Russian-Backed Separatist Leader Khodakovsky Changes His Story to Reuters — or Does He?

July 24, 2014
Aleksandr Khodakovsky, commander of the Vostok battalion and former SBU chief in Donetsk.

UPDATED: This article was updated on 24 July at 1447 GMT to add the information from Reuters’ audio tape, below.

The question of whether or not Russian-backed separatist fighters in southeastern Ukraine possessed a Buk anti-aircraft system at all, or whether they may have used it to shoot down the Malaysian airliner MH17, has become further muddled today as a separatist leader first appeared to admit that the rebels may have had a Buk in their possession, then hours after publication, revoked his story.

At 2:28 pm 23 July, Reuters ran a story by Anton Zveryev, Ukraine Rebel Commander Acknowledges Fighters had BUK Missile based on an interview with Aleksandr Khodakovsky, a former officer of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) and commander of the Alfa Group, who crossed over to the separatist movement.

The thrust of Khodakovsky’s interview appeared to be to imply that a rival separatist group, the “Lugansk People’s Republic” (LPR), could have possessed Buks, and also to pin on the Ukrainian military ultimate responsibility for the shoot-down of the Malaysian plane, because they claimed to have confirmed the presence of Buks in the region, and should have re-routed civilian flights accordingly.

Neither of these statements constituted an admission that Khodakovsky knew for a fact that any group within the insurgency had any Buks; he has now further elaborated in a live telephone interview with LifeNews that the rebels never had any Buks at all.

Khodakovsky, one of the few separatist military leaders indigenous to Ukraine — others are Russians from Moscow — has had his differences with Col. Igor Strelkov, a GRU as well as FSB officer who has fought in the Chechen and Transdniestria wars, who is described as commander-in-chief of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR) and “defense minister” of the DPR. Recently, the two leaders made public statements appearing to patch over their differences as we reported, but remain as warlords vying for influence in the region.

When Strelkov took over Donetsk after the retreat from Slavyansk, he evidently persuaded Khodakovsky to resign 16 July from his post as “minister of security” — an additional title reflecting his past role in the Donetsk SBU — but to join the new military council created by Strelkov. He remained as commander of Vostok, and no new “minister of security” has been appointed yet.

Regarding Lugansk, where the Buk system has been confirmed as sighted near the area of the downed plane and on its way out of Ukraine to Russia the next day, Khodakovsky told Reuters:

“I knew that a BUK came from Luhansk. At the time I was told that a BUK from Luhansk was coming under the flag of the LNR,” he [Khodakovsky] said, referring to the Luhansk People’s Republic, the main rebel group operating in Luhansk, one of two rebel provinces along with Donetsk, the province where the crash took place.

“That BUK I know about. I heard about it. I think they sent it back. Because I found out about it at exactly the moment that I found out that this tragedy had taken place. They probably sent it back in order to remove proof of its presence.”

He further added:

Khodakovsky said his unit had never possessed BUKs, but they may have been used by rebels from other units.

“The fact is, this is a theatre of military activity occupied by our, let’s say, partners in the rebel movement, with which our cooperation is somewhat conditional,” he said.

“What resources our partners have, we cannot be entirely certain. Was there (a BUK)? Wasn’t there? If there was proof that there was, then there can be no question.”

He then went on to make his argument for Ukrainian military responsibility.

But within hours, Russian media and Twitter users were reporting that Khodakovsky had disavowed the interview, saying he had a tape of it to prove that he had been misrepresented by Reuters. As the “Donetsk People’s Republic” account tweeted, linking to a RIA Novosti article:

Translation: ‘I have a tape of the conversation’; Khodakovsky denies that he spoke about the militia having a ZRK [Buk].

Then Gabriel Gatehouse, a BBC correspondent had this to report about half an hour later:

Reuters appears to be sticking to its story:

What happened?

To get some insight into what Khodakovsky has been saying, we can look at a lengthy interview he gave just the previous day (22 July) to Russian ultranationalist Sergei Kurginyan, who uploaded it as an episode on his “Essence of Time” YouTube channel.

Some reviewers have seen this interview as well as tantamount to an admission the separatists have a Buk, but it’s actually cleverly couched as a hypothetical so as to keep a plausible deniability. In this video statement, Khodakovsky says the separatists have their own commission of experts examining the Malaysian flight downing, and are examining — as if they could be impartial — whether it was “the militia plus Russia” or “the Ukrainians” who were at fault. At this time “we do not have enough information,” he said.

Interestingly, he says nothing about any Buks sighted with Lugansk separatist units in this interview at all, but goes about constructing a hypothesis whereby the Ukrainian military is ultimately to blame based on their own claims. The entire message is cast in the Russian-language subjunctive.

Here’s the transcript of the video in Russian
. The Interpreter has translated an excerpt:

“We have completely reliable information from the Ukrainian media that supposedly the Ukrainians knew in advance that the militia had a Buk. We know that the Ukrainians placed in mass media tape recordings of telephone calls of various leaders of the militia formations or other fighters in the militia movement. They discuss the problem of the delivery of the Buk, the presence of a Buk. All of those conversations are dated a day earlier than the tragedy or earlier. So we can say that if the Ukrainians are claim they have reliable evidence, then they had in advance information that the militia’s Buk was a) present with them and b) was located in a combat zone, specifically, the area of Snezhnoye where in their opinion where the shot was made that destroyed such a number of lives.”

If the Ukrainians had information of the presence of Buks around Torez and Snezhnoye, then they should have detoured civilian flights around the combat area, he says. He adds a further claim:

“Moreover, unexpectedly, on that day, in the area of Snezhnoye, in the area of Saur-Mogila, Ukraine suddenly activated its air action and planes, which had been absent for several days before that over that zone suddenly actively began to bomb, the Saur-Mogila and the position of the militia.”

He concludes again with a hypothetical:

“If today, we can not guarantee whether the militia had a Buk or not — and there is evidence that there was no Buk there [emphasis added] — then at least if the Ukrainians say they have reliable information, then they themselves are digging their own hole. Thus, they are thus endorsing the fact that while possessing information about the presence of the Buk, and saying that supposedly the militia had brought the Buk in the combat zone, Ukraine still took part in drawing up the civil aviation routes, but never did anything so that those civilian craft did not come into the combat zone. In any case, this is a crime. In any event the Ukrainian government bears full responsibility and blame for what happened.”

The second part of the interview turns even more speculative and ideological, set up by the classic Leninist question posed by leftist ultranationalist Kurginyan, “Who profits?”

Khodakovsky believes Ukraine was losing the war and running out of resources to fight an urban war: “Any of the scattered militia groups with a grenade launcher is capable of destroying the existence of heavy armored vehicles stuffed with electronics and modern weaponry,” he maintains.

Faced also with having to destroy with air strikes what he perceives as “the backbone of the Ukrainian economy” — industries in Lugansk and Donetsk — Kiev wanted to do something to shift the war to another level, and ostensibly had the motivation to shoot down the civilian airliner to achieve this nefarious purpose.

Khodakovsky invokes a conspiratorial theme often repeated by the rebel leaders that Ukraine’s goal is to “do the bidding of its overseas patron America” and “draw in NATO forces” by “provoking a Russian invasion.

So to incite such an invasion – an outcome Khodakovsky actually says the separatists do not want — Russia and the “militia” have to be accused of something awful. He reiterates a common notion of Soviet propaganda, that NATO and the US only get into wars so that their defense industry can have earn maximum profits while Ukraine lies in ruins.

If this sounds confusing, contradictory and even crazy, it may very well be intended as such; after all, Khodakovsky is an officer in the SBU, trained by the Soviet KGB and then later cooperating (and infiltrated by) Russian intelligence today. Disinformation, sowing confusing, maskirovka or covering up of truths — these are all part of his job description.

The strategy of propagandists in Moscow throughout the crisis engendered by the Malaysian aircraft shoot-down has been to boldly and wildly throw up different contradictory explanations and make fierce accusations in rapid succession, seeing if one sticks and moving on to another as Western skepticism grows. Perhaps Khodakovsky is using the same methods.

Other possibilities are that Khodakovsky was free-lancing, and later instructed by either DPR leadership or Russian military intelligence — or a very angry LPR threatening reprisals — to change his story.

Westerners prefer to see the phenomenon of Khodakovsky as explained by him being a “loose canon” or even “going rogue,” but it’s important to remember that throughout the three months of the conflict, he has remained fighting as leader of Vostok and never been pushed out of power, like other leaders such as Denis Pushilin. He is not on the run now, as far as we know. He’s survived a number of internal political battles as well as real battles, and as of this writing, neither Col. Strelkov or Aleksandr Boroday have said anything to confirm or deny his claims or counter-claims to Reuters; they are letting nature take its course. Ruvesna (“Russian Spring”) is the only pro-separatist outlet to have addressed the issue; it has asked Reuters to publish a tape of the interview and “if Khodakovsky lies,” will publish this.

On the evening of 23 July, LifeNews carried a live telephone interview with Khodakovsky in which he said he was speaking of hypothetical scenarios, and implied he may have been misunderstood, although he stated that Zveryev spoke “fairly good Russian.” Twice, the LifeNews anchor interrupted him, and persisted in trying to get a straight acknowledgement out of him about whether or not the separatists possess Buks:

“There aren’t and never were?” asks the LifeNews anchor. “There aren’t and never were,” Khodakovsky confirms. Neither of them raised the subject of what Khodakovsky told Reuters he heard about the Lugansk separatists’ unit with possibly a Buk. Lugansk Region is where local eye-witnesses have uploaded pictures and videos to YouTube which have been confirmed, and also spoken to Western reporters.

Reuters then released the recording of the interview with Khodakovsky in Russian, which was published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. In it, Khodakovsky can be heard to say in Russian “Ya znal shto Buk shol iz Luganska” which would be more accurately translated as “I knew that a Buk was coming” in the past imperfect, not past perfect, “I knew that a Buk came,” as originally translated by Reuters.

He then said “v etot moment mne skazali shto iz Luganska shol pod flagom LNR v storonu Snizhne” “at that moment I was told it was coming from Lugansk under the flag of the LPR toward Snizhne”. He adds a line not included in the Reuters quoted excerpt or the RFE/RL translation transcript, “gde-to nakhoditsya kren ego ne izvestno” “located somewhere who the hell knows.” Then “ob etom Buk ya znal, ya slyshal,” “I knew about that Buk, I heard about it.” He then reiterates his point that Ukraine had the information in advance, so should have closed the airspace — which was the context for his reference to the news from Lugansk.

Additionally, we can note what’s happening when Western reporters and readers are tied up in knots trying to figure out where the rebels’ Buks are, like a game of three-card monte — they are distracted from asking more questions about Russia’s role in supplying and possibly supervising the Buk crews from within Russia which have been confirmed, as have been hypothesized by Ukrainian scholar Eugen Leng of a joint Russian-Ukrainian scenario.

Translation: And another thing about the ‘militia’s Buk”. So, imagine — you’ve seized a Buk system. Now go figure it out.