After days of interference, pro-Russian separatists seemed to be making efforts to aid the international community at the crash site of Malaysia Air Flight 17. They turned over back black boxes and have allowed the victims' bodies to taken away and returned to the home countries. Yet, even today, they continued to shoot down Ukrainian fighter planes, and hold strong, militant control over the eastern region of Ukraine.
While this group, which Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has called a "terrorist" organization, has certainly been implicated in a variety of wrongdoing, a letter circulating online seems to be trying to make them seem even worse than they are. The written order, which claims to be from the desk of Igor Girkin Strelkov, self-proclaimed leader of the Donetsk People's Republic, asks DPR soldiers to return items looted from MH17 to headquarters, where they will be put towards the organization's "defense fund."
An image of letter was sent to The Wire as a tip, and we immediately set about authenticating it, only to find out that we could not. We now believe this is a fraudulent letter, even as it makes the rounds online and gains increased attention on social media. Though the actions of the DPR have been undeniably deplorable, including taking responsibility for shooting MH17 (they later retracted those claims), it seems even the DPR is not terrible enough to sell the jewelry looted from victims to buy guns for themselves.
Here is the document in full:
Here is our translation:
To all divisions and subdivisions of the military of Donetsk People's Republic, individual soldiers and commanders, who have been in the area of the zone of Boeing 777 Malaysia airline from 18 to 21 July 2014 and who have in their possession private items from this airplane, return found items before 20-00 23 July 2014 to headquarters of military forces of DPR. Valuables (watches, earrings, pendants, and other jewelry and pieces from precious metals) will be sent to the DNR defense fund.
Commander of Military Forces
Donetsk People's Republic Colonel Igor Strelkov
We found that this document started spreading on Twitter. The image above was initially tweeted by lawyer Mark Feygin, who then quickly removed his tweet. Feygin is the lawyer of Nadezhda Savchenko, a female Ukrainian military pilot who has been held in Russia on suspicion of killing two Russian journalists. The U.S. Embassy has linked her imprisonment to the separatists, and the Embassy has condemned Savchenko's "kidnapping by separatists, her illegal transfer to Russian authorities and her prolonged detention." Feygin has been quite outspoken about the actions of separatists in his work. A screenshot of his tweet was picked up by a variety of publications, including Liga.net, The Daily Mail, and Ukrainian television channel ICTV.
The Wire spoke with Feygin via phone to learn more about how he obtained the order and why he chose to delete it from Twitter. It was passed to Feygin through a source, and he said he removed it when he grew suspicious of its authenticity. Feygin attempted to verify the order was real, but could not.
The Wire contacted "Voices of Donetsk," a blog and Twitter account aiming to spread information about the reality of life in rebel-occupied eastern Ukraine, to discuss the letter. Our contact, Vladimir, told us in an email statement, "I'm sure this is fake. There are many facts and evidence that the militants and locals looted luggage of victims of Boeing. But this order--explicit fake."
Our further investigation then led us to Ilya Vasyunin, a journalist on the ground in Donetsk with Russkaya Planeta. We spoke with Vasyunin via phone and reviewed the letter with him. Thanks to his information, and what we have learned elsewhere, there are several key points that allow us to conclude this order is likely a fake:
Girkin usually refers to himself as the "Minister of Defense" but in this order, his title is "Colonel" and "Commander of Military Forces."
The order includes a DPR seal, however an order found in Donetsk May also has a DPR seal with a distinctly different layout, including a completely different center. In other seals, the ink is bright blue.
Commanders Don't Ask, They Tell
In discussing the contents of the letter with Vasyunin, we agreed that the language used was uncharacteristic of Girkin. It is rather soft, more of a request to return items rather than a direct order from a superior officer. It also uses different titles. Girkin often uses the term "militiamen" in his statements, rather than "soldiers."
Direct Contradiction to a Previous Order
Vasyunin was able to speak with some militia members on the ground to discuss this order. He was told that, in fact, it was in direct contradiction to an earlier order they had received regarding theft. In early June, Girkin issued orders to execute two militiamen found guilty of looting local residents. Vasyunin explained, "There was a warning written, I spoke with the militiamen. There were guys that were shot after they were found guilty of stealing something from locals and from shops."
Of course, this doesn't mean the MH17 site wasn't looted, as a variety of evidence proves that it was. This simply shows Girkin threatened to prosecute rebels found looting from locals, therefore making it strange that he would issue another order asking for looted items to sell. That would mean his rebels would have to admit guilt to an act punishable by death, and Girkin would be acting in direct contradiction to his June orders.
Pawn Shops Haven't Seen Anything Out of the Ordinary
The Wire called a variety of pawn shops in the rebel-occupied area to find out if they had received any unusual objects since the crash. None of the pawn shops we spoke with said anything was out of the norm. Naturally, they may have been wary of disclosing the truth to a reporter via phone, or to a Ukrainian speaker in a predominantly Russian-speaking area. (This reporter is originally from Kiev, and has a thick Ukrainian accent when speaking Russian.)
Vasyunin was able to actually visit pawn shops in the Donetsk area, and found similar answers. He spoke at length with one pawn shop owner, who asked to remain anonymous. She said she has not seen anything "particular or fancy." Vasyunin specifically asked her about gold, as images of a gold wedding rings being looted had circulated online. She said her shop had not seen this, "nor any large amount of international gold."
This particular pawn shop owner said that even if it were turned into her store, she "would not accept such jewelry." However, she did explain that it would be difficult to determine if a piece of gold, presumably from melted jewelry, came from the crash site. Nonetheless, she had not seen any influx in jewelry pawning or other changes in her business since the crash.
This Isn't How Terrorists Make Money
In a phone interview with Jordan Tama, a professor focusing on foreign policy and counter terrorism efforts at the American University School of International Service, Tama offered additional insight into how this terrorist organization raises defense funds.
"It's common for terrorist organizations to be engaged in various kinds of business activities that fund their terrorist activities," said Tama. "Those can be very run of the mill business activities, they can be involved in common commercial enterprises, or they can be involved in money laundering and corruption particularly when they have power in a particular geographic jurisdiction, they can make a lot of money in that area."
However, Tama also noted that selling looted objects would be quite unusual. "I have not previously heard of that. It is certainly possible, but I am not familiar with other cases of this happening."
Nonetheless, MH17 was looted. Just not for gun money.
Multiple reports from Ukrainian officials, investigators and journalists at the site, and most recently from victims' families prove that the site was looted. A family in the Netherlands attempted to dial the cellphone of their loved one who was killed in the MH17 crash. The phone call was answered by "an Eastern European-sounding voice." While this does not implicate the rebels directly, someone certainly looted this victim's possessions.
While they may not have been pawned or sold off, the chances of the families ever retrieving these goods are very slim. "I think it depends on the amount of access that outsiders, people in the Ukrainian national government or military... how much access they have to people that in the area," explains Tama. "It will probably be difficult to capture those types of very small items unless people from intelligence services are able to get in there." This means that loved ones of the 298 victims on board will likely never be able to retrieve these mementos of the final moments of the victims' lives.
It appears that this letter was created to implicate the Donetsk People's Republic as both the culprits of the MH17 shooting, and as profiteers and war criminals. However, they seem to have done that themselves, without any help from viral letters. Anton Zverev, a Reuters journalist on the ground in Donetsk, reports that just today, local militiamen admitted to having a BUK missile launcher just like the one used to shot down MH17. (Then tried to deny saying it.) Girkin, the one who supposedly wrote these orders, took responsibility for the shooting online immediately after it happened, though later changed his mind. Multiple intelligence reports from both Ukraine and the U.S. also show that the shooting likely occurred at the hands of the separatists. And it was armed separatists who kept investigators and emergency crews at bay for several days, allowing the bodies to decompose in the sun as their possessions were taken. In this instance, there was no need to frame a guilty man.