The ‘investigative journalism’ website Bellingcat has caused another stir this week by claiming to have identified a Russian general who operated in the rebel Lugansk People’s Republic (LNR) in Ukraine in summer 2014. Several radio intercepts from the period involve a Russian operating under the codename ‘Dolphin’ (‘Delfin’ in Russian). By comparing the intercepts with a recorded telephone conversation, Bellingcat has come to the conclusion that Dolphin is a Russian general, Nikolai Tkachev, who officially retired from the Russian Army in 2010 but who has since held a number of military-related positions, including being an advisor to the Syrian army and for the past few years heading a military school in Yekaterinburg.
Because the Dutch commission investigating the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH-17 has expressed interest in Dolphin’s identity, the Bellingcat report is being widely touted as further evidence of direct Russian involvement in the MH-17 affair. Indeed, Bellingcat titles its report “Russian Colonel General Identified as Key MH-17 Figure.”
I’m not qualified to comment on Bellingcat’s methodology, and so won’t express an opinion on whether Tkachev really is Dolphin, but I have a few things to say about other aspects of the affair:
1) The fact that there was a retired Russian general codenamed Dolphin helping rebels in Lugansk in 2014 is hardly news. It has been known for some time.
2) More broadly, the fact that there were individual Russian servicemen, and ex-servicemen, helping out the rebellion as so-called ‘vacationers’ is also hardly news. It’s necessary here to draw a distinction between individual vacationers and entire Russian military units. While we don’t have evidence for the latter in Donbass until August 2014, the presence of the former is not seriously disputed. Whether Dolphin was Tkachev or somebody else isn’t a matter of great importance in terms of our general understanding of what happened in Ukraine in summer 2014.
3) There is nothing in the radio intercepts linking Dolphin to MH-17. The MH-17 headlines are a red-herring. Bellingcat’s revelations, even if true, don’t add anything to our knowledge of Russian involvement, or non-involvement, in the MH-17 affair.
That leaves the question of what Dolphin was doing in Lugansk, and this is what I think is truly revealing. To answer this question, Bellingcat relies heavily on the reporting of Russian blogger Colonel Cassad. I don’t have a problem with that – in summer 2014, I found Cassad extremely well informed about events in the rebel republics, and he had a knack of getting things right when others were well off the mark. Despite his open pro-rebel sympathies, he developed a well-earned reputation for reliability. The fact that even Bellingcat trusts him is telling.
Via Colonel Cassad, Bellingcat quotes one-time rebel leader Igor Strelkov as saying: ‘Delfin’ and ‘Elbrus’ [another ‘vacationer] were involved in the coordination of separatist units in the LNR and partly in the DNR.’ Bellingcat then says,
In a 3 January 2015 blog post, Colonel Cassad described the chaotic situation in the LNR during summer 2014, describing Delfin as a figure sent by Moscow to bring order to the situation in Luhansk: ‘The shooting and murders in the LNR are an entirely logical reflection of the more anarchic nature of the local republic (in comparison with the DNR), where in the summer there were more than twenty different military formation in Luhansk that were not subordinate to anyone. Neither Bolotov [note: now-deceased leader of the LNR from May to August 2014] nor those who were sent from Moscow (this was in fact the reason why ‘Elbrus’ and ‘Delfin’ failed) were able to handle this.’
Let’s break this down. The situation in the LNR in summer 2014 was ‘anarchic’. There were a large number of rebel militias which ‘were not subordinate to anyone’. A Russian general arrived to try to bring some order to the chaos and ‘failed’. Moreover, he failed precisely because he was sent from Moscow (and so, one must assume, was seen as an outsider and lacked authority).
In other words – and this is the crucial point – what all this proves is that Moscow was quite definitely not in control of the rebellion in Lugansk in summer 2014. In fact, it’s obvious that nobody was. Instead, there were a plethora of locally-raised militia who did their own thing regardless of what Moscow wanted.
As I’ve said before, this matters, because if you can’t understand the origins of the conflict correctly, then you have no chance of finding a solution. The narrative which clearly emerges from the Bellingcat report (rather against Bellingcat’s desire, I suspect) fatally undermines the concept that the war in Donbass is entirely the product of ‘Russian aggression’.
Unfortunately, some in Ukraine are now doing their best to suppress this truth. A bill is now being considered by the Ukrainian parliament which would make it a criminal offence to deny ‘Russian aggression’. Rada Deputy Anton Gerashchenko, who is pushing the bill, has made it clear that he sees it as a way of silencing those who would call the war in Donbass ‘a civil war’. We must hope that the bill never becomes law. If it does, it will become impossible for Ukrainians to address the truth of what has happened to their country.