On Thursday, the same day that Dutch investigators publicly displayed a large shard of the Russian missile that shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 almost four years ago and identified the Russian military unit that carried out the shootdown, three news organizations — including the McClatchy News wire service — named a high-ranking Russian intelligence agent as one of two officers in charge of the shootdown on July 17, 2014.
The missile attack caused the Boeing 777-200 to break apart at approximately 30,000 feet and crash into a field in the war-torn Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board, including 80 children and one 19-year-old United States citizen. The commercial passenger flight was en route from Amsterdam, Holland, to the Malaysian capital city of Kuala Lumpur when it was shot down.
Using clues from intercepted cell phone conversations on the day of the shootdown and in the days immediately before the tragedy, McClatchy, the British investigative journalism group Bellingcat, and the Russian independent news site The Insider say they have identified "with a high degree of probability" the officer as 51-year-old Oleg Vladimirovich Ivannikov, an official with the Russian intelligence bureau known as the GRU — the same intelligence agency identified by United States authorities as the shadowy organization that staged a cyber-hacking attack on the 2016 U.S. presidential election.Ivannikov used the code name "Orion," which was sometimes spelled "Oreon," in the phone conversations. But using open source data and a phone number that appeared linked to the calls by publicly available data, Bellingcat researchers traced the calls to Ivannikov.
According to the Bellingcat findings, Ivannikov served as a GRU intelligence officer at least until September 2017. Prior to being stationed in Ukraine as a leader of Russia's secret army there starting in 2014, Ivannikov served in the disputed South Ossetia region of Georgia, site of a war between Russia and Georgia in 2008.
In fact, the GRU officer served as the South Ossetia "Minister of Defense" from 2006 to 2008 using another alias, "Andrei Ivanovich Laptev." As "Minister of Defense," he aided a Russia-backed uprising of separatists in the region — meaning that his Ukraine experience was not the first time he had served on the ground in a covert war to break off a piece of a former Soviet-era republic and merge it back into Vladimir Putin's Russia.
The Dutch "Joint Investigative Team," which on Thursday identified Russia's 53rd anti-aircraft brigade as the unit that carried out the Flight MH17 shootdown, has long sought the identity of "Orion." The JIT also wanted to find out who the person was on the other end of those intercepted phone conversations — a person who used the code name "Delfin." In 2016, the multi-organization news investigation pinned down Delfin, naming him as semi-retired Russian three-star General Nikolai Fedorovich Tkachev.
The intercepted conversations showed Tkachev and Ivannikov discussing how to transport military equipment across the Russian border into Ukraine. At one point in the conversations, two days before the Malaysia Airlines plane was shot down, Ivannikov is heard on the call telling Tkachev, "We got a BUK now. So we start shooting the hell out of their planes."