The hunt for the mysterious man connected to the downing of MH17 started with one phone number.
It was enough to kick off an extraordinary investigation that crossed borders and dived into the depths of the Russian intelligence service.
And it would lead to the naming of senior Russian military intelligence officer Oleg Ivannikov as a suspect.
“It [the number] was an anchor, something to cling onto,” Mortiz Rakuszitsky from the citizen journalist website Bellingcat said.
The number was part of a transcript of phone calls that had been recorded two days before the downing of the jet.
Identifying the voices on those calls, one of them boasting about having access to a Buk missile launcher, became a priority.
The Ukrainian secret service published the phone number the day after the jet was shot down.
Bellingcat tried to call it immediately, with no luck.
The phone was linked to Ukraine’s third largest mobile telephone network operator, Life (now called lifecell) which operated in Eastern Ukraine with pre-paid, anonymous phone cards.
The team then looked at a variety of databases in both Ukraine and Russia and found the same number in a phone app popular in Russia called True Colour.
The nickname assigned to that number was Orion – the same callsign used on the initial tapped phone call talking about the missile.
‘A real break in the investigation’
“That was a starting point,” Rakuszitsky said.
“We continued looking and came across a real break in our investigation when we were able to obtain data from Life,” he said.
They accessed four Russian phone numbers that had been called by the Ukrainian phone.
They checked all four in different databases and one of them provided something very promising.
The name Andrey Ivanovich, GRU and Husky were all noted in the detail in that promising database. It identified not only the name but the address.
Bellingcat started working on the theory that one man had two identities and that Andrey Ivanovich (nicknamed Orion) was also Oleg Ivannikov.
They found articles online written by Ivanovich and a story that said he’d been appointed head of a Russian think tank.
“The lucky break came when we tried to work out what that think tank was doing,” Rakuszitsky said.
“We came across a publication in 2012 in a South Ossetian blogger comments where it was claimed that the think tank was created by the former defence minister for that breakaway region who went by the name Andrey Ivanovich.”
But they still weren’t convinced it was the same person. The most important way to make the link was via his voice.
The voice heard on the intercepted phone call was unusually high pitched for man.
They were forced to resort to voice comparison because the person known as Andrey Ivanovich in South Ossetia – despite having served as minister of defence and spending four years there – had left behind not a single photograph, video or audio recording.
“He was always missing from group photos,” fellow researcher Roman Dobrokhotov said.
“We thought he must be definitely part of the secret service if he is working so hard to not be in any photos.”
The final proof came when they got records from a Moscow residential data base in which they found a photo that had never been published. It showed he was in the military.
‘Super evident’ he was Russian Intelligence
“To be completely satisfied we tried to call him,” Rakuszitzky said.
They tried several times to call the man known as Ivanovich who they believed was also Ivannikov.
On one occasion he refused to come to the phone but they could hear his high pitched voice in the background.
On another occasion they were able to keep him on the phone for a minute.
“It was super evident he was a trained GRU officer [Russian Intelligence] because he tried to keep his calls very short and any call coming from an unknown number would not be received by his phone,” Rakuszitzky said.
They created a fake ID for him to finally take a call.
And then another break – because of an online shopping purchase.
“We discovered his phone number in a defunct online shop in Russia that had gone bankrupt in the past six months,” Rakuszitzky said.
The database was still online and they were able to access it.
He had bought a ‘training mask for high altitude running’ in September 2017.
The delivery address was the headquarters in Moscow of the GRU (intelligence agency). The instructions said ‘to deliver by 8pm’.
That was final proof the two voices and the two names belonged to the same person and that person – Ivannikov – was still working in the Russian military.
The team tried one last time to contact him in the hours before they made their findings public.
The mobile phone number was switched off. He hadn’t used Whatsapp since May 17. So they called his home and his wife answered.
She told them he would be unavailable for the next month and a half.
“You know even I can’t reach him for now,” she told them.
It had taken this team of reporting outlets months of painstaking work, but a simple remark by a Russian wife was the final clue.
They were convinced that the man who was heard on the recorded phone calls boasting of using a missile in July 2014 was a senior Russian military officer who had lived a life of mystery and continued to do so.