KHARKIV, Ukraine — In the old candy company warehouse on Partisan Street in Izyum, Ukraine, signs of the Russian occupation were omnipresent. An artillery shell sat near one of the walls. Everywhere were the remains of houses smashed with rubble, collapsed walls and without roofs.
We were greeted there by the local resident Oleksiy Zadnebrovsky, with a guard dog on chains. After the Russian forces left, he and his team of humanitarians moved in to help the recently liberated area recover.
Zadniprovskiy introduces us to Ruslan, a volunteer who refused to give his last name because he feared danger if the Russians returned. So far, the building is less than 100 kilometers from Bakhmut, the epicenter of the fighting in eastern Ukraine.
Raslan told us what we had come there to teach him: that he had heard and seen anti-aircraft missiles being fired from the vicinity of the compound while the area was under Russian occupation.
Adorned with Western beer banners like Budweiser and Corona Extra, the old warehouse was the temporary headquarters of a Russian anti-aircraft unit. Prosecutors in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine confirmed this. They showed us a document confiscated after the Russian withdrawal which mentioned the unit commander’s name, including his phone number and call sign – “Вolда́й” – along with the address of their headquarters.
Sources and documents confirmed that it was not just an anti-aircraft unit.
This 53rd Anti-Missile Air Brigade was among the most prestigious – and sought after – units in the Russian Army.
Flight 53 is best known for its role in shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 in 2014 while it was flying over Ukraine en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. All 298 passengers and crew died.
Dmitry Lovetsky / AP
“You can look at the shootdown of Flight MH17 [as the] The Dutch 9/11 attacks, said Brechtje van de Moosdijk, spokesman for the Joint Investigation Team examining the civilian airline attack. In the garden or in the pool. And then this plane was shot down.”
And the 53rd has been an international pariah ever since, at least as far as war crimes investigators are concerned. The fact that the unit is working in Ukraine even today? It’s like the Russian president mocking the rest of the world.
“This unit, having shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 … has not faced any punishment. They have not faced any justice for the crimes they have committed,” said George Barros, a Russia analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “Unfortunately, this is pretty systemic in the way the Russian Federation has been able to violate international law.”
On the trail of the 53rd Brigade
Ukrainian military and intelligence sources tell NPR that the 53rd Brigade has been active for most of 2022 in the Kharkiv region, a region in northeastern Ukraine near the Russian border.
But there was little concrete evidence of the unit’s exact location. The 53rd Brigade specializes in anti-aircraft missile systems. Unlike infantry or mechanized units, they do not fight on the front lines, as open source images of captured prisoners of war can be used to provide information about the unit’s activities and whereabouts.
“Militaries go to great lengths to try and hide their major combat assets,” Barros explained. “The 53rd is definitely one of those because it is designed to protect front line units from air attacks.”
Ukraine regained control of the Kharkiv region in September last year. During that period of fighting, Ukrainian forces recovered some documents left by Russian forces in an abandoned headquarters in the Kharkiv region.
One of the documents listed the military units in which the Russian forces were located in the Izyum region. On the 17th line there was information about the number 53 we were looking for.
“I can confirm that we have information that they have settled for some time in the Izyum district of the Kharkiv region,” Oleksandr Vilchakov, chief prosecutor of the Kharkiv region, told NPR. Vilchakov has been tracking various Russian units as part of his office’s efforts to prosecute alleged war crimes.
Barros reviewed the document and found it to be authentic. He indicated that the information matches other open-source information about the whereabouts of the units affiliated with the 53rd.
Confirmation that the brigade was fighting in Izyum could be important for Ukrainian and Western prosecutors looking to find justice for possible war crimes, not to mention the families of the MH17 victims.
The connection between the 53rd Brigade and Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was first made by open source investigators at Bellingcat.
Separately, a joint investigation team consisting of several countries that lost citizens due to the downing of MH17 Finished after years of work that a missile system provided by the 53rd Brigade was behind the incident.
Last month in The Hague, the Joint Investigation Team announce Some of the final results have provided stunning new details. Investigators played intercepted phone calls of Russian-backed separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine in 2014.
Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images
Using these calls, investigators concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin himself was behind the transfer of an anti-aircraft system — the same one that ultimately shot down Flight MH17. He emphasized that the deadly actions of the 53rd Brigade were in Putin’s direction.
Russian military expert Tom Bullock said that the Russian-backed separatists in the region after the plane crash did not seem to regret the incident.
“Multiple photos were found on their social media accounts showing them standing next to the wreckage of the plane, standing next to the Malaysia Airlines logo and taking pictures on their social media,” Pollock said.
The painful legacy of loneliness
Pete Plog lost his brother, sister-in-law and their son on the plane. His brother’s remains have not been identified.
“I always say that our family members were, in fact, the first non-Ukrainian victims of a war that started eight years ago,” he said. “So that’s it [that] Giving us information about Russia’s role in Ukraine is important for us because it helps us form a global opinion about Russia’s role in Ukraine.
Confirmation of the 53rd’s recent activities is also important to people like Celine Fredericks, whose son was killed in the downing of MH17.
“Our lives have completely changed. We have a family with five children and now they are only four,” she said. “And nothing, no one, can fill in the gaps they left. It hits you in every aspect of your life. I’m not the same person I was before. It’s a life before and a life after. Hard. Still so hard.”
She paid special attention to the 53rd and was still haunted by the unit’s killer decisions. Information about the unit and the actions of the Russian army helps her process her grief.
“[I] Watch everything related to the war going on right now and everything to do with MH17, Russia and Ukraine. …but when we get to know part of the truth, [it] It gives us comfort.”
Shortly before this story was published, President Vladimir Putin signed a new decree on the 53rd Brigade.
Clearly unconcerned with how it appears to the outside world, he orders that the unit be given a new honorary designation: the title “Guards”, a term reserved for supposedly elite Russian units.
“General web ninja. Total explorer. Problem solver. Unapologetic troublemaker. Coffee guru. Pop culture maven. Student. Organizer.”
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