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NPR investigates Russia's notorious 53rd Anti-Aircraft Brigade

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Russia's 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade is one of its most notorious and secretive military units. And even before Ukraine was invaded, it was implicated in killing hundreds of civilians. NPR investigative correspondent Tim Mak followed their movements and found their former headquarters in a liberated region of Ukraine.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: The region of Kharkiv is in northeast Ukraine. It is the site of some of the earliest and fiercest fighting in the full-scale war between Ukraine and Russia. We'd asked to talk to the prosecutor general for the region, Oleksandr Philchakov. He's been tracking Russian units for possible war crimes investigations and has some news for us about the 53rd.

OLEKSANDR PHILCHAKOV: (Through interpreter) Yes, I can confirm that, that we had information that, for some time, they were settled in Izyum region, in Izyum district, in Kharkiv region.

MAK: We'd been looking for information about this unit for months. The 53rd Brigade is notorious for its role in the downing of a Malaysian Airlines flight in 2014. A joint investigation team concluded that a missile system supplied by the 53rd Brigade was behind it and the killing of 298 civilians, including 196 Dutch nationals on board.

BRECHTJE VAN DE MOOSDIJK: You can regard the downing of Flight MH17 as Dutch 9/11.

MAK: That's Brechtje van Moosdijk (ph), a spokesperson for the joint investigation team.

VAN DE MOOSDIJK: When it happened, it was a hot summer's day, July 17, 2014. Everybody was happy and on holidays, and then this plane was downed.

MAK: Last month at The Hague, the joint investigation team held a press conference to announce some final findings.

SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.

MAK: They had stunning news to report. The investigators played intercepted phone calls that they had obtained of Russian-backed separatists that were fighting in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Russian).

MAK: Using these calls, investigators concluded that the president of Russia was behind the transfer of an anti-aircraft system, the same system that eventually shot down MH17. It underscored the 53rd Brigade's fatal actions were at the direction of the most powerful person in Russia - Vladimir Putin. After the press conference, I spoke to a member of a victim's family, a man named Piet Ploeg.

PIET PLOEG: I always say our family members were, in fact, the first non-Ukrainian victims of a war that started eight years ago.

MAK: His brother, his brother's wife and their son were on the plane.

PLOEG: So everything what gives us information about the role of Russia in Ukraine is, for us, important because it helps us to form the world opinion about the role of Russia in Ukraine.

MAK: As an Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade, the 53rd is a strategic Russian asset with the ability to shoot down Ukrainian jets and helicopters. They would have provided cover for other Russian units to fire on Ukrainian troops, says George Barros, a Russia analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.

GEORGE BARROS: Militaries undertake significant efforts to try to hide their important key battlefield assets. The 53rd is certainly one of those.

MAK: During fighting this past fall, Ukrainian forces had retrieved some documents Russian forces left behind, including information about the 53rd. After months of investigations, we had the prospect of finding intelligence that could reveal, without a doubt, what the 53rd had been up to. So we traveled to Izyum to meet with local prosecutors.

(Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PROSECUTOR: Hello.

MAK: Hello.

One of the prosecutors said Russian troops had left behind some important files.

UNIDENTIFIED PROSECUTOR: (Through interpreter) In one of the headquarters of Russian forces, we found this document that consisted of the list of the units that the Russian forces they had in the area of Izyum.

MAK: And on the 17th line of that document was information about who the 53rd's commander was, his phone number, his call sign, the number of troops he had with him, and where his former headquarters were - in an old chocolate warehouse in Izyum. So we took the documents to Barros.

BARROS: I've seen these kinds of documents before, and it looks legitimate.

MAK: They confirm that the 53rd had been actively fighting in Ukraine during the full-scale invasion. Despite the international community's condemnation of the brigade's actions, including the killing of hundreds of civilians, Russia redeployed the notorious unit to eastern Ukraine to use its deadly capabilities once again.

BARROS: Politically and symbolically, it is significant.

MAK: It is all information that would be important to Ukrainian and Western prosecutors looking to find justice for possible war crimes, not to mention the families of the victims of MH17.

BARROS: This unit did not face any retribution. They did not face any justice for the crimes they committed. And unfortunately, this is very much systematic of the way that the Russian Federation has been able to violate international law.

MAK: There was one more place we had to go - these old chocolate warehouses on a street littered with rubble in Izyum. Izyum itself was cleared of Russian troops months before we arrived. When we got to the warehouse, there was no sign of the 53rd. We asked the locals whether they had observed any.

So you heard and saw that there were anti-aircraft going off near this place.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Through interpreter) We not only heard, we also saw it, how they were operating from here.

MAK: That confirmation is important for people like Selena Fredricks, whose son was killed on MH17. She's paid special attention to the 53rd and is haunted by how members of that unit could have made their fateful and deadly decisions.

SELENA FREDRICKS: Watch everything that has anything to do with the war now going on and everything that has to do with MH17 and Russia, Ukraine.

MAK: Information about the unit, about the Russian military's actions, help her process her grief.

FREDRICKS: I will never have closure. But when we get to know part of the truth - gives us rest.

MAK: The Russian government's ongoing deadly actions, however, make that rest more elusive.

FREDRICKS: Russia has been very brutal, and they're capable of really, really everything. And they don't care for civilian targets. That's a strategy - civilian targets.

MAK: Shortly before the airing of this story, a Russia state-affiliated media outlet announced that President Vladimir Putin had signed a new decree. It was about the 53rd Brigade. Apparently unconcerned about how it would look to the outside world, he ordered that the unit be given a new honorary designation - the title of Guards, a term reserved for supposedly elite Russian units.

Tim Mak, NPR News, Kharkiv.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMBINATE'S "THE MEANWHILE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.