BADHOEVEDORP, Nov 17 — A former Russian spy who recently turned on the military over its invasion of Ukraine is one of four men accused of downing Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in 2014.
The three Russians and a Ukrainian are all still at large, meaning they will not be in court when Dutch judges give their verdict on Thursday over the tragedy.
The most high-profile suspect is Igor Girkin, 51, an ex-spy and historical re-enactment fan also known by his pseudonym “Strelkov”.
Dutch prosecutors say Girkin was a former colonel in the FSB, the Russian Federal Security Service. He is known to have had fighting experience from Chechnya to the former Yugoslavia.
Girkin claims to have kick-started the war in eastern Ukraine, and went on to become the minister of defence and commander of the pro-Moscow self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR).
“As the highest military officer he maintained contact with the Russian Federation” in obtaining the missile that shot down MH17, prosecutors said.
He has repeatedly denied the rebels were behind the attack.
In 2014, Girkin ruled the then-rebel stronghold of Sloviansk with an iron fist, with executions for petty theft reportedly carried out under his rule.
But he was squeezed out of the separatist leadership later that year under mysterious circumstances and returned to Russia, where he lost all influence and reportedly had financial difficulties.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, he has criticised retreats by Russian troops and predicted the need to mobilise when Moscow was denying this was necessary.
In early September, he predicted in a video that “the war will continue until complete defeat of Russia” and has been very critical of military chiefs, who he said were “not the sharpest tools”.
Strelkov’s Telegram channel on October 15 posted a picture of him in a camouflage jacket with his arm around his wife, who wrote in the caption: “All is well, he will soon get in touch.”
He then wrote that he has been serving since October 14 “in the active army”. His Telegram channel, which has more than 700,000 followers, says he is serving in a volunteer unit and is advertising for more recruits.
Sergei Dubinsky, 60, call-sign “Khmury” (gloomy), is a former officer in the GRU, the Russian military intelligence service, Dutch prosecutors say.
At the time of the MH17 crash, Dubinsky was allegedly serving as the military intelligence chief of the separatists in eastern Ukraine and was one of Girkin’s deputies.
He is alleged to have played a key role in obtaining the missile and returning it to Russia. “He also maintained regular contact with officials in Russia,” prosecutors said.
Dubinsky reportedly met Girkin when he fought in the First Chechen War in the mid-1990s. He is also a veteran of the 1980s Soviet war in Afghanistan.
The only one of the suspects to have legal representation at the trial, Oleg Pulatov, 56, is a former officer in the Russian Spetznaz special forces.
Nicknamed “Gyurza” (viper), he was one of Dubinsky’s deputies at the heart of the separatist military leadership in 2014 and deputy head of the DPR’s intelligence service, prosecutors say.
He allegedly helped transport the BUK system to Ukraine and, after the downing of the plane, helped ensure the safety of the area where the MH17 debris fell.
Pulatov gave a video statement to the court in June saying he had “nothing to do with the disaster”.
The only Ukrainian on trial, Leonid Kharchenko, nicknamed “Krot” (mole), was also linked to the separatist leadership.
Kharchenko commanded a combat unit in the Donetsk region in July 2014 and took his orders directly from Dubinsky, Dutch prosecutors said.
The trial heard that he had personally helped escort the missile after it entered Ukraine, and then on its return to Russia after MH17 was shot down.
In an interview published in 2015 by a separatist news agency, he branded Kyiv a “fascist regime” built on a “Nazi” ideology. — AFP