A Dutch-led investigation has publicly shared evidence that links the Russian government to the militant group responsible for the the downing of Malaysia Airline Flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014.
In transcripts from intercepted telephone calls released by the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) on Thursday, high-ranking Russian officials speak with leaders of the militant group "Donetsk People's Republic" (DPR) who shot down the commercial aircraft, killing all 298 passengers and crew.
Three calls intercepted between June and July 2014 show separatist group leaders Igor Girkin and Alexander Borodai speaking with government contact points including Russian-appointed Crimean leader Sergey Aksyonov and Vladislav Surkov, a high-ranking Russian government official and aid to Vladimir Putin. Girkin, a Russian national and "defense minister" of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Republic, is one of the four suspects currently being held for prosecution for their involvement in downing the aircraft.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei's name also appears several times in transcripts of calls between militants. One mentions fighters that were coming "with a mandate from Shoigu."
Investigators say that the calls raise questions about Moscow's involvement with the anti-aircraft missile that shot down the plane.
"Russian influence on the DPR went further than military support," read a statement from Dutch investigation leader Andy Kraag. "Ties between Russian officials and DPR leaders appear to have been much closer."
The transcripts show Girkin requesting Russian military support, and Aksyonov confirming that arrangements are being made.
"The indication of close ties between Russian government officials and leaders of the DPR raise questions about their possible involvement in the deployment of the Buk-Telar (missile), which brought down flight MH17 on 17 July, 2014," read Kraag's statement.
Appeal for witnesses
Flight MH17 departed from Amsterdam for Kuala Lumpur on July 17, 2014. It was shot down over eastern Ukraine by a Russian-made BUK missile. All passengers and crew, mostly Dutch nationals, were killed.
Prosecution of the four suspects identified by investigators is set to begin in March 2020. Girkin along with fellow Russians Sergey Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov and Ukrainian national Leonid Kharchenko are expected to be tried in absentia.
By publishing the new information, investigators hope to identify new witnesses that can shed light on unanswered questions that could aid the prosecution. Specifically, they hope to find out if Surkov and Shoigu had "a role in the planning and execution of military operations in the summer of 2014 in eastern Ukraine" when militants shot down the plane.