Russian unit, GRU officer linked to 2014 shoot-down of airliner over Ukraine

Officials from the Netherlands and Australia today formally stated that they are convinced Russia was responsible for the deployment of the “Buk” anti-aircraft missile system that shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (ML17) in 2014.  The announcement came a day after a Dutch-led joint investigation team released a report on their findings, which concluded the missile had belonged to the Russian Army’s 53rd anti-aircraft brigade, which was based outside the city of Kursk, north of the Ukrainian border.

Physical evidence collected by investigators, along with radar track and flight recorder data, pointed to the use of a specific warhead type associated with Buk surface-to-air missiles. Paint transferred from fragments of the missile to the aircraft’s fuselage was matched with recovered parts of the missile.

Russia has long denied that any of its military equipment ever crossed the border into eastern Ukraine, and the Russians presented several alternative scenarios—including blaming the downing of the airliner on a Ukrainian Air Force pilot. The Russians at first claimed to have radar evidence proving their allegation, but the country then said it was lost—only to claim they had found it again just two days before the Joint Investigative Team’s 2016 press conference. The separate target that Russia claimed to have identified on radar was actually part of ML14’s fuselage breaking away after the missile detonated.

A significant portion of the evidence pointing to the involvement of the 53rd brigade’s missile systems came from open source intelligence analysis, using photos and videos posted by Russians to social media sites that showed a convoy of vehicles from the 53rd headed toward the Ukrainian border. Details from the images and videos, including license plates on the military vehicles and details of the surroundings that were matched with Google Street View photos, provided investigators with the route and timeline of the Buk missile systems’ movements.

Further research from investigators and reporters at the open source intelligence research group Bellingcat, the Russian investigative news site The Insider, and McClatchy News Service’s Washington, DC bureau identified an officer of Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (abbreviated as GRU) who was tied to the deployment of the Buk antiaircraft system involved in the shoot-down of ML17.

Working from interviews with separatists, recorded phone calls, and calling application data, the team was able to track down Oleg Vladimirovich Ivannikov—even calling him on his associated number and getting him to identify himself, providing a voice sample in the process. Ivannikov has been connected with other covert military operations, including serving under a pseudonym for eight years in the government of  the Russian backed separatists in South Ossetia—first as chairman of the security council and later as defense minister.

Russian journalists reported that Ivannikov’s current role included providing training and money for “private” military operations in Syria, such as the one that attacked US forces (and was beaten back with heavy casualties) earlier this year.

There has been previous ample evidence of Russia’s involvement with eastern Ukraine separatists. Russian social media has even provided videos made by Russians of rocket launches from the Russian side of the border targeting Ukraine; Google Earth images have shown evidence of Russian military vehicle movement and rocket launches. And Russian troops have even made social media posts from within Ukraine, including the strange case of “Sergeant Selfie”—a Russian soldier who left geo-tagging of his imaged turned on while posting pictures of himself inside his armored vehicle.

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