated murder. The Russian Army was illegally in eastern Ukraine to murder people. Illegal invasion or an illegal rebellion is just that, illegal. Any killings by Russian or its agents are therefore murder.

        Reply
    • KimmoK

      That can not be answered until the person that shot the missile is interviewed.

      (So far there does not seem to be sane reason for anyone to target a civilian plane, unless someone was insane.)

      I think, from JIT material, it seems pro-russians thought that a recon plane was approaching.

      Reply
    • Zachary Stephan Layne

      The intercepts indicate they believed it was a Ukrainian military aircraft, of which several had been shot down in the same region in the days prior.

      Reply
    • Feanor

      It was most likely in error. From what we know it appears that the rebels only had a TELAR for the Buk system, not a complete btln set, which means they had only the limited radar capabilites of the independent launcher. Between poor training, an incomplete system, and the presence of Ukrainian military aircraft in the area previously (the very reason the Buk system was deployed there) it seems a likely conclusion.

      Even more interesting is that on the day of the shootdown rebel leadership initially claimed they shot down a Ukrainian attack jet, then that it was a Ukrainian air force transport, then that they didn’t shoot down anything but that a passenger airliner went down. It’s pretty clear from this that even after the shootdown it took them some time to figure what it was they actually shot down.

      Reply
      • Cactus

        The Russian proxies were using a spotter and called in “the bird” to the TELAR. It’s how the Russian Army Buk crew was able to point its Firedome targeting radar in the right direction.

        Reply
    • Termlock

      Because Malaysian Airlines idiots decided it was a good idea to let airliner go through the warzone. People getting prosecuted should be the one who are responsible for the aircraft being there in a first place.

      Reply
      • TJ

        Hundreds of airliners flew over that region. Russia didn’t close down their airspace to airliners and airlines filing flight plans that took them over the region and into and out of Russian airspace.

        Reply
  8. Kremlin Bot 0001

    Well, this is all very well researched and presented, but… credibility and validity of this work holds only if SBU and Ukrainin government had absolutely nothing to do with this and the information they have provided is indeed raw, verified and unbiased. If, even for a second, a possibility that Ukrainian government might be to blame (even partially) – this entire work will be worth nothing.

    Reply
    • Cactus

      No. Russia illegally sent a Buk into Ukraine to murder people. The evidence is overwhelming and undeniable.

      Reply
      • Martin

        I still believe the downing of this civilian airline was an accident but my question is how did the operators of the missile system not believe an aircraft flying at 33,000ft (1,000 ft above the exclusion zone) in a very well used civilian air corridor be anything other than an airliner? Was there any reason MH17 was brought down (by mistake) rather than any other of the numerous airliners flying that route around that time, or was it the ultimate random case of wrong place and wrong time?

        Reply

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