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A photograph of Oleg Ivannikov, shown at Bellingcat’s press conference on May 25
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Oh hello, Mr. Oleg ‘Orion’ Ivannikov Unmasking a chief suspect in the MH17 attack, who just happens to work for Russian intelligence

Source: Bellingcat
A photograph of Oleg Ivannikov, shown at Bellingcat’s press conference on May 25
A photograph of Oleg Ivannikov, shown at Bellingcat’s press conference on May 25
Remko De Waal / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

The research group Bellingcat and the Russian news outlet The Insider have presented the results of a new joint investigation into flight MH17, which was shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, killing everyone on board. The team of journalists and researchers say they’ve managed to identify a soldier known as “Orion,” who may have coordinated pro-Russian separatists in the region and most likely played a role in the MH17 tragedy. The man in question turns out to be a Russian military intelligence officer named Oleg Ivannikov, who previously served (under a different name) as defense minister for the breakaway republic of South Ossetia.

How they found Mr. Ivannikov

In September 2016, the Joint Investigative Team announced the preliminary results of its MH17 investigation, asking researchers to help identify the voices of two people captured in a radio transmission about the delivery of a Buk missile to the separatists. In the conversation, intercepted and released by Ukrainian national security officials in July 2014, the men address each other only by callsigns and names that could easily have been invented.

The first person in the call went by the first name and patronymic “Nikolai Fedorovich” and the call sign “Dolphin.” In December 2017, Bellingcat and The Insider reported that they’d managed to identify this man as Russian Colonel-General Nikolai Tkachev.

The second individual in the radio transmission was someone called “Andrey Ivanovich” with the callsign “Orion,” whom Ukraine’s National Security Service believed to be a Russian military intelligence officer. Based on intercepted communications, Kiev established that this person might have been based in separatist-controlled Lugansk, commanding separatists’ military actions, when flight MH17 was shot down.

Officials in Kiev also published a list of the Ukrainian phone numbers used by the men discussing the delivery of a Buk missile. Orion’s number was 380-63-411-9133.

Bellingcat and The Insider found this number in a telephone directory, where it was registered to someone under the name “Oreon” as an anonymous prepaid account with the Ukrainian mobile provider “life:).” At their press conference on May 25, 2018, the researchers revealed that a Ukrainian journalist (who isn’t being named) gained access to the company’s database, and found that Oreon’s phone made calls to four telephone numbers in Russia.

One of these Russian phone numbers (registered with Megafon) belongs to a Russian military intelligence officer named Oleg Vladimirovich Ivannikov. The researchers haven’t released the number to the public, but they say they found it immediately in several telephone directories. In one of these databases, the number is registered to “Ivannikov,” and in another it’s listed as “Andrey Ivanovich Gru Ot Husky.” Bellingcat and The Insider speculate that “Husky” is a special operations group active in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic.

This phone number also appears in the hacked records from a now defunct online store, where the account was registered to someone named “Oleg,” who ordered an “elevation training mask” in 2017 to a Moscow address at 76 Polina Osipenko Street. Officially, this address doesn’t exist: the buildings on Polina Osipenko Street only run from 2 to 22. The street eventually becomes Khoroshovskoye Highway, however, and 76 Khoroshovskoye Highway happens to be the location of the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate’s Moscow headquarters.

Using this mobile phone number, Bellingcat and The Insider found Ivannikov’s home address and landline telephone number, also learning that he has a son who works in Switzerland. The researchers called the home number and recorded the Russian officer’s voice, which turned out to be very similar to the voice of “Orion” in the radio transmission intercepted by Ukrainian officials. The voice was unusually high for a man; The Insider even describes it as “womanish.” This voice recording, however, was too short to submit for an expert forensic examination.

In official Russian databases, Bellingcat and The Insider found a Defense Ministry employee named Oleg Vladimirovich Ivannikov, born on April 2, 1967, who currently resides in Moscow. They also managed to dig up a few of his photos.

Who is this Oleg Ivannikov?

Oleg Ivannikov was born into a military family in East Germany in 1967. He attended the Kiev Higher Military Aviation Engineering School and then the Moscow Aviation Institute. After finishing his education, he lived in Rostov-on-Don for many years.

In 2004, under the name Andrey Ivanovich Laptev, Ivannikov went to South Ossetia, as the region’s tensions with Georgia were rising. He initially served as the chairman of South Ossetia’s Security Council. Two years later, he was appointed to serve as defense minister. In March 2008 (a few months after the armed conflict between Russia and Georgia that led to South Ossetia’s unrecognized secession from Georgia), Ivannikov (“Laptev”) resigned and moved to Moscow.

In Moscow, Ivannikov wrote a dissertation on “The Complex Nature of Information War in the Caucasus: Social and Philosophical Aspects,” which he defended in Rostov-on-Don. He stayed involved in South Ossetia’s politics, however, even visiting the breakaway republic under his real name in 2013.

In 2014, Ivannikov set out for eastern Ukraine. Igor Girkin, the former defense minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, says he recalls seeing Ivannikov in the town of Krasnodon near the Russian border, where there was a command center with several Russian generals. Other sources say they saw Ivannikov in Lugansk at the command center operated by then “Luhansk People’s Republic” Defense Minister Igor Plotnitsky. Based on these reports, Bellingcat and The Insider speculate that Ivannikov was likely tasked with coordinating the separatists’ activities at this point in the war.

Ivannikov is also thought to have supervised the actions of the “Wagner” private military company, even giving direct orders to Dmitry Uktin, the group’s commander. The researchers reached this conclusion based on an interview with one of Wagner’s mercenaries, who have reportedly fought in both Syria and eastern Ukraine.

In 2015, Ivannikov left Ukraine. His current whereabouts are unknown.

Text by Denis Dmitriev and Grigory Levchenko, translation by Kevin Rothrock