On Nov. 14, the Joint Investigation Team (JIT), set up after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, released audio recordings of phone calls intercepted just days before and after the airliner went down over eastern Ukraine. The intercepts, provided by Ukraine’s main security agency, the SBU, suggest significant involvement of Russian military and security officials on the separatists’ self-declared “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR) at the time. The JIT released the audio recordings in an appeal for new witnesses.
“The indications of close ties between Russian government officials and leaders of the DPR raise questions about their possible involvement in the deployment of the BUK-TELAR [missile], which brought down flight MH17 on 17 July 2014,” the JIT said. “The JIT already concluded this BUK TELAR originated from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade, a unit of the Russian armed forces from Kursk in the Russian Federation. The JIT is looking for witnesses who can share information about those who commanded the deployment of this BUK-TELAR.”
The JIT said it wanted to determine whether four top Russian officials had “a role in the planning and execution of military operations in the summer of 2014” in eastern Ukraine and were “involved in the deployment of the BUK TELAR on 17 July 2014.” Those officials are Vladislav Surkov, a longtime aide to President Vladimir Putin, Sergey Aksyonov, the prime minister of Russian-occupied Crimea, Sergey Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister, and Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB).
“Russia categorically rejects all allegations of involvement in the crash and has repeatedly stated that the investigation is biased,” Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency wrote in response to the JIT’s release of the recordings.
Likewise, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters in Moscow that the new recordings were "fake" and "unconfirmed," and alleged that prosecutors had fabricated evidence.
The Separatist Chain of Command
In one of the intercepted phone calls, which took place on July 3, 2014, DPR leader Alexander Borodai purportedly said: “I’m carrying out orders and protecting the interests of one and only state, the Russian Federation. That’s the bottom line.”
Russia’s FSB and GRU
In a July 18, 2014 call, a DPR field commander with the nom de guerre “Mongol” and another separatist commander calling himself “Sherif” indicated that they took orders from Moscow – Mongol from the FSB, and Sherif from the GRU:
Mongol: We get the orders from Moscow as well. It’s the same with us.
Sherif: But it’s FSB in your case? Right?
Sherif: And it’s GRU in our case. That’s the only difference.
The nom de guerre “Mongol” has been identified as used by Slepnev, Stanislav Aleksandrovich -- the then-commander of so-called Donetsk Spetsnaz (special troops) wanted by the Ukraine security on war crime accusations.
Sergey Shoigu – Russian Defense Minister
In a July 1, 2014, conversation between Mongol and a person who identified himself as the commandant of the eastern Ukrainian city of Makeyevka, Shoigu is cited as the person who determines the separatists’ chain of command:
“What happens next is a bunch of men with a mandate from Shoygu (Shoigu) will arrive and kick the local warlords the (expletive) out of the units.”
Alexander Bortnikov – Director of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB)
Alexander Bortnikov’s name came up in intercepted calls as the person who approved the delivery of intelligence equipment to DPR forces. The requested gear included night vision equipment, camouflage uniforms, infrared viewers, gas masks, ammunition and armored vehicles.
Vladimir Putin’s aide since 2013, also known as the Kremlin’s “gray cardinal,” served as Russian special envoy to eastern Ukraine. Surkov is mentioned or heard on multiple intercepted calls. He is heard either giving orders to the DPR leaders or receiving requests for military and logistic aid and discussing the delivery of such aid.
In a July 11, 2014 phone call with Surkov, the DRP’s Borodai said he urgently needed military support from Moscow. Surkov asked him to hold on for a week, saying: “I will solve this by Monday-Tuesday.” Surkov also urged Borodai to hold a government meeting to publicly discuss DPR preparations for the winter season in order “[t]o let them all know that we are there for a long time.”
The audio recordings released by the JIT are by no means the first evidence put forward of close coordination between Russian officials and the separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. Immediately following the MH17 shootdown, Ukraine’s intelligence service released what it said was intercepted phone calls between separatist commanders discussing the incident. One of those conversations purportedly included a Russian military intelligence officer.