A semi-retired Russian three-star general oversaw the cross-border movements of a rocket launcher used to bring down a passenger jet in 2014 over eastern Ukraine, killing all aboard, an investigation by a team of reporting outlets has found.
The reporting team, made up of McClatchy and investigative websites Bellingcat (based in London) and The Insider (based in Moscow), identifies the general as Nikolai Fedorovich Tkachev.
His identification is potentially a breakthrough in a case that has frustrated Dutch and other investigators who have struggled for years to identify voices on a key phone intercept. They may now be closer to decoding the chain of command that brought down the unsuspecting Malaysia Air Flight 17 traveling above 30,000 feet.
In the intercept, a commander is heard giving orders and talking with junior officers; they appear to be discussing equipment associated with a missile launcher and used to move it.
The investigators, who had earlier asked for help in identifying perpetrators, were reviewing the new information about Tkachev and had no immediate comment on the findings.
The doomed flight originated in Amsterdam on July 17, 2014, bound for the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur with 283 passengers and 15 crew members aboard, including one American citizen. The flight was believed struck by a surface-to-air missile near the disputed border between Russia and Ukraine.
The identification of Tkachev follows rigorous analysis by experts on two continents of audio files that, along with other indicators, confirms with high likelihood that he’s the man heard on phone intercepts ordering the movement of the BUK missile launcher at the border in the days before and after the plane was downed.
Tkachev (pronounced Ka-chuf) is a semi-retired Russian general who received an award from leader Vladimir Putin in 2012 and then moved into reserve status after serving as deputy commander of Russia’s Eastern Military District.
There is no public information about Tkachev in the tumultuous period of early 2014 when Moscow sought to regain momentum after Russian-backed separatists in breakaway regions of Ukraine were suffering defeats. He reappears in media coverage months after the airline disaster, at a December 2014 cadet ceremony in Ekaterinburg.
His new post there came with the title of chief inspector in the Central Military District, a ceremonial post usually given to reward retired generals with significant command experience.
When he left full-time duty, Tkachev held the rank of colonel general, which is roughly equivalent to a lieutenant general in the United States.
Russian corporate records also show that Tkachev became chairman of the board of the Ekaterinburg Military School in September 2017 and a contact number there led the reporting team to him. Ekaterinburg is where Europe and Asia literally meet. It is Russia’s fourth largest city, located in the Urals, slightly more than 1,000 miles east of Moscow.
On behalf of the reporting team, a journalist with Moscow’s The Insider had numerous phone conversations with Tkachev. The reporter, whose name is being witheld to protect them from public or private retribution, confronted the general Thursday with the findings and results of the audio analysis.
He denied giving the order or even being in the area.
“No, no, no, I was not there,” the 68-year-old Tkachev told the reporter from The Insider. After publication, he denied the report to the Russian news agency Tass, saying he spends much of his time on children’s programs. He had earlier told the reporting team that most of his time is spent on military inspections.
The Russian government and its embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.
The five countries — Holland, Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and Ukraine — in the special Joint Investigation Team formed to get to the bottom of the shootdown have been repeatedly thwarted by Russia, which has sought to smear the credibility of the Dutch investigators and their initial conclusion that a Russian missile brought down MH 17. Russia successfully blocked efforts to create a UN body to investigate the incident, which would have compelled the Kremlin to hand over those accused.
Investigators agreed in early July that any suspects would be prosecuted in Holland.
A series in early November by the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad highlighted how pro-Russia agitators in Holland have tried to smear the investigation and have reached out to victims’ families with misleading information.
“It has been astonishing,” Wilmer Heck, a veteran reporter who worked on the series, said in an interview, cautioning that proving Russia orchestrated the disinformation efforts is difficult. “We couldn’t pinpoint a direct link with the Russian state, and that of course is very important.”
The lone American aboard, Quinn Lucas Schansman, 19, had dual Dutch citizenship and was from Fort Lee, N.J. His father Thomas, who works for the Dutch government in New York, told McClatchy that he has been approached numerous times since the downing by people claiming to have information that Russia did not bring down the airliner, pinning the blame on Ukraine instead.
“They have clearly frustrated the investigation since the beginning,” he said.
In one recent example, a man living in Holland wrote to him, saying he worked in transportation and had shipped second-hand military equipment to Ukraine. The man gave the address of a transport company but when Schansman reached out to the company no one had heard of the person.
The Russian tactics ring familiar to Peter Goelz, who was managing director of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board in the mid-1990’s.
“I’ve been stunned at how the Russians in this case seem to have reverted to a policy that we saw following the downing of KAL 007,” he said in reference to the Sept. 1, 1983, shootdown by the Soviet Union of a Korean Air Lines passenger flight from New York to Seoul.
That jet was mistaken for a spy plane and hit with an air-to-air missile in Soviet airspace. Soviet leaders denied their country was responsible and threw sand in the gears of the subsequent investigations for years; the truth was finally fully revealed only after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“[H]ow a responsible member of the world community would allow this to happen and then try to cover it up is just shocking,” he said.
In a brief statement after publication Friday, the Joint Investigation Team said it “has taken note of the information” published by the partners. It added that the new findings “will be examined thoroughly and included in the investigation.”
Confirming the voices
On Sept. 28, 2016, the Joint Investigation Team released recordings of two apparent Russian officers, one clearly a commander, and sought public help in identifying them.
McClatchy’s partners recorded several recent phone calls with Tkachev asking him about his recent ceremonial appointment and later confirming biographical details.
Those recordings were compared with the recordings of intercepted calls of the unidentified purported Russian commander that the Joint Investigative Team posted on YouTube.
On those YouTube recordings, there’s one man to whom the others on the intercept are clearly deferential, as if under his command.
The reporting team gave the original audio recordings and those obtained in recent calls with Tkachev to the University of Colorado’s National Center for Media Forensics for analysis. The Center’s director, Catalin Grigoras, specializes in forensic authentication of recorded media.
Absent two recordings of voices saying precisely the same thing, it’s impossible to come to a conclusion with 100 percent certainty, Grigoras cautioned. But using algorithms to determine voice patterns and deploying a complex software that tested against samples of Russian-speaking male voices, Grigoras concluded that the voices appear to belong to the same man.
The reporting partners also shared the recordings with the Forensic Science Centre of Lithuania, a government-backed institution in the capital, Vilnius, that specializes in forensic work, including audio and speech analysis. Its experts concluded that three of five recordings from the original audio closely matched the recently recorded calls, one with near certainty, findings similar to those of the University of Colorado team. The recordings that didn’t match had poor audio quality.
Tkachev is never identified by his last name in recordings, and Russian battlefield personnel almost always use handles or fake names. The commander in the recordings released by the Joint Investigation Team is referred to with the call sign Delfin — the Russian word for dolphin.
But in one of the recordings of intercepted calls there is an anomaly. Delfin is referred to as Fedor Nikoaevich, an apparent mishmash of his real name and patronymic (the Christian name of someone’s father in Russia), Nikolay Fedorovich.
The man identified as Delfin sternly corrects him, a strong hint that it might have been his actual name. Delfin is addressed in the courteous Russian plural, never returning the nicety to those with whom he is talking on the recordings.
Delfin’s confusion about certain geographical details about the Lugansk airport give the distinct impression he is not from the area. His age is thought to be between 50 and 70 because of his voice and his rank. He speaks with an accent which appears to be from Russia’s southern regions.
In interviews that appeared later on the Internet, two different Russian mercernaries involved in the fighting in the breakaway region reference Delfin as being on the level of a “combrig” — a relatively high rank of brigadier general. He is also referred to in slang terms as a vacationer, suggesting he was not a permanent leader but rather one there to train and bring order to the separatists.
These Russian separatist figures, one of whom was interviewed by The Insider, said they met Delfin in Krasnodon, a city in disputed eastern Ukraine where they said he spent part of the summer of 2014.
Tkachev was believed to have been tasked with bringing organization to decentralized ethnic Russian separatist military units in the self-declared Luhansk People's Republic (LNR).
Igor Girkin, reportedly a former colonel in Russian military intelligence during Russia’s seizure of Crimea, has said publicly that he worked with Delfin in the summer of 2014. Girkin is a self-described Russian nationalist and self-styled minister of defense for the breakaway regions. Interviewed in Moscow in late November on behalf of the reporting team, he declined to blame Ukrainian government fighters for the shoot down.
“All I think about it I will carry along within my head,” he told The Insider. “Maybe one day, when I write my memoir in 20 years, I will spell it out. “
But then he doubted he’d be alive in 20 years and added with a hint of mystery, “who knows what will happen even in a year?”
On Friday, Girkin told the Russian news site BFM.ru that he couldn’t be sure whether the man he met in eastern Ukraine but didn’t discount it.
“I saw Delfin only once, and he was dead tired, looked half asleep after not sleeping a whole night,” Girkin said Friday. “So I can’t confirm or deny anything said by The Insider.”
The reporting team scoured information in the public record about Russian military leaders to find how many Nikolay Fedorovichs might exist. The team found six, but only one of them was older than 50 in 2014 and that was Tkachev. Age, location and other factors ruled out the other five names.
Tkachev’s official biography begins in 1980 when he rose through the Soviet ranks in commanding positions in East Germany, western Ukraine, and the Soviet Far East.
When Russia became an independent nation, he served in 1992 as an infantry division commander in the Leningrad military district.
His official biography and his Russian-language Wikipedia page , which he confirmed was legitimate, show he took part in both of the bloody Chechen wars (1994-1996 and 1999-2000), in which Russia ruthlessly quashed independence attempts of the predominantly Muslim region.
From March 2011 to August 2012, Tkachev told The Insider, he was Russia's lead military adviser in Syria. In an Aug. 7, 2012, video posted by an anti-Assad group, captioned "Damascus area military command," Tkachev appears alongside Russian Major General Vladimir Kuzheev and the later assassinated Syrian Minister of Defense, Dawoud Rajha.
Foreign nationals from 17 countries were among the 298 dead when the aircraft was shot down by a missile believed fired near the town of Snezhoye in eastern Ukraine. Bodies and wreckage were strewn across an area just 25 miles from the Russian border.
The Dutch Safety Board announced in 2015 that it had concluded that the aircraft had been hit by a missile fired from an advanced Russian anti-aircraft mobile launcher known as a BUK.
Dutch investigators then said in late 2016 that the missile was fired from a BUK launcher that had been transported from Russia to rebel positions in Ukraine before the crash and transported back into Russia soon afterwards.
Ethnic Russian separatists known as the Donbass People’s Militia have received aid from Russia and controlled the area inside Ukraine from where the missile was said to have been fired.
Russia initially claimed that a Ukrainian fighter jet had been tailing the Boeing 777-200 ER, and later said its simulations show a missile was fired from Ukrainian–held territory. Russia insists its military and proxies had nothing to do with downing the passenger plane.
The government-backed Russian news site Sputnik in May ran a story suggesting the Ukrainian government could have destroyed evidence that its soldiers shot down the passenger plane.
Bellingcat identified the actual launcher as BUK 332, and said it belonged to the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Rocket Brigade from Kursk, Russia. Bellingcat also reported that Russian satellite images provided to dispute the Dutch claims had been altered — a conclusion shared by German news organizations.
Dutch investigators in the past have complained about incessant obstruction from Russia. They were thwarted, for example, when they tried to buy social media ads in Russia to promote a tip-line but Russia’s two largest social media companies gave him a big nyet.
That’s ironic given that Russia is being probed in the United States for alleged Internet hacking during last year’s presidential election. If the Internet is a wide-open space in the United States, it is closely controlled by the government in Russia.
“In the last couple of years, they’ve really cracked down,” said Robert Orttung, a Russia expert at George Washington University. “In recent years they’ve started to take down certain websites, more control over content of social media. It’s more controlled than it used to be.”
Partner Bellingcat in an investigative website in London that emphasizes open source and social-media reporting. The Insider is a Moscow-based investigative online news site.
How the voices were analyzed
The National Center for Media Forensics at University of Colorado-Denver conducted a forensic-speaker comparison for McClatchy and its partners using the software package BATVOX.
The analysis compared voice and phoneme characteristics from two sample groups of recordings, those uploaded to YouTube by the Joint Investigation Team and those recorded by The Insider of Tkachev.
The process yields a Likelihood Ratio, a value on a curve. It compares the likelihood that two voices are the same versus that of a speaker against a reference population. In this case, the center used a reference group of 42 different Russian male speakers.
Prior to conducting the comparison that found a strong likelihood that the voices were the same, the center’s system was calibrated using samples from 100 different Russian speakers recorded in normal conversational style.