A Dutch-led team of independent prosecutors has released a damning new set of audio recordings that it says captures conversations between separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine and top Russian officials that took place just days before Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down in July 2014.
The recordings appear to prove that the separatist units accused of shooting down the plane were in almost daily contact with senior Kremlin and Russian military officials at the time.
Russia has denied any involvement in the fatal disaster, which took place over a Russian-held region of eastern Ukraine in July 2014.
Investigators say the jet, which was carrying 298 people, was brought down by a Russian BUK missile system deployed by the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Brigade, which was based in the western Russian city of Kursk.
The calls, which were caught on tape, allegedly capture talks between Alexander Borodai, the self-proclaimed prime minister of the Russian-backed separatist Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), Igor Girkin, the group’s defense minister, and Russian officials Sergei Aksyonov and Vladislav Surkov. Aksyonov was appointed by Russia as the leader of Crimea after Russia annexed the peninsula in March 2014. Surkov is Putin’s aide in the Presidential Executive Office and a chief adviser.
The Moscow Times English-language Russian news outlet and AFP report that in three of the calls, the Donetsk separatists are overheard admitting they are protecting Russian interests. They also say they are acting on orders of Russia’s intelligence agencies.
“I’m carrying out orders and protecting the interests of one and only state, the Russian Federation,” Borodai is heard saying. “That’s the bottom line.”
In a different call just days before MH17 went down, a DPR commander is heard saying that the “men are coming with a mandate from Shoigu,” referring to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
“We have called your one three times. In short, he has already given an order to whatshisname... They agreed on providing us [...] after receiving an order from the person beginning with “Sh”... Do you know him?” a commander is heard saying.
Borodai responds, “No, I do not. Who is this?”
The commander responds, “Shoigu, Shoigu.”
The rebel commander is then is heard saying the men will “kick the local warlords out of the units,” and “people from Moscow” will take over the command. After the plane went down, Surkov is heard promising Borodai that Russian reinforcements will arrive soon.
The Dutch-led international team of investigators, which goes by the acronym JIT, says the tapes show Russian influence over the Donetsk leaders.
“Mutual contacts intensified in the first half of July 2014,” JIT wrote in a statement. “There was almost daily telephone contact between the leadership of the DPR and their contacts in the Russian Federation.”
The investigators go on to say that the phone calls are alarming. “The indications for close ties between leaders of the DPR and Russian government officials raise questions about their possible involvement in the deployment of the BUK,” JIT said.
Murder charges in the MH17 investigation were brought by the JIT over the summer against Russian nationals Girkin, Sergei Dubinsky, and Oleg Pulatov, as well as Ukrainian citizen Leonid Kharchenko. The trial is scheduled to begin in March 2020.