But actually, active-duty Russian military officers shot down MH17. A colonel from the covert operations arm of Russia’s main military intelligence agency, the GRU, was with the anti-aircraft missile launcher and in charge of it, and a two-man crew of operators from Russia’s Air Defense Forces were with it the entire time it was in Ukraine.
This article lays out the evidence that a Russian GRU officer shot down MH17, most of which has been in the public domain for more than a year. Some of the evidence was included by the Dutch Safety Board in a video published on Youtube during the course of its investigation. That investigation ultimately confirmed that a Russian Buk-M air defense system shot down MH17, but it deferred to a separate criminal investigation by Dutch prosecutors to determine who was responsible.
The Dutch criminal investigation, which is continuing, undoubtedly has all the evidence referred to here. Ultimately, the most important question Dutch prosecutors will need to answer is how strongly they’re willing to lay the blame for the loss of 298 lives on the Russian state.
Understanding the events that led up to the MH17 tragedy will help to understand the nature of the conflict and how it is likely to develop. The personal story of the GRU colonel responsible for shooting down MH17 provides a vivid example of how the Kremlin controls southeast Ukraine, and of what sort of people are on the ground doing the job.
Although the events are now more than 18 months in the past and much has since changed, the GRU colonel is almost certainly still one of the top Russian commanders on the ground in southeast Ukraine. He appears to also be the steward and custodian of the Ukrainian separatist “prime minister” who nominally controls most of Russian-occupied southeast Ukraine.
That Russia appears to be not even trying to cultivate a genuine pro-Russian local leadership that could potentially retain power without direct Russian military support suggests that Russia has no intention of withdrawing its forces from southeast Ukraine anytime soon. Perhaps the most important lesson of this investigation is that no genuine progress is being made towards a negotiated resolution of the conflict. That reading has recently been confirmed by Russia’s air strikes in northwest Syria, which make clear that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, puts a low priority on getting western sanctions lifted.
Instead, the problem of the Russian occupation of southeast Ukraine is being left to the next US president, together with the problems of Russian annexation of Crimea and the Russian intervention in Syria. The passive and pacifist outgoing US president, Barak Obama, has taught Putin to expect almost anything he does to be accommodated with minimal confrontation. That’s a recipe for a shrill response from Putin and a deepening of the developing “new Cold War” as soon as he is more than minimally confronted.
The focus of this investigation is a senior GRU covert operations officer who goes by the name of Sergey Petrovsky.
There is more information about Petrovsky in the public domain than for any other Russian officer of his rank in southeast Ukraine, for three reasons. First, he was personally in charge of the air defense system that shot down Malaysian Airlines passenger jet MH17, which was delivered to him at the location from which it fired at MH17 three hours before MH17 was hit.
Second, until then, at least one of Petrovsky’s telephones was being monitored and recorded by Ukraine’s main intelligence agency, the SBU. Third, the next day, the SBU decided to expose its monitoring and publish the intercepted calls, in order to prove to the world Russia’s responsibility for the disaster.
Ironically, however, news media completely ignored the publication of Petrovsky’s intercepted calls. The SBU didn’t provide enough information to allow journalists to quickly grasp their meaning and importance. Instead, news reports from the day focused on less important but more easily understood conversations of other Russian officers in east Ukraine, which the SBU published at the same time. Since then, no news media has revisited the recordings to do a more thorough investigation. To the best of my knowledge, no professional news organization outside Ukraine and Russia has ever so much as mentioned Petrovsky.
Even in Russia and Ukraine very little has been written about Petrovsky, most of it by bloggers. Before an earlier version of this investigation was published in July 2015, the only detailed information written on Petrovsky was in a book on the MH17 tragedy by my old friend and former colleague, Jaroslav Koshiw. Our investigations were completely separate, except that I’m indebted to Koshiw for finding a 2003 interview of Petrovsky about his former job in Chechnya.
My investigation also draws on some of the more than 1,800 messages Petrovsky posted in 2014 and 2015 in a Russian chat room set up to promote Russian military intervention in Ukraine. I also refer to the excellent work of Bellingcat, an independent group of open-source investigators that has collected many photos and videos uploaded to the internet that corroborate and confirm the authenticity of Petrovsky’s intercepted phone calls.
Taken together, the evidence makes clear that Petrovsky is one of the top Russians on the ground in southeast Ukraine. But long before Petrovsky arrived in Ukraine, he was a GRU covert operations officer in Chechnya. His job there, of course, was not to instigate or support separatists. His job was to hunt down and kill them.
Petrovsky was interviewed in 2003 by Izvestiya, then an oligarch’s newspaper that often questioned the relatively new Putin administration. Putin had recently declared victory over Chechen separatists and was working on creating a loyalist Chechen administration. The Izvestiya journalist was there to expose that the fighting wasn’t really finished.
Somehow the journalist connected with Petrovsky while he was leading a military intelligence unit hunting down rebels in the Chechen highlands. Petrovsky then commanded a crew of six who drove around in an armored reconnaissance vehicle, a wheeled armored vehicle with artillery and sophisticated radio gear. Petrovsky identified himself to the journalist only as “Khmury,” a nickname he also used in his recent chat room posts. The 2003 interviewee and the writer of the 2014 and 2015 chat posts are unmistakably the same person.
Petrovsky said he got the nickname, which means “gloomy,” “because I don’t like to smile.” And he seethed with hatred for Chechens. When the journalist asked who he was fighting, Petrovsky let it rip. “With those who don’t want to live in Russia by our Russian laws, who don’t want to pray to our faith. The Chechens are an asinine nation. There are, of course, among them good people, but the majority are monsters. From time immemorial they lived by looting and killing. It’s in their blood. Even their own peasants they take for suckers. Who in Chechnya is a respected man? Those who get rich in Moscow, or who have hundreds of slaves, or to the bitter end run among the mountains with machine guns. Normal Chechens, the Russified ones, already fled from here.
Petrovsky said there were about 300 fighters in the valley he covered, which by then had too large a Russian presence for the rebels to risk any large-scale attacks. Asked how he would handle the situation if it were up to him, he said: “To begin with I’d destroy the entire local leadership. By any means. Shoot them or blow them up. I’d blame it on the Wahabbists, and then give Chechnya’s territory in parts to Ingushetia, Dagestan and Stavropol. There shouldn’t be any such place as Chechnya. It should be dissolved in Russia, and Chechens assimilated.”
Inside his armored vehicle Petrovsky had hung pictures of Vasily Margelov, a Soviet paratrooper commander in World War II and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and Kurt Student, Hitler’s top paratrooper commander. “All paratroopers are brothers,” he said.
Petrovsky portrayed himself as a man driven by zealous nationalism and patriotism for the Soviet Union. Asked under what circumstances he could fight for another (not Russian) side, he answered: “Only for more money, and only these days. In Soviet times I wouldn’t have for anything. That was a society of social fairness. These days I don’t feel myself a citizen of my country. Rabble!”
“Khmury” said he attended a special forces military school in Kamenets-Podolsk, in western Ukraine. That suggests he might have been born and raised in Ukraine, though he obviously considers himself an ethnic Russian. In the published phone calls Petrovsky has a neutral accent, with no obvious Russian or Ukrainian markers.
Petrovsky went on to Moscow’s Frunze Military Academy, one of the Soviet Union’s top military schools. Probably around the same time he graduated, in his late 20s, the USSR split. Petrovsky evidently took Russian citizenship, as he became a career Russian military officer. According to his account to Izvestiya, he had been fighting there since 1995, with occasional vacations and breaks for further training. Petrovsky described himself as a “specialist in diversions.”
The journalist asked: if there’s no Russia, what was he fighting for? “Khmury” answered: “For the Russian people. For that little part that’s still preserved. For me, my soldiers are the Russian people.”
When the journalist reminded “Khmury” that he thought most Russians are “rabble,” Khmury answered: “Give us hope in the future and we’ll crush them all.” The journalist suggested his own life was being threatened. And Petrovsky went back to ranting about Chechens. “They complain that their relatives are disappearing. But it’s not that simple. Normal people in Chechnya don’t disappear. Monsters are disappearing, who need to be destroyed and cleansed out.”
Asked if it was his team that was disappearing Chechens, Petrovsky claimed responsibility for half. Another 20%, he said, were killed by locals for cooperating, and 30% were killed in local squabbles.
Asked how he got over the difficulty of killing, Petrovsky said: “Hate helped.”
Petrovsky ended the interview with: “Okay, enough, I already told you enough for two Hague tribunals.” The journalist asked why he told it. Petrovsky answered: “I’m tired of the lawlessness. Maybe people will read the article and something will turn in their ugly brains. It can’t be this way. I haven’t gone completely crazy, but something important in me has been destroyed. I can kill a man like sticking two fingers. I don’t feel a thing.”
The next appearance of Petrovsky in the public record that I’m aware of was in April 2014, when the Russian military’s attention had shifted to Ukraine. That January, a pro-Russian Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovich, had fled to Russia to escape huge street protests that sacked his party headquarters in Kiev and were threatening to invade his presidential offices. That February, Russia began a covert intervention in Crimea, which quickly transformed into an overt annexation. Then in early April, groups of Russian paramilitaries and covert operations officers, supported by local separatists, began seizing central public buildings in a string of towns and cities in Ukraine’s southeastern Donbass region.
Igor Strelkov, a Russian who identified himself vaguely as a colonel in reserve, was taking responsibility for leading the operation. He had been promoting separatism and Russian intervention in Ukraine on the internet since early February, a couple weeks before the Crimea operation. He began by creating a chat room on the forums of antikvariat.ru, a web site designed for enthusiasts, collectors and re-enactors of Russian history that attracts many hard-line nationalists. By mid-April Strelkov was head of a brigade occupying the Donbass city of Slovyansk, and he was calling himself Defense Minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic.
On April 29, Petrovsky began writing comments in Strelkov’s chat room, using the handle “Plokhoy Soldat” (Bad Soldier) and an avatar that said “Khmury.” His first comment was a response to a post by Strelkov complaining that media commentators doubted he was capable of leading “reconstruction.” Petrovsky wrote: “Everyone should take care of their own business, a reconstructor: recon, a lieutenant: capturing Crimea, Slovyansk.”
Petrovsky posted frequently from then, establishing himself as a friend of Strelkov’s, a hater of the new Ukrainian government and a not always fully understanding admirer of Putin. During this period Petrovsky didn’t discuss any involvement in the Ukraine intervention. His chat profile identified his location as Rostov-on-Don, the nearest major Russian city to the Donbass. But Petrovsky had probably been deeply involved as one of the top leaders of the Russian operation in southeast Ukraine since it began in early April. It’s likely that Petrovsky was in Ukraine even before April, recruiting local separatists and preparing.
Petrovsky’s chat room posts were nothing like those of the thousands of enthusiastically pro-Putin commenters on mainstream internet sites that have come to be known as Putin’s “troll army.” Petrovsky wrote relatively honestly and realistically about Putin’s project in east Ukraine and the weak support it found among the local population. By late April the Ukrainian army was responding forcefully and the small numbers of Russian fighters and local supporters were pinned down and looking vulnerable.
In a May 2 post, Petrovsky wrote: “The question is, what next, if Russia doesn’t send in the army? And after all it won’t, we already understand that. The question is, why rouse the Donbass, give it hope. After all it’s not Crimea, here and now no more than 30 percent are for federalization or for joining Russia, let’s be realists. So a legitimate question arises: WHY rouse the people, give hope, send Strelkov (and after all we all perfectly understand that without support from the top his initiative would have gone to zilch), and then simply throw these people at the mercy?”
By “the people,” Petrovsky seems to have in mind the same concept of the Russian people he explained in the interview in Chechnya. He seems to mean the good (in his eyes) minority in the Donbass of Russians and Russified other nationalities who are loyal to Russia. It clearly doesn’t bother him that, by his own estimate, at least 70% of the residents of the Donbass oppose him.
In a follow-up post, Petrovsky explained why it made no sense for Putin to seize the Donbass and not take more of Ukraine: “Fine, let’s model the situation, purely abstractly. They sent in the [army], a month passes, and WHO will pay the salaries of budget workers? And what exactly comes next? In reality, Russia doesn’t need the Donbass without Ukraine.”
“The Donbass, if you remember your geography, was the largest region by territory in the USSR, bigger even than the Moscow region. There are 4.5 million people here, mainly mines and metallurgy. Any person even a tiny bit acquainted with economics understands that for metallurgy there have to be two ingredients nearby: coal and iron ore. If the Kryvbass [Ukraine’s central ore region] stays in Ukraine, no one’s going to bring ore from the Urals or coal to the Urals [where Russia’s steel industry is concentrated]. So what to do with 4.5 million people? It’s not Crimea, where there’s sea and they’re opening gaming zones and so on. The people need to either not be given hope, or follow through to the end. I’m talking about Putin.”
One of Petrovsky’s most interesting early posts was a half-hearted defense of Strelkov, whose military leadership abilities were being questioned by others on the forum after the Ukrainian army captured most of Slovyansk on May 2. Days earlier, on April 28, the EU had added Strelkov to a list of Russians under mild sanctions and identified him as a Russian GRU officer. Strelkov reacted by denying ties to the GRU. He has never specified in which armed force he is a reserve colonel.
Petrovsky in his post suggested that Strelkov was from a different special forces unit: the Alfa division of the FSB, the successor to the Soviet KGB and Russia’s main intelligence agency. Referring to Strelkov by his forum handle, Kotych, Petrovsky wrote: “Not to insult Kotych – he has always been an excellent ops man – but what was needed here was particularly a SPECIALIST and preferably of the corresponding profile, not from Alfa but from GRU special forces.” Petrovsky hadn’t yet been publicly identified as a GRU officer himself.
Over the next two months, the Ukrainian army kept Strelkov pinned down in Slovyansk while trying to encircle all the Russian and Russian-led forces in east Ukraine. This strategy created pockets of Ukrainian-held territory wedged between the Russian border and the Russian-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. Ukraine used cargo planes to ferry in fresh troops and evacuate the wounded from these isolated pockets, and fighter planes flew high-risk missions into the isolated Ukrainian-held zones to attack the Russian forces from behind.
It was for this battle, to prevent the encirclement of his forces in Donetsk and Luhansk, that Putin began sending in heavy armor and air-defense systems. Starting in June 2014, Ukrainian fighter jets and cargo planes found themselves seriously threatened. On June 14, a Ukrainian cargo plane was shot down while trying to reach the very southeast corner of Ukraine, known as Zelenopillya or Zelenopolye. Fourty soldiers and nine crew were killed. After that, Ukrainian planes flew higher whenever possible.
In July, Ukraine stepped up its offensive. Strelkov’s and some other Russian-led groups were chased out of Slovyansk and some other front-line towns, and the Ukrainian effort to complete the encirclement intensified. Putin fought back by moving increasing quantities of armor over the border and supplying more and better air defense systems.
Russia launched a major counter-attack on July 11, using a combination of more troops and equipment within Ukraine and heavy artillery guns positioned just inside Russia, which targeted Ukrainian army positions near the border. The counter-attack aimed to cut off and surround a group of Ukrainian forces that were holding Zelenopillya.
Ukraine employed fighter jets to help clear an escape path, but Russia had prepared for that by sending in a Buk-M. That was the context in which MH17 was shot down.
In the Russian operation to trap and destroy the Ukrainian troops in Zelenopillya, Petrovsky was field commander of the Russian and Russian-led forces making the pincer movement from the north. His battalion was positioned near Marynivka, or Marinovka in Russian, a Ukrainian village near the Russian-Ukrainian border and about 80 kilometers southeast of Donetsk (not to be confused with another Marynivka northwest of Donetsk).
Petrovsky’s group took a position from which Ukrainian forces couldn’t escape westward out of Zelenopillya without being exposed to attack from two sides: Petrovsky’s group from the north, and the artillery inside Russia from the south. The fighting was particularly brutal on July 16.
In an intercepted phone call (jump to 4:16) the next day, July 17, Petrovsky described the battle to another Russian GRU officer operating elsewhere in east Ukraine. Petrovsky also expressed relief that he had received a Buk-M, an advanced anti-aircraft system capable of shooting planes at higher altitudes and speeds than any system Russia had yet delivered into southeast Ukraine.
Note that my translations ignore gratuitous use of the Russian curse “blyad” (“whore”).
Petrovsky: Yes, Botsman, I’m listening.
Botsman (a nickname): Greetings, older brother, how are things?
Petrovsky: Greetings, well, not so good. We’re in Marinovka, so that’s why not so good, how to tell you. We’ll hold out.
Botsman: What’s the deal?
Petrovsky: Well, what do you think? They’re pounding with artillery constantly, only just now there’s a break.
Botsman: Yeah I understood …
Petrovsky: We knocked out an airplane just now, a Sushka [a Sukhoy fighter jet]. And we already have a Buk-M, we received it. They’re trying to break out of Zelenopolye, but their only way out is past me. Yesterday we shot down two Sushki, today a second [sic]. Thank God, this morning the Buk-M arrived. So it got a bit lighter. But, of course, it’s pretty heavy.
Botsman: What can I say? If you need something, you call me, I’ll come right to you.
Petrovsky: Thanks, brother. But I’m planning to get out of here in a couple hours, it has kind of calmed down. In a couple hours I’m going to Donetsk. Because they sent to me there three more Gvozdiki [tanks with 120mm artillery guns]. I’m going to bring the Gvozdiki here, because it’s very heavy for us here now.
The Buk didn’t actually arrive to the area until around 1 pm on July 17. It was photographed and video recorded driving south from the town of Snizhne in the direction of Marynivka a little after then. A reporter from the Associated Press who just happened to be in Snizhne reported that he had seen the Buk in a brief dispatch that day. According to the reporter, the Buk moved through Snizhne at 1:05 p.m. The vehicle, which carried four 18-foot missiles, was in a convoy with two civilian cars.
At 4:20 pm on July 17, MH17 was shot down by the Buk from a position between Snizhne and Marynivka.
The tragedy occurred partly because few people knew that such sophisticated equipment was in southeast Ukraine. There have been many separatist movements covertly instigated by foreign powers, but the Russian-organized separatism in southeast Ukraine was the first such insurgency to feature anti-aircraft rockets capable of hitting passenger aircraft at cruising altitudes. The closest parallel to the Ukraine situation was in 2013, when Russia delivered several of the same model of air-defense systems to the Syrian government, which attempted to transfer them on to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel responded with an air raid into Syria and destroyed them.
When publishing the above conversation, the SBU didn’t specify one crucial detail: the time it was recorded. I believe it must have been recorded very soon after 4:20pm, and that it shows Petrovsky discussing how he and his unit used the Buk to shoot down what he thought was a Ukrainian Sukhoy fighter, but was actually MH17. There was no Sukhoy fighter, or any other plane besides MH17, shot down in east Ukraine that day.
In other words, the decision to fire at MH17 was almost certainly a mistake made in the fog of war. But it was a mistake made by professional Russian soldiers, not by the amateur Ukrainian separatist fighters who support them. Petrovsky almost certainly was the person who gave the order to fire at MH17, and the person who operated the controls and fired the missile at MH17 was also an active duty Russian military officer. Both of them were performing their assigned duties under a carefully established chain of command that led directly from the Russian president.
When the SBU published Petrovksy’s phone calls, the video identified him as Sergey Nikolayevich Petrovsky, born 1964, a GRU officer, with the nickname “Khmury.” Oddly enough, Petrovsky confirmed the identification.
His chat room post of July 18 said: “Well what, decadents, now thanks to the betrayal of certain representatives of Moscow who gave up my personal information, allow me to officially introduce myself: deputy minister of defense of the Donetsk People’s Republic for intelligence, colonel Petrovsky Sergey Nikolayevich, also known as Khmury, also known as truly yours Plokhoy Soldat.”
The Donetsk People’s Republic, known by its Russian acronym DNR, is one of two quasi-states that have been declared in southeast Ukraine.
It’s possible of course that Petrovsky’s chat room outburst was a ruse. Sergey Nikolayevich Petrovsky might be just another pseudonym. For what it’s worth (not much), the year of birth published by the SBU, 1964, doesn’t match the age of 36 that “Khmury” gave in the 2003 interview. But at least we have some name to personally identify Petrovsky, which is more than one usually has for a man of his profession.
Petrovsky continued to post regularly on antikvariat.ru. But he never discussed the Buk or MH17 in the chat room, and none of the other participants ever asked him about it. Apparently it’s the kind of forum where, when a member is accused in public of responsibility for the deaths of almost 300 people, his fellow forum participants know not to ask any questions.
Other intercepted phone calls published by the SBU show Petrovsky organizing the delivery of the Buk to Snizhne. They show that a two-man crew of Russian soldier operators arrived with the Buk from Russia, and pile on evidence that Petrovsky was in charge of the Buk while it was in Ukraine.
In this conversation (here at 1:35) Petrovsky speaks with an apparently local, Ukrainian-accented assistant nicknamed “Buryat” (the beet), who picked up the Buk-M from a Russian army group at the Russian border and delivered it to Donetsk.
Petrovsky: I’m listening, Buryatik.
Buryat: And where should I haul this beauty, Nikolayevich?
Petrovsky: Which? That one?
Buryat: Yeah, yeah. I brought it. I’m already in Donetsk.
Petrovsky: Is it the one I’m thinking of? The M, oy, BM, that one?
Buryat: Yeah, yeah, the Buk, the Buk.
Petrovsky: And it’s on the trailer?
Buryat: Yeah, it’s on it. It ought to be unloaded somewhere, to hide it.
Petrovsky: It’s with the crew?
Buryat: Yes, with the crew.
Petrovsky: Don’t hide it. It’s going there now. You understood where?
Buryat: I understood. Well, it ought to be unloaded just temporarily, so no one sees it.
The Dutch Safety Board included this conversation (here at 2:30) in a video it published in May 2015, which laid out much of what is known about the Buk’s route into and out of Ukraine and appealed to anyone with more information to get in contact. The Dutch Safety Board video didn’t identify Petrovsky, instead referring to him vaguely as “a separatist,” but did add the important detail of the exact time of the conversation, which was 9:08 am, July 17, 2014.
Corroborating the reference to a crew traveling with the Buk, local witnesses told journalists from BBC Panorama they had seen and heard the Buk crew, who had Russian accents and appeared to be soldiers. One eyewitness told the BBC the two-man crew who accompanied the Buk were “Well-disciplined, unlike the rebels, and not wearing the standard Ukrainian camouflage uniform sported by government and rebel troops alike. They had pure Russian accents. They say the letter ‘g’ differently to us.”
Bellingcat’s investigation showed that the particular Buk that was delivered to Snizhne came from a Russian military base in Kursk, north of Ukraine. It was recorded departing from there on June 23 together with a large convoy of military gear that was ostensibly heading to an exercise. Numerous photographs and videos posted to the internet show the convoy and several Buk units traveling between Kursk on June 23 and Millerovo, just east of Ukraine’s eastern border, on June 25.
Slightly after the conversation above, Petrovsky spoke again with “Buryat,” telling him where to take the Buk. This call reveals that Petrovsky initially expected to receive a set of two Buks, but there was a mix-up between the Russian army group that brought them to the border and Buryat. The Russians didn’t bring any trucks they were willing to lend, and Buryat brought only one truck. This conversation has been published only by the SBU (here at 2:11).
Petrovsky: Did you bring me one or two?
Buryat: One, one. Because there was a misunderstanding on their side. They didn’t send the truck over. They unloaded it and sent it over on its own power.
Petrovsky: It came on its own power, or on a truck?
Buryat: It crossed the border.
Petrovsky: And now you’re bringing it on the truck? Don’t go anywhere with it. I’ll tell you now where to take it. It’s going together with Vostok’s tanks.
Vostok was the name of a Donetsk-based group of fighters made up initially mainly of Ossetians and Chechens loyal to Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov. Given his responsibility for keeping down Chechen rebels against Russia, it’s understandable why Kadyrov would feel obliged to lend troops to Putin’s operation. From his perspective, the Russian operation in Ukraine is quashing a Ukrainian rebellion against Russian, which if successful could theoretically encourage Chechens to rebel.
In the next pair of conversations, Petrovsky speaks to two more Ukrainian-accented drivers in Donetsk. He tells one called Sanych that the Buk will be joining a military column that Sanych’s group was planning to relocate. Petrovsky then calls another man and directs him to split off from the column and head to a place called Pervomaisk, and wait there. These conversations have also been published only by the SBU (here at 2:41 and 3:10).
Petrovsky: Sanych, and where … the deal is that your guys are driving also my Buk-M, it’s on a truck. Where to send it to join with the column?
Sanych: Just past the motel, don’t pass Gornostayevska.
Petrovsky: Right after the hotel, yeah?
Petrovsky: Listen to me carefully. Just after you pass the motel circle, call Bibliotekar, there will be waiting, you understood what, right?
(unknown): Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Petrovsky: Take along only those that returned, as many as you need as accompaniment. Understood?
Petrovsky: The others leave behind here. Coming this way, there will be Pervomaisk nearby, look at a map.
(unknown): I got it.
Petrovsky: Locate yourself somewhere there in that area, bringing yours along, and those who stayed with you. Your task is to be reserve plus to defend that piece that you’re bringing, got it?
(unknown): Got it.
Petrovsky: The Gyurza (machine guns) bring along too. If there’s anything, I’m reachable. Okay?
As the Ukrainian blog Ukraine@war mapped out, Gornostayevska or Hornostayivska is the road in Donetsk where Vostok’s headquarters were located. The Buk was photographed for Paris Match that morning being driven on exactly that route towards Hornostayivska from the yard where the truck it was driven on is usually kept overnight.
There are many towns and villages in east Ukraine with names like “Pervomaisk” (it means First of May). Petrovsky is obviously referring to the village called Pervomaiske or Pervomaiskoye located just south of Snizhne. As Ukraine@war, Bellingcat and the Dutch Safety Board mapped out, the Buk and the truck carrying it were photographed and video-recorded several times along exactly that route.
The Dutch Safety Board’s video was most impressive for focusing on a Petrovsky conversation and some other of the most important evidence previously compiled by independent investigators. But it also introduced some new evidence: a few more conversations about the Buk that weren’t published by the SBU, but obviously were intercepted by the SBU and provided by it to the Dutch investigation.
These mainly provide further evidence, on top of Bellingcat’s research, that after the MH17 tragedy the Buk-M was hastily sent back across the Russian border. The hasty removal of the Buk from Ukraine shows an effort to conceal that it had been in Ukraine and implies an involvement by Russian officials senior to Petrovsky in the cover-up.
In one of these new conversations, recorded at 9:32 pm on the evening of July 17, an unidentified man who sounds like “Buryat” says he is still in Snizhne and discusses with another man the delivery of the Buk to the Russian border (here at 5:43).
The Dutch Safety Board also made a mistake of minor importance by understanding that a “fighter” who was to be driven back from the Buk’s drop-off point at the Russian border to Snizhne was one of the Buk’s crew. It would have been a very strange decision to send a Buk crew members back to Snizhne without the Buk, and I don’t hear anything in the recorded conversation that suggests it.
The Dutch Safety Board’s final report, published in October 2015, completely backed away from pursuing the people responsible for the tragedy. The report concluded that a Buk-M located in eastern Ukraine shot down MH17, but made no attempt at all to trace how the Buk got there, who was in charge of it, or how it was evacuated back to Russia. The report said it would be up to a separate criminal investigation by Dutch prosecutors to identify who was responsible for shooting down MH17. Those prosecutors have surely studied Petrovsky’s intercepted calls.
The crew of two air defense soldiers who accompanied the Buk into Ukraine have not been publicly identified. A Ukrainian independent investigator publicly identified one of the many Buk operators stationed at the Russian base in Kursk where the Buk used to shoot down MH17 is usually located (forward the video to 37:45). Bellingcat announced it had identified many of the Buk operators based at Kursk in a confidential report for the Dutch criminal investigation, but it hasn’t made the information public.
There is no direct evidence that Petrovsky gave the order to fire at MH17. We know only that he was in charge of the Buk at the time, as he had it delivered to his own location just three hours earlier. And we can hear him telling by phone how “we” used the Buk to shoot down a “Sushka.” There’s some small possibility that Petrovsky delegated responsibility for the Buk to one of the local rebels under his command, and told the Buk’s Russian crew to obey the Ukrainian’s orders. But that seems very unlikely. In any case, Petrovsky obviously bears responsibility for shooting down MH17 as the person who was in charge of the Buk while it was in Ukraine and who arranged its delivery to the location from which it was fired.
There is no satisfying explanation of how a passenger aircraft could have been mistaken for a Ukrainian military plane. Even with nothing more than a decent pair of eyeballs, it’s not hard to spot the difference between a Sukhoy fighter jet or the Antonov military cargo planes used by Ukraine and a Boeing 777 passenger plane. Boeing 777s are much bigger and fly much higher. The Buk-M missile launcher has a built-in radar that should have made identification easier. There were other passenger planes flying through the same area at about the same altitude on that same afternoon that weren’t fired on.
We have only a partial explanation of how the mistake might have happened. In another phone call intercepted by the SBU on the day of the tragedy and published on Youtube, another man identified by the SBU as a GRU officer, Igor Bezler, receives word from a man nicknamed Naimanets (“mercenary”) that a “bird” was flying his way. Bezler, who was located in Horlivka, 40 kilometers northeast of Donetsk, tells Naimanets to pass on the word. The SBU identified the call as having been made at 4:18 pm, making it clear that the “bird” was MH17.
Probably the information was then quickly relayed to Petrovsky or one of his men, on some phone or system the SBU wasn’t recording. Perhaps Petrovsky simply impulsively ordered the Buk crew to fire. Perhaps nobody thought to pay attention to the size or height in the sky of the plane.
After MH17, the Russian operation in and around Zelenopillya continued with a battle for control of Kozhevnya, a village near the Russian border about six kilometers southeast of the Marynivka where Petrovsky’s unit had been located the previous week. The battle figures in the standard Russian media biography of Alexander Zakharchenko, a Ukrainian separatist, who was reportedly promoted to the rank of major after being wounded in the hand on July 23 in fighting near Kozhevnya. Zakharchenko has admitted Kozhevnya was razed to the ground.
According to his public biography, Zakharchenko was at the time leader of the “Oplot” (“bulwark”) brigade. The close correspondence of times and locations makes it appear that the Oplot brigade nominally led by Zakharchenko and the brigade Petrovsky was leading in Marynivka the previous week are one and the same brigade.
According to Vladimir Socor of the Jamestown Foundation, Oplot originated in a pro-Yanukovich group of “street fighters.” There are many similar groups in Ukraine, and during Yanukovich’s rule some were employed to attack anti-government protesters. The ranks of such groups are filled with low-status, uneducated young men, but it’s possible Zakharchenko was a leader.
Usually such groups are linked to a particular big business group, but it’s possible Oplot established Russian connections before Yanukovich was ousted, or even that Oplot was from its founding a covertly Russian-backed organization. According to Zakharchenko’s biography, he and Oplot were involved in the occupation of Donetsk city hall in early April, one of the first events of the Russian operation in southeast Ukraine.
In August 2014, Zakharchenko was promoted to the position of “prime minister” of the Donetsk People’s Republic, a position that until then was occupied by a Russian. Since the area of the DNR is bigger and more populous than that of its sister quasi-state around Luhansk, that makes Zakharchenko, who still holds the title, nominally the highest-ranking Ukrainian separatist official. It also makes him nominally senior to Petrovsky, who identifies himself as a mere deputy defense minister.
But Zakharchenko is a 39-year-old former mining electrician with no known military or political experience before 2014, other than his reported involvement in Oplot. Petrovsky is a seasoned GRU colonel and about 50 years old. So far, no journalist has gained enough access to the inner sanctums of the forces in control of southeast Ukraine to actually witness first-hand who tells whom what to do. But it’s obviously hard to swallow the official story that Zakharchenko is Petrovsky’s boss. Socor judged Zakharchenko to be “the most junior, least educated and least experienced” member of the DNR’s nominal leadership.
In an October 2014 chat room post, Petrovsky drew a distinction between the Oplot brigade, which he said was led exclusively by Zakharchenko, and another, unnamed and undescribed group that Petrovsky referred to as “mine.” In February 2015, Petrovsky was asked by a chat room admirer about the men providing security to Zakharchenko in this video, shot on location after a victory by Russian forces in January. Petrovsky confirmed: “That’s Zakharchenko’s guard, mine.”
In that post Petrovsky was clearly referring only to the guards around Zakharchenko, not the whole unit. The post suggests Petrovsky’s men accompany Zakharchenko everywhere he goes, which on one hand might be in keeping with Petrovsky’s role as deputy defense minister of intelligence, but on the other hand suggest that Petrovsky is a kind of steward and custodian, managing and keeping a close eye on Zakharchenko. The guards that Petrovsky calls “mine” are likely a group of Russian GRU special forces attached to Petrovsky.
Petrovsky’s recorded calls make clear that he was in command of the brigade that was operating near Marinyvka in July 2014, and not just of some other commander’s retinue of guards. I suspect Petrovsky is actually in charge of the Oplot military brigade, and Zakharchenko is merely one of Petrovsky’s earliest and most trusted local recruits. Zakharchenko appears to be in reality little more than a spokesman, who was given the “prime minister” position precisely because he has no real authority.
While Zakharchenko was moving into the “prime minister” position in August 2014, the Kremlin was further ramping up its intervention. After the losses in Zelenopillya, the Ukrainian army abandoned the effort to surround both Donetsk and Luhansk and attempted instead to surround just Donetsk. The Ukrainian army began taking town on a north-south line between the two Russian-held cities, threatening to cut supply lines from Russia to Donetsk.
Putin reacted by for the first time sending in regular Russian army troops, with lots of heavy armor, thinly disguised as “volunteers.” The Ukrainian army suffered heavy losses, and in September the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, was convinced to submit to the first of two Minsk ceasefire agreements, which essentially permitted indefinite Russian control over much of southeast Ukraine.
The introduction of regular Russian army units changed the structure of Russian chains of command in southeast Ukraine. Russian paramilitary units, who were the leading fighting groups of the operation before August 2014, have since been little seen, and some have departed. Most of the Chechens and Ossetians of the former Vostok brigade have left. Although the Russian government still denies it has troops and armor in Ukraine, their presence has been extensively documented by Bellingcat and others.
The SBU in July 2015 named five generals and one colonel from the regular Russian armed forces that it said were operating as commanders of mixed Russian and separatist forces in Ukraine. While the arrival of Russian regular armed forces groups must to some extent have reduced Petrovsky’s importance, he clearly hasn’t been shunted aside, judging from his role as Zakharchenko’s custodian.
Petrovsky has hinted, very obliquely, that another of his roles is to remove Ukrainian leaders who step out of line.
The one time he discussed this in the chat room was in reference not to himself, but to another DNR official, Igor Bezler, and “defense intelligence staff.” Bezler has also been identified by the SBU as a GRU officer, though in his case there is no supporting evidence in the public domain.
In September 2014, a story spread on the internet that several leaders of the DNR and its sister quasi-state, the Luhansk People’s Republic, had decided to unite into a new state called “Novorossiya” (New Russia). Photos of documents circulated showing the appointment of a new military leader, “General Ivan Anatolievich Korsun,” who had never been heard of before.
Petrovsky then wrote in a chat room post that Bezler and “some defense intelligence staff” had detained Korsun in a “successful and carefully planned-ahead special operation.” Petrovsky was probably joking about Korsun. Most Ukrainian journalists and bloggers who followed the story came to the conclusion it was all a ruse and Korsun was a fictional character.
But Petrovsky was probably being honest about the job of a Russian military intelligence operative in occupied east Ukraine. If the “prime minister” were ever to fell too far out of line, the job of removing him would presumably fall to Petrovsky.
The fact that nominal authority in southeast Ukraine has been given to someone of such low status as Zakharchenko makes clear that Russia has no intention of genuinely implementing the Minsk agreement. Genuine implementation would include a full withdrawal of Russian armed forces. Without Russian military support, Zakharchenko would lose power almost immediately to the former Donbass elite, who fled the region in the wake of the Russian invasion.
Some of those exiled Donbass elites retain some of their traditional loyalty to Russia, but since the occupation most have nothing but fear and hatred for Vladimir Putin and his regime. Their desire for autonomy from Kiev would be chastened by worry that Putin could exploit any conflict they might have with Kiev to re-invade.
The same former elite could also return to power, through elections, if Ukraine were to retake control of southeast Ukraine by force. In other words, unless Russia cultivates a powerful local leadership able to command respect without direct Russian military backing, implementing the Minsk agreements would have practically the same long-term result for Putin as a surrender to the Ukrainian army. The Minsk process has stabilized the conflict, but it has not achieved any progress towards demilitarization or resolution.
If the next US president is as passive towards Russia as Barak Obama, which is unlikely, Putin could perhaps push for western support for a disingenuous implementation of Minsk. An ideal scenario for Putin would be western governments pressuring Kiev to grant constitutional autonomy to southeast Ukraine without any withdrawal of the Russian military. France and Italy and some other European governments would probably support it.
But if Putin were seriously pursuing that kind of scenario, it wouldn’t make much sense for him to be bombing Aleppo, which deprives his strongest supporters in Europe of any argument in his favor. It seems clear that Putin doesn’t really care much about getting sanctions lifted. Bear in mind that the only sanctions he could plausibly get lifted without any real military withdrawal from Ukraine are those of the EU, and current EU sanctions on Russia have little economic power. US sanctions are more powerful but would be much harder to get lifted.
Instead Russia seems to be satisfied with an indefinite military occupation of southeast Ukraine and an indefinite continuation of small-scale fighting along the long de facto border between Russian- and Ukrainian-controlled territories. Russia’s strategy appears to be one of attrition, in which the purpose of the fighting is not to gain territory but to cause various kinds of damage to Ukraine and wear down support for pro-Western politicians. Russia used a similar strategy with great success against the government of Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia. One of the most important elements of the strategy is to ensure that the security in Ukraine is considered too risky for large-scale western private investment.
The next big event on the horizon in the southeast Ukraine story is the election of the next US president. Hillary Clinton, by far the most likely winner, is promising to take a significantly harder line with Putin. The Republican challengers, all long-shots, range from taking a very hard line with Putin (Marco Rubio) to about the same stance as Clinton (Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz), while the unpredictable and hot-headed Donald Trump professes to admire Putin, but it seems unlikely he would keep that opinion.
Obama has been exceptionally accommodating of Putin, and Putin has become accustomed to that. Whoever the next US president is, much more direct confrontation with Putin is practically inevitable. Putin is likely to become shrill and overtly threatening as soon as he is confronted, or even just not accommodated.
My prediction is that the relationship between the US and Russia from 2017 till the end of Putin’s rule will be as bad as or worse than it was for most of the Cold War. The official investigation of the MH17 tragedy will play some role. Keep an eye on it.