KHARKOV, Ukraine — The warehouse of an old confectionery company on Partizanskaya Street in Izium, Ukraine, was marked by signs of Russian occupation everywhere. An artillery shell sat against one of the walls. All around were the remains of houses, with collapsed walls and without roofs.
There we were met by a local resident Aleksey Zadneprovsky, along with a guard dog on a chain. After the Russian troops left, he and his team of aid workers arrived to help rebuild the newly liberated area.
Zadneprovsky introduced us to Ruslan, a volunteer who refused to give his last name for fear of danger if the Russians returned. Even now, the building is less than 100 kilometers from Bakhmut, a hotbed of ongoing fighting in eastern Ukraine.
Ruslan told us what we came there to find out: that he heard and saw anti-aircraft missiles fired from the area of the complex, while the area was under Russian occupation.
The old warehouse, adorned with banners of Western beers like Budweiser and Corona Extra, was the temporary headquarters of the Russian anti-aircraft unit. This was confirmed by the prosecutors of the Kharkiv region of Ukraine. They showed us a document confiscated after the Russian retreat, which listed the commander of the unit, including his phone number and call sign “Voldai”, as well as the address of their headquarters.
Sources and documentation also confirmed that it was not just an anti-aircraft gun.
It was the 53rd anti-aircraft missile brigade, one of the most famous and wanted parts of the Russian army.
The 53rd is best known for its role in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in 2014 as it flew over Ukraine en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. All 298 passengers and crew died.
“You can consider the downing of flight MH17 [as the] September 11 in the Netherlands,” said Brechtje van de Moosdijk, spokesman for the Joint Investigation Team investigating the attack on the civilian airline. “When it happened, it was a hot summer day, July 17, 2014. in the garden or by the pool. And then the plane was shot down.
And since then, 53 has become an international pariah, at least as far as war crimes investigators are concerned. The fact that the unit is still working in Ukraine? It’s like the Russian president mocking the rest of the world.
“This unit, after it shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17… did not suffer any retaliation. They have not received any justice for the crimes they have committed,” said George Barros, a Russian analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “And, unfortunately, it is very systematic in the sense that the Russian Federation was able to violate international law.”
In the footsteps of the 53rd brigade
Ukrainian military and intelligence sources told NPR that the 53rd Brigade was active for most of 2022 in Kharkiv Oblast, an area in northeastern Ukraine close to the Russian border.
But there was little concrete evidence of the unit’s specific location. The 53rd brigade specializes in anti-aircraft missile systems. Unlike infantry or mechanized units, they do not fight on the front lines, where open source photographs of captured POWs can be used to provide information about the unit’s activities and whereabouts.
“The military is making significant efforts to try and hide their important key assets on the battlefield,” Barros explained. “The 53rd is definitely one of them, because it is designed to protect forward units from air attacks.”
Ukraine regained control of the Kharkiv region in September last year. During this period of fighting, Ukrainian forces recovered some of the documents left behind by Russian troops at an abandoned headquarters in the Kharkiv region.
One of the documents listed the military units that Russian troops had in the Izyum region. Line 17 contained information about line 53 that we were looking for.
“I can confirm that we have information that for some time they were settled in the Izyumsky district of the Kharkiv region,” said Alexander Filchakov, chief prosecutor of the Kharkiv region, to the NPR. Filchakov tracked various Russian units as part of his office’s efforts to prosecute alleged war crimes.
Barros reviewed the document and found it to be genuine. He also pointed out that this information is consistent with other information from open sources about the whereabouts of units of the 53rd division.
Confirming that the brigade fought in Izyum could be important for Ukrainian and Western prosecutors seeking justice for possible war crimes, not to mention the families of MH17 victims.
Communication between the 53rd Brigade and Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was first established by open source Bellingcat researchers.
Separately, a joint investigation team made up of several countries that lost their citizens to the MH17 crash concluded after several years of work that a missile system supplied by the 53rd Brigade was behind the crash.
Last month in The Hague, the Joint Investigation Team announced some final findings and provided startling new details. Investigators reproduced intercepted telephone conversations of pro-Russian separatists who fought in eastern Ukraine in 2014.
Using these calls, investigators concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin himself was ultimately behind the transfer of the anti-aircraft system – the same system that ultimately shot down flight MH17. It emphasized that the fatal actions of the 53rd brigade were at the behest of Putin.
According to Russian military expert Tom Bullock, pro-Russian separatists in the area did not appear to have expressed regret over the incident after the plane crashed.
“Their social media accounts have several pictures of them posing next to the wreckage of the plane, standing next to the Malaysia Airlines logo and posing for pictures for their social media,” Bullock said.
The Painful Legacy of the Unit
Pete Ploeg lost his brother, his brother’s wife and son on the plane. His brother’s remains have never been identified.
“I always say that our family members were, in fact, the first non-Ukrainian victims of the war that began eight years ago,” he said. “So everyone [that] gives us information about the role of Russia in Ukraine, which is important to us, because it helps us form … a world opinion about the role of Russia in Ukraine.”
Confirmation of the recent activities of the 53rd is also important for people like Silene Fredricks, whose son died in the crash of MH17.
“Our life has completely changed. There were five children in our family, and now there are only four,” she said. “And nothing and no one can fill the gaps they left. It hits you in every aspect of your life. I’m not the same person I used to be. This is life before and life after. hard. It’s still very hard.”
She paid particular attention to the 53rd and is still haunted by the unit’s deadly decisions. Information about the unit and the actions of the Russian military helps her cope with her grief.
“[I] keep an eye on everything that has anything to do with the war that is now going on, and everything related to MH17, Russia, Ukraine,” she said. — I will never have a closure. … But when we learn part of the truth, [it] gives us rest.”
Shortly before the publication of this story, President Vladimir Putin signed a new decree on the 53rd brigade.
Apparently unconcerned about how this would look to the outside world, he ordered the unit to be given a new honorary title: the rank of “Guards,” a term reserved for supposedly elite Russian units.