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Intercepted phone calls incriminate MH17 defendants and show extent of Russia's control over war in Ukraine

13.04.2021
Halya Coynash

Journalists from the Dutch public broadcaster NOS have published what appear to be intercepted calls involving all of the defendants in the trial now underway in the Netherlands in connection with the downing of Malaysian airliner MH17 over occupied Donbas.  The conversations are said to have been intercepted by Ukraine’s Security Service [SBU] and passed to the Dutch Prosecutor.  While unclear how journalists from the News Hour program gained access to the tapes, the conversations certainly seem to explain why the Joint Investigation Team decided to first bring charges, albeit in absentia, against these four men, three of whom are former Russian military or FSB officers.  The tapes also show the degree to which they and others were controlled by Moscow.

Only 12 recordings had previously been made public.  These were examined by the Joint Investigative Team,, or JIT, which was formed by the Netherlands; Ukraine; Malaysia; Belgium and Australia after Russia blocked attempts to initiate a formal UN investigation.  At least those 12 recordings were found by specialists to be authentic, and the BBC Russian Service reports that Pulatov has told his lawyers that he recognizes his voice on the tapes. There is no guarantee that he will acknowledge the new. and highly incriminating, tapes, which refute his denial of involvement, however it does seem likely that these have undergone the same scrupulous testing.

The Malaysian airliner MH17 was carrying 298 passengers and crew, including 80 children. It had left Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam on 17 July 2014 for Kuala Lumpur, with many of the passengers planning to travel on to Australia.  Over Russian/pro-Russian militant-controlled  Snizhne in Donetsk oblast, the plane was hit by a Russian BUK missile.  Over the following days, armed militants actively blocked access to the site of the disaster. 

The intercepted conversations can be heard here, but Gert-Jan Dennekamp from Nieuwsuur [Newshour] has also published an account of key conversations here.  He says that they have recordings of phone calls made by Sergey Nikolayevich Dubinsky in July and August 2014.  Dubinsky is, officially, a retired Russian military intelligence officer, and one of the four men accused by the Dutch prosecutor of playing a role in the downing of MH17.  At the time of the disaster, the Newshour team reports, he headed a so-called ‘reconnaissance and espionage unit’ with the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ [DPR]. He can be heard speaking with his ‘deputy’ and co-defendant, Oleg Pulatov,  a Russian reserve military man; Igor Girkin (‘Strelkov’), a Russian ‘former’ FSB officer and ‘DPR minister of defence’, and the one Ukrainian, Leonid Kharchenko.

Dennekamp writes of mounting involvement in July 2014 by Russia in bringing military technology, etc. to Ukraine for the ‘DPR’ militants.   

In one intercepted call apparently between Dubinsky and Pulatov, less than 24 hours before the disaster, Pulatov complains that the fighters don’t need the tanks Dubinsky mentions, but far-reaching artillery and good surface to air missiles. Dubinsky says he will try, if they bring the BUK missile launcher at night, to send it straight to Pulatov.

Both Dubinsky and Pulatov have previously denied any involvement or even knowledge of BUK missiles.  This is certainly not the impression from the intercepted calls, where around 7 hours before the disaster, the two men discussed sending the BUK missile launcher to the area from where, the missile was fired.

The conversations also confirm what was, in fact, entirely clear on the fateful day, namely that the militants first believed, and gloated, that they had downed a Ukrainian military plane. 

In one of the phone calls, half an hour after MH17 was hit, Kharchenko ‘boasted’ to Dubinsky that they had downed a Ukrainian military plane.  Two hours after the disaster, Dubinsky was asked by phone whether a Boeing had been downed.   At that stage, he replied that the militants had downed a Ukrainian military plane.

It was 3.5 hours after the plane was downed, that Dubinsky discussed this, first with Pulatov, then with Girkin.  They agreed a version that the plane had been shot down by a Ukrainian fighter plane, and that it was this that they had “fucked” with their BUK. There is also a later, heated argument between Dubinsky and Girkin about getting the BUK missile carrier back to Russia. 

None of this is, in fact, new since it was quite clear in the hours after the disaster that the militants had boasted of downing a Ukrainian military plane, with this immediately taken up and reported by the Russian propaganda media.   No Ukrainian fighter plane was downed that day.

With Russia’s propaganda machine having told the truth by mistake, an army of Internet trolls were mobilized over the next two days, and posted a record-breaking 65 thousand tweets trying to blame Ukraine for the disaster.

Moscow has also constantly claimed that the investigators were biased, although it was Russia that blocked a UN international investigation and it was the Kremlin who made the release of 35 Ukrainian political prisoners and POWs dependent on Ukrainian handing over MH17 witness (and likely suspect) Volodymyr Tsemakh.  Three months later, in December 2019, the Dutch prosecutor accused Moscow of deliberately ensuring that Tsemach was out of Russia before he would need to be handed over to the Netherlands in accordance with the European Convention on Extradition.

The new tapes also demonstrate the level to which Russia influenced the militants.  In one of the calls, Dubinsky speaks of a person arriving from Moscow and telling him that a change in the political makeup was planned for ‘DPR’.  A call between Dubinsky and militant leader Igor Bezler makes it clear that the militants waited for a go-ahead from Moscow before fleeing Sloviansk, which the Ukrainian Armed Forces had surrounded.

It would be hard to name a time when Moscow did not play a major role in the war, however Dennekamp believes that there was an increase both in military, and in political, influence in July with the militants increasingly taking their orders from Moscow.

His account of the movement of the BUK missile launcher on 17 July 2014 is not based only on Dubinsky’s calls, but also on sightings of the vehicle, including from Associated Press journalists. 

If the intercepted conversations were deliberately leaked to NOS, this may have been done selectively, since some questions remain unanswered.  It is not clear who launched the missile, and it beggars belief that a missile launcher known to have come from the Russian Army’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile brigade in Kursk would have arrived in Donbas and immediately been left for militants to use to shoot at Ukrainians.  This is reportedly a highly sophisticated piece of killing equipment that requires training. 

The taped calls, assuming that they are authentic, are certainly damning, incriminating both he four defendants and Moscow.  None of this, however, is for the first time. In November 2019 JIT issued a highly specific appeal to witnesses, with this revealing a small number of intercepted telephone calls.  These strongly incriminated Moscow, especially in shocking how major its role was.  In one of the conversations, for example, Russian ‘DPR leader’ Alexander Borodai can be heard stating that he is “carrying out orders and protecting the interests of one and only state, the Russian Federation’.  (Other examples here).  

The NOS report is very welcome, given how long the trial of Girkin; Dubinsky; Kharchenko and Pulatov, which began in March 2020, is taking, in part because of the delays sought by Pulatov’s lawyers.  It is most unlikely that Pulatov is himself paying for these lawyers, and his purported wish for involvement in the case (from Russia) may well be aimed at delaying a verdict for as long as possible.

The four defendants are not accused themselves of actually downing MH17. They are, however, believed to have “formed a chain linking the self-proclaimed Donetsk people’s republic with the Russian Federation”.  Back in November 2018, JIT could not have been clearer: “As evidenced above, the JIT has information that indicates that the influence of the Russian Federation extended to administrative, financial and military matters in the DPR. Mutual contacts intensified in the first half of July 2014. There was almost daily telephone contact between the leadership of the DPR and their contacts in the Russian Federation. They spoke with leaders in Moscow, near the border with Ukraine and in Crimea. Communication mostly took place via secure telephones provided by the Russian security service.”

 

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