On March 15, the Donetsk edition of the Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda conducted a radio interview with Igor Girkin, alias “Strelkov,” the former commander of Russian-led forces in Ukraine’s Donbas region. Girkin, who reportedly was once a colonel in Russia’s Federal Security Service, is on trial in absentia in the Netherlands on charges of causing the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17. There are three other defendants: two Russians and a Ukrainian.
One of the interviewers brought up the trial and a social media post often incorrectly attributed to Girkin, in which he allegedly bragged about the downing of a Ukrainian military aircraft that was later found to be MH17. The Russian state news agency TASS still carries an article from that day describing the downing of a Ukrainian military An-26, without any correction (no Ukrainian military aircraft were lost that day).
In the interview, Girkin denied writing any social media post about the downing of an aircraft the day MH17 went down. However, the social media post about the downing of a military plane came from a group which promoted statements by the Russian-led forces in Donbas. Moreover, a Twitter account for the insurgents’ self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic also reported the downing of a Ukrainian An-26 military aircraft.
The words Girkin chose in denying responsibility deserve attention. Referring to Russian-led local forces in Donbas as “the militia,” he told Komsomolskaya Pravda: “The militia did not bring down the Boeing (MH17),” and added that the militia had no means with which to bring the airliner down while he was in Ukraine.
The interviewer then asked: “So there weren’t any Russian Buks (Buk M1 surface-to-air missile systems) there?”
“I repeat once again: The militia didn’t shoot down the Boeing,” Girkin replied. “I can answer only for the militia.”
The fact that Girkin, now in Russia, seemed to dodge any mention of Russian Buks is noteworthy for where he drew the line. Russia has denied any involvement in the war in Ukraine even though investigators with the international Joint Investigative Team (JIT) believe the Buk M1 system used in the shootdown belonged to Russia’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade.
The open-source investigative organization Bellingcat, which has traced movements of the Buk, has said Russian crew members may have accompanied the surface-to-air missile system into Ukraine and worked with local collaborators.
Girkin gave a similar denial in an interview with BBC correspondent Steve Rosenberg on March 10. Asked whether he knew who shot down the plane, Girkin responded: “Let me repeat once again, the rebels didn’t shoot down the Boeing. I have nothing more to say.” Rosenberg then asked Girkin if the airliner was shot down by Russian soldiers, to which Girkin responded by abruptly ending the interview.
Girkin’s denials appear designed to absolve the force he commanded of responsibility while protecting Russia’s story line. In a 2014 interview, Girkin claimed responsibility for starting the war in Donbas.
Igor Girkin assisted in the annexation of Crimea in March 2014. Later that spring, in Donbas, he briefly served as “Defense Minister” for the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic.” In the trial currently underway in the Netherlands, he and three other suspects -- Sergei Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov, and Ukrainian national Leonid Kharchenko -- are charged with causing the downing of MH17 and the deaths of its 298 passengers and crew. All four are believed to be in Russia, which does not extradite its citizens.