Investigative journalists link senior FSB official to MH17 case
The open-source investigation website Bellingcat and the Russian investigative outlet The Insider have identified a senior official from the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) as a key figure in the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in July 2014.
According to the report, the figure — who appears under the pseudonym “Vladimir Ivanovich” in intercepted telephone conversations from the eve of the crash — is Colonel General Andrey Ivanovich Burlaka, the first deputy head of the FSB’s border service.
The BBC Russian Service reached the same conclusion, after conducting its own investigation independent of The Insider and Bellingcat.
The Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT) handling the MH17 case published the intercepted phone calls in November 2019. The calls featured Alexander Borodai (who was the Russia-appointed leader of the unrecognized “Donetsk People’s Republic” at the time), and Putin’s then-advisor Vladislav Surkov. The names of FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu were also mentioned in the calls.
Judging by the context, one of the main participants in these conversations was the aforementioned “Vladimir Ivanovich,” who played a key role in overseeing the fighting in the Ukrainian Donbas and coordinating the transport of weapons across the Russian-Ukrainian border, The Insider says. For example, one of the defendants officially accused in the MH17 trial, Igor Girkin (also known as Strelkov), was a direct subordinate of “Vladimir Ivanovich.”
Journalists verified the telephone number that “Vladimir Ivanovich” used via the app GetContact, and looked for references to him “in all known wiretaps, leaked correspondence, and other similar sources.” As a result, they found indirect confirmation that “Vladimir Ivanovich” is senior FSB official Andrey Burlaka, within a database of hacked text messages from the mobile messaging app Viber. The correspondence in question belonged to an assistant of the current head of the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” Denis Pushilin.
Afterwards, journalists compared the voice of “Vladimir Ivanovich” from the intercepted telephone calls with recordings of interviews General Burlaka gave in 2013 and 2018. The audio samples were then sent to the National Center for Media Forensics at the University of Colorado Denver for forensic voice analysis. The comparison showed a likelihood ratio of about 94 percent, “which represents moderate support for the proposition that the questioned/unknown voice is that of the person of interest.”
The BBC also conducted its own phonetic-acoustic analysis of the captured audio at the Martin Barry Forensic Services lab in the UK. The results showed that the voice samples of “Vladimir Ivanovich” and General Burlaka are generally consistent.
Bellingcat also analyzed information about flights Burlaka took between 2014 and 2015. Apparently, at that time, the senior FSB officer was “constantly flying to Rostov, Crimea, and Krasnodar — three control centers for [Russia’s] Ukrainian operations.” His flight records correspond chronologically with information obtained through telephone intercepts, the investigation says.
According to the BBC’s data, on the day of the MH17 tragedy Burlaka was located in Rostov-on-Don. One of the publication’s sources claims that at the end of the “active phase” of the conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014–2015, General Burlaka received a promotion and was named a Hero of the Russian Federation (the highest honorary title in the country).
Although there is no publicly available record of a corresponding presidential decree, Burlaka was a lieutenant general up until 2014, after which he became a colonel general.
The FSB’s border service has yet to respond to any requests for comment from the BBC. Meanwhile, Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov responded to its request for comment by saying, “We don’t know what this is about.”
Despite the evidence from the JIT and the ongoing trial in The Hague, Moscow has officially denied any involvement in the downing of Flight MH17.
Translation by Eilish Hart