On 17 July 2014, fifteen minutes after the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 takes off from the Schiphol Polder Runway, thousands of miles away a trailer with a BUK surface-to-air missile rides into the Ukrainian town of Snizhne. The two events are unrelated, and would have gone unnoticed, but not in 2014.
Only a few hours later, Snizhne and the Netherlands are forever connected. Who would ever have heard of this little village had it not been for the launch of that one fatal missile? Would we ever have had the ghostly symbolism of the sunflowers in the open field imprinted in our brains? Would we ever have known what a Buk was?
An hour later, MH17, carrying 298 passengers, is on its way to Kuala Lumpur as the trailer with the Buk is parked in the field south of Snizhne. The missile is to be used in the war, where Russia-backed separatists fight the Ukrainian government army. The separatists have a history of downing combat aircraft. As those aircraft fly higher and higher, heavier artillery with greater reach is needed.
160 scheduled flights fly over the battlefield at great heights that day. Too high for the day-to-day belligerence, but within reach of the new weapon that has just been delivered.
Hundreds of intercepted conversations paint a detailed picture of the situation at the time, the quarrelling, the theatre of war of the moment, the raw reality of a war and of the ambition to hit the Ukrainian air force where it hurts.
Tuesday, 15 July 2014
That morning, four ‘noses’, three ‘carnations’, an ’80’, and a loaded truck head for Donetsk. “I need to know where to take them? Directly to Donetsk, or do they go somewhere else?” asks someone who identifies himself on the phone as Bibliotekar. He addresses the man on the other end as Nikolayevich. The drama of war has its own secret language. The main characters hide behind call signs, and the weaponry is camouflaged by terms like ‘toys ‘or ‘carnations’.
The man on the receiving end is Sergey Nikolayevich Dubinsky. As a sign of seniority and respect, his comrades-in-arms address him by his father’s name, Nikolayevich. According to the Dutch law enforcement authorities, this Dubinsky has played a key role in the downing of flight MH17. In 2014, his phone was tapped by the Ukrainian authorities. The taps are an important basis for the evidence against the perpetrators. Nieuwsuur has the audiotapes of the phone calls made by Dubinsky in the months of July and August.
Based on those conversations, social media posts, and interviews with experts and people involved, Nieuwsuur has made this reconstruction. The separatists knew that their phones could be tapped, and often met in person, but when that is not possible, they talk on the phone.
Several videos have been made of the transport of the noses on 15 July. Hiding behind the mysterious code names of ‘noses’ and ‘carnations’ are four tanks, three howitzers, and an armoured vehicle. Bibliotekar accompanies these transports. “I have filled up at a gas station, will bring you the receipt.”
The transport on this Tuesday marks the increasing involvement of Russia. More and more material is brought in from Russia to the separatists. Bibliotekar accompanies the transports. It all starts in early July. On 8 July, he calls Dubinsky. He needs a new car, a Jeep because “where we are going, there are no roads”. His route starts at the smuggling trails on the Russo-Ukrainian border. The arms he brings are increasingly heavy and deadly. On 17 July, he takes the same route, but this time carrying a BUK anti-aircraft weapon: “Nikolayevich, where do I deliver this beauty?”
Wednesday, 16 July 2014
“Are you sleeping when there’s a war going on?” At 7.30 a.m. Dubinsky calls his deputy Oleg from his bed. Oleg – Oleg Pulatov – usually nicknamed Gyurza, the Viper. The chief in Donetsk wants to know where they are at the battle for Marinovka. Marinovka is a village in the South-East Donetsk region. No more than a main road and five dirt tracks, but at the same time a strategic place near the Russian border. It is the battle for this town that will eventually decide the fate of flight MH17.
Earlier that month, Pulatov had been ordered to conquer the border here. “Up to now, we have been unable to break through the defence of our adversary”, says Pulatov. The Ukrainian army still controls the Russian border. Dubinsky asks him if a couple of tanks will do the trick but, according to Pulatov, “without any strict military preparations”, that will be no use.
The rebels are trying to take Marinovka and want to break through to the Russian border. The fights are bloody. Around noon, commander Leonid Kharchenko calls. His unit is stuck in the town centre of Marinovka: “This is a circus.” He hides behind the call sign Krot, the Mole. Ukrainian army snipers fire at his positions, they “are shooting us down like dogs”. Pulatov has ordered him to defend Marinovka. “They have played a joke on us, stay there and entrench yourselves, but we [don’t have] any shovel or any fucking rotten thing.”
In this operation around Marinovka, four men play a crucial role. The Russian Dubinsky is the coordinator. The 58-year-old Major General has earned his stripes in the battles for Afghanistan and Chechnya. “He is like water”, says someone who has frequently talked to him, “a true espionage and intelligence guy”. He is someone who boasts his experience and becomes edgy when someone else questions his judgment.
In the spring of 2014, Dubinsky is living near Donetsk. When he learns that his old army buddy Girkin is taking military charge of the rebellion, he joins him. A month earlier, the Russian Igor Girkin also played a role in the annexation of Crimea. Dubinsky knows Girkin from the Chechnya war. The Russian Oleg Pulatov also fought there. He is Dubinsky’s deputy, but the conversations make clear that Dubinsky often chooses to ignore his right-hand man and directly contacts the battalion commander Kharchenko. In July, this former market vendor is given the choice to join another commander, but he chooses Dubinsky. The two men seem to be close.
On 16 July, Kharchenko reports that many men in his unit have been injured or killed. “We are just cannon fodder here”, says Kharchenko. “It just sucks”, responds Dubinsky.
The Ukrainian army deploys artillery and combat aircraft to strike at the positions of the rebels in the village of Marinovka. “They are bombarding us, we are constantly under fire”, reports Kharchenko late that afternoon. Dubinsky wants to know about the losses. “A lot, Nikolayevich, a lot”.
The separatists are not only under continuous fire from the Ukrainian army artillery, but also from the air. And they really don’t have any answer to that. They have too little ammunition and the anti-aircraft weapon that they have doesn’t work, says Pulatov. “All losses are due to an air raid and artillery.”
Dubinsky: “I’ll send you three thanks, okay?” Pulatov: “And what good will that do? They’ll only get burnt to the ground here. They really won’t help much here.”
The Ukrainian air force drop their bombs from ever increasing heights – out of reach of the weaponry of the separatists. Pulatov: “The tanks won’t be necessary. What we do need is long-distance artillery and good anti-aircraft material because the aircraft has operated from great heights, so practically none of our systems could reach it.”
The separatists do not have any defence against the artillery bombardments by the Ukrainian army either. Dubinsky is hoping for Russian support on the other side of the border: “We are now talking to you-know-whom, so that we on our end can carry out an attack,” says he, and later: “Let the Russians take them down, sons of bitches.”
Less than an hour later, Dubinsky calls a colleague, the deputy commander of the ‘Vostok’ battalion: “Sanych, I’m not sure that my men can hold out there.” In this conversation, Dubinsky says that there is nothing he can do against the Ukrainian combat aircraft. It would be good to have a Buk. “If I can get the Buk system early enough in the morning, I can take it there. Then it’s okay. If not, I’m in the shit.”
This is the first time in these intercepted conversations that we hear the word ‘Buk’. A Buk is an anti-aircraft weapon that can down aircraft from great heights. They are often used in combination with a radar and command vehicle to protect strategic targets, but the Buk launching facility can also independently choose a target based on a radar system, albeit a limited one. An hour later, Dubinsky tells his deputy that a Buk will, indeed, be delivered.
Dubinsky: “And furthermore, I will do my best when, tonight, that … is towed this way, the Buk-M will come your way straight away.” Pulatov: “Aha, understood” Dubinsky: “Because there’s nothing else we can do, just hope for a Buk.” Pulatov: “Aha.” Dubinsky: “Well?” Pulatov: “Yeah.”
A little later, Pulatov calls back to give him the first good news of the day. They have downed an SU23 Ukrainian combat aircraft, using a MANPADS, a shoulder-fired air defence system. Thirty minutes later, he corrects himself: The aircraft has not been downed by a MANPADS, but by another aircraft. Later that day, the Ukrainian army also reports their aircraft being downed by a Russian combat aircraft.
A little past midnight, Dubinsky gets a call from Skiff, the commander of the Vostok battalion. He promises Dubinsky troops and tanks if he needs them: “All that I have, all my reserves, literally to the last soldier, I will deploy and send over to you.” Dubinsky responds: “Well, the Buk is expected tonight. After that, all our problems should be solved.”
In early July, East Ukraine is controlled by autonomous warlords, who call the shots in their own regions, but are not trusted elsewhere. In the course of July, Girkin, the Minister of Defence, is put in charge of the separatist armies, but not everyone is immediately willing to submit. That is why Dubinsky is surprised by Vostok’s offer. He immediately calls his boss Girkin. “Something major has happened.” Girkin laughs: “Perhaps it’s my personal charm that does it.”
But things do not always go so smoothly. When, in early July, it is rumoured that some 100 troops are defecting to Bezler, a separatist leader in another town, Girkin explodes. Dubinsky tries to appease the commotion, but Bezler won’t be intimidated by “that faggot in epaulettes”. Girkin threatens to publish compromising material about Bezler, but if that happens, Bezler will retaliate by publishing his own information “on stealing cars, robberies and all kinds of other shit”.
In July, Russia’s military as well as its political influence increases. The separatists increasingly take orders from Moscow. Late in the evening of 4 July, Dubinsky receives a phone call. Nieuwsuur has not been able to establish who the caller is, but this man warns Dubinsky: “Today, someone from Moscow has arrived. And it looks like the whole top will be replaced. The political top, that is.”
Dubinsky is clearly aware of the situation. “That’s correct. There has been an order involving the political top. Borodai is currently in Moscow. He has flown to Moscow.” At that point, Alexander Borodai is the political leader of the self-declared republic. “This morning, they went to Moscow. As soon as they’re back, we’ll know what decisions have been made.”
In the same conversation, Dubinsky suggests that military and strategic decisions are made in Moscow as well. For that day, the separatists threaten to lose control of the city of Slavyansk. Dubinsky spends all day on the phone discussing the situation with military commanders. “You have to convince Pervy (Girkin) that the people have to leave there. Otherwise, we will lose everything”, says a commander to Dubinsky, but Dubinsky answers: “The point is that he has just contacted Moscow, and they won’t allow us to leave Slavyansk.” Late that night, he reports that the decision has been made: “It’s today, today, tonight, all night long.” The separatists withdraw to Donetsk.
In another conversation, Dubinsky also implies that Moscow has a big say in the matter: “I talked to Moscow yesterday. ‘Number one’ has talked to Moscow as well. They got to the top.” And when, earlier that month, Dubinsky has a problem with a rebel, he contacts a Russian number. In that conversation, Dubinsky suggests that the problem be submitted to a head of the intelligence service of the Russian ground forces in Batajsk. In this city near Rostov, a unit of the Russian military security service, the GRU, has a base.
Thursday, 17 July 2014
A little past 9:00 a.m., Bibliotekar reports to Dubinsky by telephone. “Hi Nikolayevich, where do we deliver this beauty?” Dubinsky asks whether this is about the Buk-M. Bibliotekar confirms. It is on a trailer and the crew have arrived with it.
A few minutes later Bibliotekar hears that he is to join a Vostok tank transport. The Vostok column is set up near the base on the edge of Donetsk. The conversations that follow make clear that, in the end, Vostok does not wait for the Buk but leaves earlier. The assistance of ‘Vostok’ is necessary, claims Dubinsky: “In Marinovka, two of my platoons have been crushed, bone and all.” The Ukrainian army does not attack but its artillery strikes at the village from a distance. “They just have four batteries shooting, fuck them.”
At 9:30 a.m. Dubinsky calls his associate Pulatov, who is in the Marinovka area at that point. Dubinsky: “Krot will tow the Buk-M to you any minute now.” Pulatov: “Yes, understood.” Dubinsky: “You are to set it up near Pervomayskoye, that Buk-M. And Vostok will send three tanks as security.”
A little later, Kharchenko is ordered to take the Buk to Pervomaysk. “Set up there, and take the rest of the people with you. You are a reserve and you need to guard that thing.” And, he adds, “Gyurza (Pulatov) will join you later.” A minute later, he reports the status to Pulatov. They are to go to Pervomaysk to “guard the Buk”. Dubinsky: “… you wait for Lonya (Kharchenko). Lonya is now sending that B-M, you understand, right?”
Pulatov: “Yes.” Dubinsky: “The Buk, the Buk.” Pulatov: “Yes, yes, understood ( )” Dubinsky: “Understood. So, you, Lonya, and the rest look up Pervomaysk. Once you get to Pervomaysk, your job is to be reserve to guard that BUK and to organize that…., you understood, do you?” Pulatov: “Yes.”
At the end of the conversation, Dubinsky repeats his order one more time: “Your job is to be reserve and to guard that B. You understand me?”
Around 12:45 p.m., the Buk transport reaches the town of Snizhne. On the way, they have caught up with the Vostok tanks. A few days earlier, the city was bombarded by the Ukrainian army, but it is still firmly in the hands of the rebels.
Journalists of the AP press agency see the Buk in the town centre of Snizhne around 1:00 p.m. There, the Buk is unloaded from the flat-bed and then drives to Pervomaysk on its own. Now that the transport has arrived in Snizhne, Bibliotekar has other things to worry about. He calls Dubinsky because he needs a crane “that can lift 36 tonnes”, because ‘one’ that is broken has to be taken to Krasnodon, a city on the Russian border.
Dubinsky also has other things on his mind. Around noon, he gets a call from a bank employee who complains to him about armed men confiscating their cars. “So, those guys are out there now, trying to take our cars. Could you please come over and sort that out?” She points out to Dubinsky that, in the whole town, there is only one armoured car left for all the cash transports. After some deliberation, Dubinsky allows her to keep the cash-in-transit van, but all the other cars are being confiscated. Also in other conversations, Dubinsky is busy trading cars today. “We have three parking lots full of cars over here.” And a little later: “That Maserati, can I come and pick that up?”
Around the same time, someone in Snizhne is filming the Buk driving south, in the direction of Pervomaysk, on its own. According to the JIT report, “at 2:07 p.m., Kharchenko orders Sharpov temporarily to guard ‘the vehicle’, and then goes to meet Gilazov (another rebel) at Furshet supermarket himself.”
At that point, Dubinsky is in Donetsk, on the phone talking to other commanders about operations at other locations on the front. At 4:19 p.m., a missile is launched from the field near Snizhne. A little under a minute later, it explodes next to the cockpit of flight MH17. Not long after that, reports appear on social media about a missile and explosions.
Nearly half an hour later, Kharchenko reports to Dubinsky that they have downed a Ukrainian combat aircraft: “We are on the spot. We have already brought down a ‘Sushka’. Dubinsky: “Well done, big guys! A ‘Sushka’! Well done.” But Dubinsky’s thoughts are elsewhere, and he immediately switches to what is bothering him: “Lonya, tell me, have I ever done any fucking thing to hurt you? Fuck!”
Dubinsky is furious about a bunch of armed men outside his door: “I don’t know why I myself or my security haven’t gunned them down, what a cock-up!” Once he is done raging, he orders Kharchenko to return to Donetsk: “You leave a battalion behind to guard the Buk, and then you will probably come this way. ( ) and Gyurza will come this way too. I’ll call you right back.” Kharchenko: “Understood, sir.”
Less than 30 minutes later, the two men have further contact. Kharchenko reports artillery bombardments near Marinovka. “Did you put the Buk well in place? Will it not be shot to pieces?” Dubinsky wants to know. “No, they can’t reach it. We are out of their reach anyway.”
An hour later, Dubinsky calls a unit in the northern area controlled by the separatists. Botsman: “A place has been downed here near me. I’m on my way to the boxes now.” Dubinsky has no idea what Botsman is talking about and repeats Kharchenko’s claim that they have downed a Ukrainian combat aircraft. “We have now also brought down an aircraft, a Sushka”, says Dubinsky. “The enemy is trying to break through”, but “thank god, the BUK-M arrived this morning, so it’s easier now.”
He also expects support from Russia. The Ukrainian army is close to the Russian border and is striking at the separatists in Marinovka from that position. “Now we wait for the Russians who should be firing at their position from that end.”
Two hours later, Dubinsky still does not know what has really happened. That becomes clear from a conversation with someone who indicates that he is being bombarded by journalists with questions about a downed Boeing.
John Doe: “I am getting calls from journalists telling me that a Boeing has been shot south of Donetsk.” Dubinsky: “Is there a fight going on?” (Dubinsky probably mistakes ‘Boeing’ for ‘boj’, the Russian word for fight) John Doe: “Boeing! There’s been a plane crash.” Dubinsky: “Ah, our people have brought one down over Savur-Mohyla, near Marinovka, our people have brought down a ‘Sushka’.”
It still hasn’t dawned on the commander of the whole operation that, two hours earlier, flight MH17 was downed, with 298 casualties. Shortly thereafter, he gets a phone call from the assistant to Girkin, the Minister of Defence, ordering him to report immediately. On his way to the meeting, he calls his girlfriend, who is cooking dinner. He can’t make it. “It’s boring with daddy not there, isn’t it?”
After the tête-a-tête at Girkin’s office, Dubinsky is suddenly worried about what has transpired. Around 8:00 p.m., he calls his deputy Pulatov. He wants to have clarity about who has shot what. Dubinsky: “Tell me, did or did not our BUK fire?” Pulatov: “The Buk has brought down a ‘Sushka’.” Dubinsky: “So…” Pulatov: “But before that, the ‘Sushka’ downed the Boeing. They tried to blame us for that.”
Dubinsky: “So that ‘Sushka’ blew it to pieces, right?” Pulatov: “Yes, yes, yes.” Dubinsky: “Understood. Did you see that, were you observing that?” Pulatov: “They observed that from the ground.” ( ) Pulatov: “The ‘Sushka’ hit the Boeing. They saw that from Snezhnoye. After that, the ‘Sushka’ carried on, and the Buk blew it to shreds.”
Two minutes later, Dubinsky repeats this story to his boss, Igor Girkin. The Minister of Defence of the separatists, addressed by Dubinsky by call sign Number One. Dubinsky: “So, here’s what happened. A ‘Sushka’ hit a fucking Boeing. After that, the ‘Sushka’, as it was on its second round, was brought down by our BUK. And lots and lots of our people saw that. Gyurza just reported that.”
Girkin: “Ah, so that’s what happened. Understood.” Dubinsky: “The ‘Sushka’ blew the Boeing to pieces, and our people blew the Sushka to pieces.” Girkin: “Aha.” Dubinsky: “That’s good news, isn’t it?” Girkin: “Well, I’m not sure. I don’t think so, really.” Dubinsky: “Well, they are going to blame us anyway, for blowing that thing to pieces.”
Not much later, Pulatov and Kharchenko both call from the MH17 crash site. Dubinsky himself now also seems to question the story that his subordinates have reported to him. When Kharchenko calls from the crash site asking if they should give the OSCE access, Dubinsky also asks him who has downed the Boeing: “You did observe that it was brought down by a ‘Sushka’, or was it ours after all?”
Kharchenko “Not ours, Nikolayevich, not ours.” Dubinsky: “So a ‘Sushka’ then? And then after that, the ‘Sushka’ brought down by our Buk, right?” Kharchenko: “Yes, first there was a bang up there, and then there was our bang.”
It was a Ukrainian combat aircraft; that’s also what the separatists keep telling each other. They lay the foundation for the story that, a few days later, will also be officially embraced by the Russian Ministry of Defence. It will soon become clear that the evidence submitted by the Ministry in that respect is false. Russia will later switch to a different theory: flight MH17 has not been downed by the separatists, but by a Buk from the Ukrainian army.
At 8:30 p.m., five hours after flight MH17, Dubinsky calls Girkin. The Minister instructs him to take the ‘box’ to the border with the neighbouring Lugansk region. Dubinsky and his men control a large part of the Donetsk region, but the only route to Russia leads through the Lugansk region, which is controlled by other rebel forces.
Meanwhile, Kharchenko reports that the ‘box’ has left the launch site on its own and is headed for Snizhne. A town not far from the launch site. At 10:30 p.m. he calls Dubinsky again. Kharchenko: “Where does it go, where should I escort it to?” Dubinsky: “Up to the border with the Lugansk region.” Kharchenko: “Aha.” Dubinsky: “And then that’s it. Clear?”
But 45 minutes later, the Buk is still in Snizhne, at less than 10 km from the original launch site: “They don’t know the way, nobody knows anything.”
Friday, 18 July 2014
After midnight, the two leaders have completely lost sight of the Buk, and the Minister of Defence Girkin is getting edgy. Dubinsky can’t get a hold of his people on the phone, and rumour has it that they are no longer driving in the direction of Russia, but are, in fact, coming back. “Do whatever you fucking want, but make sure they go back and transfer the device where they were told”, demands Girkin. He gives them the number of someone named ‘Leshy’, a Lugansk separatist who was supposed to accompany the transport. In the course of the evening, Dubinsky tries to call that number a total of seven times, but without success.
Girkin gets impatient, and six minutes later calls again. When Dubinsky tells him that there is no answer, Girkin shouts: “Get in the car and hurry over there, that’s all I can tell you.” Dubinsky: “But then I get to Snizhne, and where am I supposed to look for them? I don’t fucking know.” It is not until around 8:00 the next morning that Dubinsky learns that the Buk has been delivered in Russia: “What the fuck was that about yesterday?” “The machine is in Russia”, answers Kharchenko.
Dubinsky immediately calls his boss Girkin. He implies that he has carried out his boss’s orders and has driven to Snizhne. “I just got fucking back. Everything was okay over there.” Dubinsky repeats what Kharchenko has told him. “The machine was already in Russia; he immediately transferred the fucking thing.” But Girkin’s sources tell him that the transfer has failed. Dubinsky then calls again and Kharchenko repeats that the ‘machine’ is in Russia. Kharchenko: “I’ve just got off the phone with them. They are already getting another machine from Russia.”
But to be absolutely sure, Dubinsky himself then calls Bibliotekar, the man who has accompanied all the transports. Dubinsky: “Listen, did our people transfer a box to you last night?” Bibliotekar: “I took her away, she’s over there.” Dubinsky then calls his boss Girkin again. Dubinsky: “Bibliotekar personally took her there, and he is already towing something else for us this way.” The Buk has finally arrived in Russia.
At 10:50 that morning, Dubinsky receives one last call on this number about flight MH17. The OSCE wants to bring Ukrainian aircraft experts to the crash site and is Dubinsky okay with that? “Let them go, I’ve already got the boxes anyway,” says Dubinsky, “one yesterday evening, and we found another one last night. I’m not sure, maybe there are four of them, but we’ve already got two.” And then he moves on to the day’s agenda. Sanych calls about a blind drunk separatist who has been firing his automatic gun at stalls. “We’re going to get him now and shoot him. We’ve already got a place prepared.”
Around noon, Dubinsky reports to the political leaders that a terrorist group will be arrested the next day: “I told him that it is very essential that they are still alive when they are picked up, because they have to make statements, etc., so that he will not present us with any dead bodies, you see?”
Then the tapped number goes quiet. Dubinsky switches to a new number. That number is tapped as well, but there is no more talk of MH17 or any Buk. The commander focuses on the battle of Marinovka again. The whole MH17 episode seems to be closed as far as he is concerned. The war demands his attention again.