Whitewashing the Russian intelligence services GRU veteran and former separatist leader Igor Bezler is suing ‘Bellingcat.’ If he wins, it could prompt Russia to block their site.
Igor Bezler — the former commander of a separatist militia in eastern Ukraine, who the Ukrainian Security Service has identified as a retired GRU lieutenant colonel — has filed a lawsuit in St. Petersburg against the investigative outlet Bellingcat, demanding that any and all mention of his name be scrubbed from their investigations. This coincides with another claim submitted to the Russian Investigative Committee in late 2020, seeking the launch of a criminal case against journalist Roman Dobrokhotov — the editor-in-chief of The Insider, Bellingcat’s investigative partner in Russia. According to The Insider, the complainant, Dutch blogger Max van der Werff, also has links to the GRU. Meduza special correspondent Liliya Yapparova investigates how these legal actions came about and what they might actually achieve, both in Russia and abroad.
This is an abridged translation of Liliya Yapparova’s report, which Meduza published in Russian on March 1.
‘Just shot down a plane. It’s smoking’
On July 20, 2014, Ukrainian troops launched an offensive on Horlivka — a city in eastern Ukraine located 50 kilometers from the regional center, Donetsk. Taking back Horlivka was meant to open a direct path into the heart of the separatist-controlled “republics” in the Donbas region. The Ukrainian military had been preparing to recapture the major cities of Donetsk and Luhansk all summer, but their advance was held back by a separatist militia under the command of Igor Bezler, also known by the call sign “Bes.”
According to the SBU (Ukraine’s Security Service), Bezler is a former lieutenant colonel from the Russian GRU, who went to Donbas on the instructions of this military intelligence agency. By July 2014, Bezler was in control of Horlivka and several neighboring towns. Four days before the Ukrainian military attacked Horlivka, Bezler gave his first interview to the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti. Asked how many Ukrainian planes the Horlivka militia had downed with its artillery, Bezler replied “four” without a moment's hesitation. The next day, July 17, 2014, a fifth plane was shot down nearby.
According to the SBU, Bezler received a call from his subordinate, Valery Stelmakh, just two minutes before the disaster. “Bes” picked up the phone for just a few seconds. As can be heard in an SBU intercept of the phone call, Stelmakh told Bezler “a birdie is flying towards you.” Seeking clarification, Bezler asks if it’s a reconnaissance or combat plane. Stelmakh replies that he can’t tell, because the plane is flying beyond the clouds. Bezler says he understands and orders his subordinate to report this message “upwards.” Twenty minutes later, according to the SBU’s intercepts, Bezler made a call to GRU agent Vasily Geranin. “Just shot down a plane [...] It fell beyond Yenakiieve,” he told him. “It’s smoking.”
In the interval between these two phone calls, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) was shot down over eastern Ukraine. All 298 people on board the passenger plane were killed in the crash. In March 2020, a trial over the downing of the plane began in the Netherlands. Moscow immediately called it “politicized” — the Dutch-led investigation had determined that a rocket from the Horlivka militia’s territory downed the plane, and that it was fired from a Russian Buk-M1 missile launcher.
Investigators from the outlet Bellingcat were the first to claim that the Buk missile that shot down flight MH17 came from Russia — it was their analysis that drew the attention of the Dutch investigators examining the circumstances surrounding the crash. Since then, Russia’s Defense Ministry has labeled Bellingcat “fake news generators” and dismissed their reports as “pseudo-hypotheses,” all while claiming that their investigations are in the “SBU’s handwriting.”
Bellingcat also reported that Bezler had allowed the missile launcher to pass through his territory. And although the separatist leader initially made fun of these allegations on social media, at the end of 2020 Bezler filed a lawsuit against Bellingcat.
‘A squeaky-clean citizen’
Igor Bezler’s lawsuit is being considered by the Oktyabrsky District Court in St. Petersburg. He’s demanding that Bellingcat retract its publications based on the SBU intercepts of the phone call about the “birdie” flying above the clouds over eastern Ukraine. These articles refer to Bezler as an “important witness” to the disaster, though they note that his subordinates could have reported the passenger flight to the Russian military, having mistaken it for a Ukrainian military plane.
Igor Bezler isn’t among the defendants in the ongoing criminal trial over the downing of flight MH17. He did, however, testify before the international Joint Investigation Team (JIT) within the framework of the investigation into the crash; according to a spokesperson for the prosecution, the investigators determined that Bezler’s role in the MH17 case “wasn’t key.”
Nevertheless, the plaintiff insists that Bellingcat “misinterpreted” his phone calls and “directly identified” the separatist commander as a person involved in downing the plane (the list of examples drawn from the texts of Bellingcat’s reports takes up three dozen pages). As such, every mention of Bezler’s name by Bellingcat’s journalists “is defamatory a priori” (in total, according to the lawyers’ calculations, Bezler’s name appears in the texts 140 times). Bezler is therefore demanding that Bellingcat remove any and all mention of his name and, taking into account his “extreme emotional distress,” pay him half a million rubles (about $6,800) in compensation.
The lawsuit presents Igor Bezler, the former commander of one of the largest separatist groups in eastern Ukraine, as a man without a past; he’s made out to be an “absolutely squeaky clean citizen without any background in Donbas, who suddenly had nasty things written about him on the Internet,” lawyer Sarkis Darbinyan, who’s heading up Bellingcat’s defense in Russian court, said in conversation with Meduza.
“We aren’t prepared to remove Bezler’s name from our publications,” Bellingcat told Meduza.
Sarkis Darbinyan is convinced that the plaintiff’s task in this proceeding is to obtain a court ruling, and to do so as soon as possible. According to the lawyer, Bezler was given this task by Russian military intelligence, with the intention of getting Bellingcat’s website blocked in Russia.
“The entire website is under threat, if Bellingcat refuses to remove [the articles] and publish a retraction, Roskomnadzor [the federal censorship agency] has the right to add the site to a blacklist and block it throughout the country,” he explained. “But it’s possible that there’s a more overarching objective of whitewashing the reputation of the intelligence services in the Russian media sphere: after all, if Bellingcat’s investigation into the Boeing suddenly turns out to be ‘a lie’ then, of course, the rest of their high-profile publications about the GRU, and even the Navalny investigation, are ‘lies’.”
“We don’t know if there is any intent to censor our website, however we have been the target of Russian government measures for several years — including a hacker attack organized by the GRU, and a disinformation campaign,” Bellingcat told Meduza. “We see the lawsuit filed against us [in Russia] as just a new link in this chain of attacks.”
What’s Bezler’s connection to the GRU?
According to the Security Service of Ukraine (the SBU), Bezler retired from the GRU in 2002 with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He re-established his connection to the Russian military intelligence agency in February 2014, when — on the GRU’s instructions — he went first to Crimea and then to the Ukrainian Donbas, where he established a rebel group. The SBU maintains that Bezler was involved “in the seizure of the SBU building in the Donetsk region, and later [the seizure] of the regional department of the Interior Ministry of Ukraine in Horlivka.”
It’s also possible that Bezler was involved in another one of the Russian Defense Ministry’s major projects in 2014. According to Radio Svoboda (the U.S. government-funded Russian desk of RFE/RL, which is considered a foreign agent in Russia), Bezler spent several months heading up a prototype of what would later become the infamous Wagner private military company (PMC). This company task force based near Rostov-on-Don and was preparing to enter Ukraine’s Donbas. Another such group was being prepared by Dmitry Utkin, who became the commander of the Wagner PMC. According to Radio Svoboda’s sources, the training of both task forces took place under the close supervision of the Russian intelligence services and Defense Ministry.
Bellingcat’s investigators also uncovered a second passport belonging to Bezler, issued under the false name “Igor Nikolayevich Beregovoy.” The GRU also had a hand in getting Bezler this document, a Bellingcat spokesperson told Meduza. According to Bellingcat’s investigation, the fake passport was issued no later than 2014 — long after Bezler had officially left the GRU’s service.
Asked about Bezler’s alleged connections to Russian military intelligence, the law firm representing his interests in the St. Petersburg court case, Ivanyan and Partners, said, “We don’t know whether or not Igor Nikolayevich Bezler is an employee of the Russian intelligence services or a military department.” The law firm was also unaware of its clients alleged second passport and would neither confirm nor deny Bezler’s reported involvement in training a company task force in 2014. “This has no relation to the circumstances of the dispute,” the firm said in response to questions from Meduza.
The Russian Defense Ministry didn’t respond to Meduza’s request for comment.
“I. N. Bezler’s demands are contained the statement of claim,” the law firm representing Bezler’s interests in the St. Petersburg court case, Ivanyan and Partners, told Meduza in response to questions about seeking to have Bellingcat’s website blacklisted in Russia. “We are proceeding from the assumption that Bellingcat will comply with the Russian court’s decision voluntarily, if it is made in favor of our client.”
St. Petersburg’s Oktyabrsky District Court, where the case is being considered, is known for ruling in favor of blocking websites, adds Sarkis Darbinyan, who specializes in cyber law. “It’s like the Basmanny Court in Moscow. It’s one of the harshest St. Petersburg courts, which is known for many sentences in political cases,” he said.
“I don’t give interviews, sorry,” Bezler told Meduza’s correspondent when asked about his reasons for filing the lawsuit and his possible links to the GRU. “I won’t give an interview — should I repeat it in another language? I can speak German.”
Bellingcat vs. the GRU
For the fourth year in a row, Bellingcat has released the names of active GRU agents involved in some of Russia’s most ambitious military intelligence operations abroad — from assassinations in London and Bulgaria, to attempted coups in the Balkans, and organizing the transport of the aforementioned Buk missile in Donbas.
Prior to the fall of 2020, Russia’s military intelligence service never attempted to confront Bellingcat in court. But in October and November of last year, the investigative outlet learned that two cases were being prepared against them in Russia.
The second lawsuit was filed against journalist Roman Dobrokhotov, the editor-in-chief of The Insider — a Russian investigative outlet that regularly partners with Bellingcat. The complainant is Dutch blogger Max van der Werff, who, according to The Insider, is also linked to the GRU.
In 2019, van der Werff teamed up with former RT journalist Yana Yerlashova to create Bonanza Media, a platform for publishing so-called alternative narratives alleging that Moscow had no involvement in the MH17 crash. Yerlashova and van der Werff sent drafts of their articles to GRU Colonel Sergey Chebanov, The Insider explained; he sometimes responded with corrections, which “intensified the criticism of Bellingcat.”
As his lawyer Stalina Gurevich announced on November 23, 2020, van der Werff also wanted to refute the allegations about his cooperation with the GRU in court. Two months later, Gurevich appealed to the Russian Investigative Committee seeking the launch of a criminal case — according to the lawyer’s request, she’s protecting the interests of not only the Dutch blogger, but also unnamed “persons from among GRU employees,” who Roman Dobrokhotov allegedly defamed “in the eyes of Western partners.” “[The Investigative Committee] is still verifying [the request],” Gurevich confirmed to Meduza (the Investigative Committee didn’t respond to our requests for comment).
Stalina Gurevich posts regular calls to initiate criminal proceedings on Twitter. Roman Dobrokhotov points out that she and van der Werff met, and subsequently agreed to file the aforementioned lawsuit, on the social networking site. That said, he doesn’t exclude the possibility that the whole thing was staged, and that in actual fact the GRU is behind this attempt to prosecute him.
“They [Max van der Werff and Stalina Gurevich] live in different worlds, he couldn’t have known her. Apparently, his comrades from above simply advised him: ‘Write to her, we’ll take it from there’,” the journalist said. “Despite the fact that our article with Bellingcat also came out in English and caused him a lot of problems in Holland, he didn’t file a lawsuit at home. He also took issue with my Russian-language tweet [saying] that ‘the GRU paid off the journalists’ — but he doesn’t speak Russian.”
“Clearly the GRU agents couldn’t lodge a complaint about anything here themselves — it would be ugly. But if a foreign journalist sues, then he’s simply ‘defending his honor and dignity’,” Dobrokhotov said. “In all likelihood, it’s the same story with us and Bellingcat: the GRU officers are trying to strike back through the court.”
Both van der Werff and his intention to sue have nothing to do with the GRU, Stalina Gurevich told Meduza. “Mr. Dobrokhotov talks too much. And if he’s making such statements [about the complaint’s connection to the intelligence services], he’s going to receive another lawsuit,” the lawyer warned. “And yet another claim from me personally, because I’m a completely independent person: no one is supervising me.”
The Russian Defense Ministry didn’t respond to Meduza’s questions about the alleged cooperation between the Bonanza Media writers and the GRU, nor did it reply to our questions about the possible involvement of military intelligence agents in the preparation of van der Werff’s lawsuit.
‘Bellingcat doesn’t carry out hacker attacks’
Igor Bezler is being represented by three lawyers from Ivanyan and Partners — a surprisingly expensive law firm for a retired lieutenant colonel. “He probably sold his car to hire them,” a lawyer familiar with their prices said with surprise. “In Russia, such representation in a case under article 152 can cost up to three million rubles [about $40,550].”
Sarkis Darbinyan suspects that Bezler’s impressive representation can be attributed to the fact that the lawyers aren’t so much defending him as the Russian intelligence services themselves. “Ivanyan and Partners has repeatedly taken on the most delicate assignments and strategically important proceedings for Russia — both within the country and abroad,” he says.
Bellingcat believes that Bezler’s lawsuit against them was prepared in concert with Russian military intelligence. In response to inquiries from Meduza, the investigative outlet explained that in July 2020, Bezler sent an email to high-ranking GRU officer Andrey Ilchenko, “coordinating on behalf of military intelligence the disinformation campaign dedicated to flight MH17.” “Attached to the letters was Bezler’s testimony that he gave to the international investigation team studying the circumstances surrounding the disaster — copied [on the email] was a lawyer from the firm Ivanyan and Partners, which is now representing Bezler in [Russian] court,” Bellingcat said.
Ivanyan and Partners isn’t involved in the trial over the downing of flight MH17, the law firm told Meduza.
Bellingcat also studied Ilchenko phone records and found that “he repeatedly called the Ivanyan and Partners office before finally calling Bezler.” “A few hours after that, Bezler sent materials to Ilchenko and his lawyer. This sequence of conversations indicates that [the St. Petersburg] lawsuit against us was coordinated between Bezler and high-ranking GRU officers,” Bellingcat’s spokesperson told Meduza.
Investigators from Bellingcat were looking into Andrey Ilchenko’s emails and phone records as part of an independent investigation prior to Bezler’s lawsuit, the journalists emphasize. The GRU agent’s email account “was hacked and posted online...by a group that calls itself Black Mirror,” Bellingcat claims (this hacker collective regularly leaks the contents of Russian officials’ email accounts on their Telegram channel).
Ivanyan and Partners told Meduza a completely different story: Bezler’s correspondence with the law firm, they claim, was obtained by Bellingcat not through open sources, but rather as the result of a targeted hacker attack. “I.N. Bezler’s mail was hacked in October 2020, just a few days after Bellingcat was served with I.N. Bezler’s lawsuit in the UK. Since the filing of the lawsuit, several major attacks have been launched against the law firm’s mail servers — for the first time in our 16 years of work,” their office told Meduza.
In mid-December 2020, Bezler demanded that the investigators immediately stop using information from his email correspondence and “disclose the content of the materials that fell into Bellingcat’s hands after the hacking of his email.” “So far, Bellingcat has left this appeal unanswered,” Ivanyan and Partners informed Meduza.
“Bellingcat doesn’t carry out hacker attacks,” the investigative group told Meduza.
Ivanyan and Partners rejects the suggestion that the lawsuit filed in St. Petersburg may have been overseen by Russia’s military intelligence agency. “Our client is I.N. Bezler, he himself is ‘overseeing’ our work,” the law firm said.
The Russian Defense Ministry didn’t respond to Meduza’s questions about whether or not Bezler is representing the interests of the GRU within the framework of these proceedings.
Next stop, Dutch court?
Lawyers Meduza interviewed said that Ivayan and Partner is known primarily for its international practice. “We’ve encountered them in some cross-border cases and they arouse nothing but respect,” a source in the legal services market told Meduza. “This is literally one of three or four Russian teams that independently conducts civil cases in foreign jurisdictions — and I would call Ivanyan and Partners the first.”
Moreover, one of Bezler’s defense lawyers specializes in international dispute resolution. “Now they’ll obtain a decision from a Russian court and then [use it] to appeal to the jurisdictions where Bellingcat operates,” said a Russian lawyer, who had no doubt that this wasn’t a coincidence. “But what [of it], it’s a respectable legal position: you can’t go anywhere with a bottle of poison, but on the contrary, you can go to court.”
Dutch blogger Max van der Werff, who Bellingcat and The Insider maintain has linked to the GRU, also spoke of Bezler’s intentions to sue abroad. “Proceedings will first start at a Russian court, later in a UK and/or Dutch court too,” he wrote on Twitter.
Roman Dobrokhotov also believes that the legal proceeding in St. Petersburg is just preparation for lawsuits in foreign jurisdictions. “Since Bezler’s lawyers have such international experience, the whole story is aimed at an international audience. Having received a decision in Russia, [they] will go to a Dutch court and demand that these publications be removed in the West.”
“And this piece of paper will be used in all possible instances where the Boeing disaster will be under consideration,” said Bellingcat’s representative in St. Petersburg, Maxim Madaminov. “Perhaps they will start to prosecute all persons who disseminate this information with similar lawsuits, both in Ukraine and in Holland,” said the journalists’ lawyer, Sarkis Darbinyan.
Ivanyan and Partners declined to respond to Meduza’s questions about whether or not the firm is preparing to file claims in the Netherlands, the UK, or Ukraine. “We represent the interests of I.N. Bezler in the Russian proceedings against Bellingcat,” the firm underscored. “Russian legislation allows for protecting the interests of Russian citizens from defamation, including against foreign defendants.”
The prospect of legal action abroad may explain Bezler’s sudden move to St. Petersburg: as indicated in his claim, his address is now registered as an apartment located on Voznesensky Avenue (according to property records from Rosreestr, Bezler is also the owner of this apartment). On the other hand, the press has reported that the former separatist leader and his wife are resting and relaxing in Crimea, where he has even taken up gardening (growing peaches, nectarines, and persimmons, in particular).
Regardless, Bezler is suing Bellingcat as a St. Petersburg resident — in what is likely an attempt to legitimize the court’s decision abroad. “By all appearances, Bezler and, possibly, this team of GRU agents behind him, understood that no one abroad will recognize a ruling from a Crimean court,” Sarkis Darbinyan said. “Therefore, he was quickly registered in St. Petersburg and filed the lawsuit there.” For international proceedings, Bezler will have to pay his lawyers tens of thousands of dollars, minimum.
The way Darbinyan sees it, this lawsuit filed with a Russian court is “probably connected to the desire to whitewash the reputation of the intelligence services, which have put their foot in it repeatedly lately.”
Translated and abridged by Eilish Hart