BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. On July 17th, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, departing from Amsterdam for Kuala Lumpur, was shot out of the sky over Ukraine. The footage was horrifying.
NEWS CLIP The debris field in eastern Ukraine is being guarded by pro-Russian rebels, some of them allegedly drunk, who are restricting the activities of international investigators. The bodies of some of the 298 victims, 80 of them kids, seen here simply lined up on the side of the road.
NEWS CLIP How could this happen? Who was responsible? and why did they do it?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Eight years later, earlier this month, the District Court of the Hague handed down answers.
NEWS CLIP A court in the Netherlands has delivered its verdict. We can tell you now that two Russians and one Ukrainian have been found guilty of shooting a passenger plane.
NEWS CLIP Most of the victims were Dutch. The attack came just months after Russia had invaded Crimea. The missile was fired from Russian-held territory.
ARIC TOLER MH17 is unique in the sense that there's a very, very long digital footprint.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Aric Toler is the director of research and training at Bellingcat, an investigative news outlet that was founded just three days before MH17 was shot down.
ARIC TOLER And this huge digital footprint led to this ungodly amount of information linking exactly the chain of command.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Bellingcat specializes in that kind of investigation. The one where there is an ungodly amount of information online. They partnered with journalists and researchers around the world to find the route that the Buk surface-to-air missile traveled from Kursk, Russia to the crash site in eastern Ukraine and the people behind it. The MH17 case, launched Bellingcat. Since then, they've published one bombshell investigation after another, uncovering the people behind the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England, the Russian intelligence officers who poisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and details about the 2018 chemical attack in Douma, Syria, soon after MH17 went down in 2014. Ukrainian intelligence posted intercepted calls between Russian military commanders on YouTube. These calls offered evidence for who was behind the attack. But the voices were hard to make out. The Dutch criminal proceedings put out a call for help identifying two of the speakers. They went by codenames “Delfin” and “Orion.” Bellingcat found them.
ARIC TOLER The Delfin was a guy named Tkachev, and he honestly turns out to not be that important. The one who actually was important was Orion. He was called Andrei Ivanovich.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But that was a fake name, using a phone number provided by a Ukrainian intelligence. The Bellingcat team found a second number associated with him by using caller I.D. apps.
ARIC TOLER And the idea behind them is very simple. If someone calls you and you don't know who it is, it'll show you the name of the person calling you. Even if you don't have them in your contact book.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's Aric Toler, Bellingcat's head of training and research.
ARIC TOLER The way they get this information is not through, you know, black magic or like talking to the phone companies. They get them from other users who install this app. Most of these apps are searchable. So if I type in a phone number, I can see the name of the person according to other people and other contact books. And when we did this, we searched it and we found that this phone number which Orion was using was listed as Ivannikov on one of these apps, which is the real last name of Orion. But there's one place where he actually had his photo and his real first name, which is Oleg because it turns out his kid — I think he goes to school in Switzerland. So he talks to his kid on Skype and he uses this phone number. And so when we look up his phone number in Skype, we see Oleg with his real face right in front of us, like, "oh, my God. Here he is. Here's the big spy. Here's Orion." And so from all these, we can figure out the exact chain of command who was talking about whom, who was in charge of whom, both on the Russia side of the border and on the Ukraine side.
BROOKE GLADSTONE One of the groups close collaborators, the person who phoned Orion to identify his voice, is the Roman Dobrokhotov. He's the founder and editor in chief of The Insider, a Russian investigative online news outlet and one of the people who figured out who was behind the downing of MH 17, I asked him for his hot take on the decision from the District Court of The Hague.
ROMAN DOBROKHOTOV So many people underestimated this decision because they felt that this is the low level people. Yes, they were on the ground. Yes, they are guilty, among others. But this is only the first stage. So I'm pretty sure that many of people who we were investigating, General Tkachev of General Ivannikov from GRU or General Burlaka from FSB, Vladislav Surkov, Putin's helper, all of them will be in this trial later, so we just need to wait a bit.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Just to deal a little bit with the alphabet soup. The GRU is Russia's military intelligence agency, while the FSB is Russia's main intelligence agency, it’she successor to the KGB. And the SBU is Ukrainian intelligence.
ROMAN DOBROKHOTOV Absolutely.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Take us back to the days after the plane was shot down. What compelled you and The Insider to join up with Bellingcat to figure out who was responsible for shooting down the plane?
ROMAN DOBROKHOTOV We already had some experience working on Russian intelligence and Russian military involved in Europe. So when this trial was started on MH17 and they required evidence on who gave direct orders to so-called separatists and who brought the book in Ukraine, we were optimistic because we knew of some new instruments, digital instruments, that can help to find anyone in this world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Can you tell me a little bit about the leaked data sets in your investigations, the cell phone metadata? You found that a lot of this metadata is sold on the black market by the police and the FSB, and that they have a lot of clients. They could be real estate agents or criminals or policemen who don't want to bother to get a court order and would rather spend ten bucks to do this. You said that if you have 100 bucks, Russia is the most transparent country in the world.
ROMAN DOBROKHOTOV Yes. The first time I said this, it was, I think three years ago. And we were expecting that at some point Putin will do something to close this black market, especially after our investigation on Navalny poisoning. But you can't fight against corruption if you are a corrupted leader yourself. If Putin wants to get rid of corruption in Russia, he had to go out of power. That would be the simplest solution. So for Russian investigative journalists, as long as Putin is in power, our investigation will prosper.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How is the reporting on Russian intelligence informed your reporting on the war in Ukraine? We know there's a relationship between the GRU and the Wagner group that's been called the “de facto private army” for Vladimir Putin. It operates outside of the law.
ROMAN DOBROKHOTOV Well, it's ironic that when we published our first investigations about GRU involvement, about FSB involvement, about Wagner's group and Prigozhin involvement, and it was important that we approve this. And Prigozhin, who even went to court against The Insider and Bellingcat.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Evgeny Prigozhin is an oligarch and a close friend of Putin's who controls the Wagner group. So he went out to get you and to disprove the charge that he was connected with Wagner. And what happened?
ROMAN DOBROKHOTOV In the end of summer, he opened and said that he is actually a founder of Wagner's group, and even he built a business center that's called Wagner Group. And he made a big PR out of this. And I think that actually this criminal investigation against me is still underway and that I'm pretty sure that I will be found guilty in Russian court because it is Russian court. But this is funny that at the same time, Prigozhin has already no motivation to hide all of this because it became common knowledge of our investigation. This year after the war started, they are not hiding anything like this anymore. They're not hiding that Russian troops are in Ukraine, that Russia hacked American emails and interfered in elections.
BROOKE GLADSTONE All the bridges have been burned. And you said it looks like nothing can shock the Russian national public anymore. The norms have shifted so much, and I know that we've had a similar experience with what used to be the norms of public behavior over here.
ROMAN DOBROKHOTOV Yeah, but I don't think that this is the end of journalism because first of all, this result that everybody knows, it is known because of us. Because I remember times when even my colleagues from independent Russian journalists didn't believe me when I said it were GRU who hacked Hillary Clinton and Emmanuel Macron and Bundestag. They said like, ‘that cannot be so. We can't believe that people are sitting in the center of Moscow just openly making these hacking attacks.’ All these revelations were sometimes very counterintuitive and very important for people, and they are now common knowledge. But we have lots of other important investigations.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Do you ever despair of bringing people to justice because people are no longer shockable? Or does the verdict in the case in The Hague about the downing of the Malaysia airplane tell you that justice is possible? You say they got the low-hanging perpetrators first, but you don't believe they'll stop there, that they'll continue up the chain.
ROMAN DOBROKHOTOV Yeah, I think both things are important. First, we, of course, need some court decisions. For example, in case of Berlin murder, when FSB agent killed Khangoshvili or a Chechen immigrant to Germany. When we found the real name of the murderer I witnessed in court officially and helped to imprison him for life there. So it was like instant karma. But sometimes we need to understand that we have to wait for the results if we want to change something in Russia for good. We need to explain what's going on in the country, even if there is no immediate revolution. Still, it is very important for them to understand that the country is run by criminals, that they shouldn't trust the governmental propaganda. So this result is also very important for me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you so much.
ROMAN DOBROKHOTOV Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Roman Dobrokhotov is founder and editor in chief of The Insider. Coming up, how step by step, Bellingcat unearthed a sleeper spy. This is On the Media.
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