Crisis Actors As Defense Witnesses: Pulatov's Defense Strategy In The MH17 Trial
Earlier this week, the criminal trial against the four indicted suspects in the MH17 downing continued with the defense lawyers’ requests for additional investigations. The defense team from the Rotterdam law-firm Sjöcrona Van Stigt represents only one of the indicted persons – the Russian citizen Oleg Pulatov – as the three other defendants chose not to be represented in court.
As is typical at this state in criminal court proceedings, the defense team requested additional investigative work from the the prosecutors in areas where the defendant thinks critical exculpatory evidence may have been missed. The prosecutors initially assess such requests, and may accept some but reject others, for instance as unproductive to truth-finding or as already sufficiently researched. The prosecutors’ decision is then subject to a review by the court. Typically, the defense team requests prosecutors to investigate leads pointing to other possible perpetrators or facts that may provide an alibi for the defendant.
A Very Different Trial
MH17 trial is very different than standard criminal proceedings not only due to the large victim count, but also due to the dozens of conspiracy theories that have surfaced in the 6 years since the crime. While in a typical criminal case the alternative scenarios appear naturally – due to ambivalent or incomplete data – in the MH17 case most of them are the product of a concerted fabrication effort traceable to the Russian state or its proxies in DNR/LNR. It is thus the role of the prosecution and investigative judges to be aware of – and to filter out- such planted leads, in order to avoid bad actors clogging the investigative resources and delaying justice.
While the defense team has an obligation to defend exclusively the interest of their client, there is an expectation that they will also be observant of the need for timely truth-finding and of the feelings of the victims’ next of kin, and will abstain from knowingly clogging the investigative process.
During the 2 days of defense pleadings earlier this week, we saw the opposite of such observance. The defense lawyers at no point gave the prosecutors the benefit of the doubt in parsing out the signals from the planted noise. Instead, they requested the prosecution to revisit and re-investigate long-debunked conspiracy theories, many of which have meanwhile been disowned even by their creators. What is more: a simple due diligence based on open sources would have informed the defense team of the spuriousness and dead-end prospects of these alternative theories.
Take the case, for example, of Carlos the Spanish Air-Controller, a fictional online persona that appeared on social media in the hours after the incident, posting assertions that he worked as an air-controller in Ukraine and had been monitoring a Ukrainian fighter jet attacking MH17. This persona was interviewed live on RT (the propaganda channel has since deleted the interview, which can be seen here). Subsequent investigations by RFE/RL and the OCCRP, as well us from the Romanian investigative project RISE, proved that Carlos the Air-Controller never existed, and his persona was played by a Spanish ex-convict operating a pro-Kremlin troll account. The Twitter handle used by “Carlos” was later reused by a Russian-language inauthentic account bearing all hallmarks of a troll-farm sleeper account.
Despite all evidence “Carlos” was a fake persona intentionally created to distribute misinformation and interfere with truth-finding, the defense team has now requested that the Joint Investigation Team spend resources to obtain and investigate the metadata from that twitter account – a time-consuming process that requires a court subpoena to be sent to Twitter.
Crisis Actors as Eyewitnesses
Even more resource-clogging is the defense team’s insistence that the JIT seek out and interrogate more than a dozen eyewitnesses who claim to have seen or heard one or more Ukrainian fighter jets attacking MH17. This request comes on the heels of the prosecutors’ detailed presentation of the technical impossibility of an air-to-air shoot-down scenario. Such a scenario is refuted both by Ukrainian and Russian primary radar data made available to the JIT, as well as by the recordings of conversations between Russian and Ukrainian air-controllers in the moments after MH17 was shot down. Despite objective data pointing to the impossibility of the air-to-air scenario, the JIT still conducted interviews with several alleged eyewitnesses who had come forward – and concluded that none of them could provide credible first-hand accounts that would put into question the objective radar data.
To justify its claim that “not every stone was turned by the JIT”, the defense team played in court a video-collage of alleged eye-witnesses who claim the saw fighter jets flying near MH17 at the time of the shoot-down. The collage included segments from TV interviews with local residents previously broadcast on Russian media, the BBC, or recorded by citizen-journalists.
Many of the interviewees from the collage cannot be identified, and in some cases their identity appears to be unknown to the journalists (see the minutes of JIT’s questioning of a BBC reporter, hacked by an yet unattributed actor and leaked by the Russian-owned special-purpose media project “Bonanza Media”). Of the interviewees whom we were able to identify, all appeared to have been inauthentic “eyewitnesses”: one was a bad-faith crisis actor, pursuing a disinformation agenda on behalf of DNR, another had made incompatibly contradictory statements at different times, and a third one told us that he had lied in his original statement which the defense team played in court.
The Crisis Actor
The first “eyewitness” shown in the collage was presented as Valentina, a “foreign language teacher”. She provided an ostensibly first-hand account as a local resident who heard and saw a Ukrainian SU fighter-jets circling in the air above Snizhne and then producing a loud bang, following which she saw wreckage of the MH17 Boeing rain down from the sky. There is no doubt from her words that she describes the events in the first person, as in that she saw these events herself.
Using a reverse image search tool, we identified the witness as Valentina Chaika, a resident of the town of Torez in Donbass. While until the start of the war in Eastern Ukraine she indeed taught foreign languages, at the start of war she became a journalist, and – in her own words – took on the function of improving the global perception of the Donetsk People’s Republic. As she said in an interview about her mission in 2014, it was “war-time journalism”, which she said is akin to propaganda.
More importantly than her mis-identification as a random local resident, in the clip played to court, is the fact that what Ms. Chaika stated in the video sharply contradicts her own earlier statements about what she witnessed on 17 July 2014. In an interview given to an online Russian TV channel in 2017, she describes the events of 17 July 2014 but does not claim to have seen any fighter planes. That account of her first-hand experiences is as follows: she arrived to the crash site shortly after the downing, due to the fact she was nearby. Soon after that, she saw the news that Ukrainian authorities had blamed separatists forces in shooting down the plane, and she “felt the need to tell the world this cannot be true”. She then talked to various people from neighboring villages Rassypnoe and Hrabovo which “were closer to the crash” and “many if not all of whom said they had heard the sound of one or two fighter jets”. There is no doubt left that she does not claim to have seen or heard any fighter jets herself.
Even more strikingly contradicting her later testimony is her statement in a 2015 interview where she explicitly says on camera: “No one saw the SU fighter jets… there were clouds and one could not possibly see them… but you can’t confuse their sound, and they could be heard”
In a different interview, given to the Russian TV/website News-front in 2015, Valentina Chaika says that “it could be heard up in the air the sound of 2 SU Ukrainian fighter planes”, and that “there were witnesses who saw these SU plans attack the Boeing and then it disintegrated in mid-air”. While in this interview – differently than the 2017 interview – she implies she herself heard the sound of fighter jets, she again leaves no doubt that not she, but other “eyewitnesses saw the SU planes”.
In a third interview, reported here, Valentina (who here claims to have been in Hrabovo at the time of the crash), claims to have seen two fighter jets near MH17. She no longer says here they are SU jets, even though in another interview she says “the sound of SU jets is unmistakable to us [local residents]”. When given pictures of different fighter planes, she pointed to a MIG-29MU1. This is the same model that was super-imposed on a forged Russian Ministry of Defense video which has since been disowned by the Kremlin.
Valentina Chaika’s changing and self-contradicting public testimony appears to be synced with Russian disinformation narratives, which is not surprising given that she appears as a regular contributor to a Russian inauthentic-news operation, News-Front.info. Appearing on the channel on the first anniversary of MH17’s downing, she claimed that she saw first-hand that the bodies strewn at the crash site were “bloodless” and “like they had been dead for a long time and looking like manikins… with a strong sent of Formaldehyde in the air”, thus echoing one of the most bizarre early conspiracies propagated by Russian sources, including by the main indicted suspect Igor Girkin.
In a further conspiracy statement in the interview, she questioned why there had been “no crying relatives of the victims on television”, implying that the whole shoot-down was a staged operation. In a yet different interview that Ms. Chaika gave on the anniversary she insisted that the victim’s bodies changed color during the night.
News-front.info is a Crimea-based disinformation portal which has been banned by Facebook and YouTube due to inauthentic behaviour – a move that was protested by the Russian government. The portal operates in 12 languages, with a focus in Russia and Ukraine and relatively strong presence among fringe-conspiracy audiences in Germany, Bulgaria and Georgia. An investigation by Die Zeit cited an insider stated that the operation was funded by Russia’s security agency FSB. The portal denies this and claims it is funded through donations. Our investigation into the (formal) ownership to the site shows that it is controlled by Mikhail Sinelin, who has worked in the Kremlin’s presidential administration at least since 1998, and in 2004 was appointed a chief of staff for prime minister Mikhail Fradkov who later became the longest serving director of Russia’s foreign intelligence service SVR.
Another self-styled witness to a fighter-jet attack on MH17, featured in Pulatov’s defense’s collage, appears in different media outlets variably as either Lev Bulatov or Gleb Filatov, and tells an unconvincing story of having used half of his Soviet-era 7-time magnification binoculars to spot the moment of the actual attack, including the launch of the missile and subsequent escape of the Ukrainian SU fighter. He even (implausibly) says he was able to read the fighter plane’s tail number. In an interview for the Russian newspaper KP, he claims to have seen not one but 3 SU-25 planes flying next to MH17. However, in the interview used in the court collage – given to Max van der Werff – he says he only saw one SU-25. He says the fighter jet made “three loud bangs, sounds I will never forget“.
Mr. Bulatov or Filatov complains to Max van der Werff that no investigators take him seriously, to which the interviewer suggests that maybe people do not believe he was able to see the fighter plane. Mr. Bulatov/Filatov then laughs and replies “if someone wants to see, he will see“.
The Young Man Who Says He Lied
Using reverse face-search, we were able to identify a third alleged eyewitness shown in the defense lawyer’s collage. He was interviewed by Graham Philips, a former RT freelancer in Eastern Ukraine. We contacted this person (his name is withheld at his request). In a DM chat and speaking on the record, he told Bellingcat: “I never saw any fighter jet, or any other plane, on 17 July 2014″. Speaking from Eastern Ukraine, he disowned his words from the interview shown in the collage. He declined to explain what had prompted him to lie on camera that he saw fighter planes when he was interviewed by Phillips. He was 18 at the time of the shoot-down.
(Update: Following the publication of this article, the young man interviewed by Graham Philips and contacted by Bellingcat for this story, appeared on Bonanza Media and stated he had not said to Bellingcat that he lied and did not see the fighter jets, but that he simply said he did not see anything because he was not sure with whom he was communicating. He said he still stands by his earlier statements that he saw two fighter jets near MH17 on 17 July 2014.
When approached by Bellingcat to clarify the circumstances under which he had made his statements to Bonanza Media, he replied that he only wishes to be interviewed in person. He broke off communication and blocked the reporter when he was asked if there were more people present during his interview in addition to the Bonanza reporter (who has been implicated in coordinating the Bonanza Media project with Russia’s military intelligence agency) and the cameraman. We are therefore not able to assess if he made any of his new statements under pressure).
Clearly, at least in the case of Ms. Chaika, her public testimony is inauthentic and purposefully misleading. It also changed over time, and reflected other disinformation tropes that were propagated by parties with a vested interest in distorting information – such as the main suspect, the Russian state. Such disinformation activity is unlikely to have been sporadic and uncoordinated, and would have been especially needed given the earlier self-incrimination by militants and Russian media who had jubilated about a BUK hit of a Ukrainian military transport plane. A number of local residents have repeated to media essentially identical – but hardly plausible from a scientific perspective – sightings of a small military fighter jet flying above the clouds; with some interviewees even embellishing the story with having seen the moving missile between the fighter jet and the Boeing 777. From the prosecution’s court presentation, we understand that none of these media-facing witnesses has come forward to testify to the joint investigation team, despite multiple calls for witnesses.
The defense team’s insistence that all alternative hypotheses – including the implausible ones, and such traceable to bad actors – do not help in truth-finding, and ultimately will not help, but may rather impede their efforts to defend their client’s rights in court. A prolonged and frustrating dead-end chasing is unlikely to win Mr. Pulatov the court’s sympathies. If the investigation does indeed subpoena “Carlos the Air-Dispatcher”‘s metadata, such new evidence can only serve to incriminate Russia, as opposed to exculpate Pulatov. And an interrogation of the witnesses who have said, on the record, that they saw no airplanes, or even that it would have been impossible to see any due to the clouds, is unlikely to help shatter the court’s trust in the main scenario presented by the prosecution.
While the defense’s efforts do not serve the defendant’s interest, they do appear to help the interests of the Russian state, which can only benefit from a prolonged trial and further deferral of the truth. This distinction is unlikely to have been lost on experienced Dutch solicitors. Sooner or later, Oleg Pulatov’s defense team may need to decide who their primary client is.