PETALING JAYA: Transport Minister Anthony Loke has denied any suggestions that Malaysia was influenced by Russia when declaring there was no conclusive evidence to confirm that the country was responsible for the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in 2014.
Investigators probing the downing of flight MH17 had stated in July that the missile which brought down the plane over eastern Ukraine originated from a Russian military brigade. All 298 people onboard died.
A week later Loke had said there was “no conclusive evidence to pinpoint Russia” and also mentioned that Malaysia has to take into consideration diplomatic relations with the country.
Australia’s ABC news portal said Loke had since reacted to reports that Russian operators may have influenced the decision, which had surprised observers.
In a text message, Loke told the ABC: “I categorically and strongly deny the wild accusations against us.
“I have never been in contact with the Russians.
“My comments are based on the advice of our ministry of foreign affairs.”
In its July press conference, the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) had insisted the warhead’s fingerprint was “so special” that it could only have come from the Russian military.
Moscow had rejected JIT’s accusation, saying no such weapon has ever crossed the Russian-Ukrainian border and that it was an attempt to “discredit Russia in the eyes of the international community”.
At a parliamentary hearing in Canberra, foreign affairs legal officer James Larsen said Australia “believes there is conclusive evidence”.
Loke’s remarks also caught the attention of Christo Grozev, an investigator with Bellingcat, a London-based reporting website that had recently brought into the open some of Russia’s covert disruptions.
It was a “surprising dissension”, he said. Malaysia was the “only country that did not fully endorse the findings of the joint investigation team”, he told ABC.
Grozev said Bellingcat is now actively probing whether Russia had played a role in this public display of disunity.
The team’s “working hypothesis”, he told ABC, was that the entire Malaysian contingent, or one member of it, had been compromised by Russia’s spies.
“I believe they may have done that in Malaysia, look for discrediting information, for what they call ‘kompromat’, on politicians or on members of the investigative teams,” Grozev said.
“And then they try to use that to get one member of the team to diverge from the common policy on what they are doing.”
ABC said the Bellingcat group had unearthed the true identities of the two men who UK authorities have publicly declared were agents for Russian military intelligence — the GRU — who attempted to assassinate former spy Sergei Skripal on orders from Moscow.
While they entered the UK on Russian passports, which said they were Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov, Bellingcat produced passport photos to show they were in fact two high-ranking officers, Anatoliy Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin.
Bellingcat also said both men were recipients of Russia’s highest military honour — the Hero of the Russian Federation.
ABC reported that coordinated events at The Hague and in Washington DC, security officials announced the identities of seven alleged GRU officers who attempted to hack into targets around the world.
The US Department of Justice announced indictments against seven men, and in its public statement, also hinted at GRU’s activities in Malaysia.
“Data obtained from at least one item of this equipment confirmed its operational use at multiple locations around the world, including … in Kuala Lumpur in December 2017,” it said.
The UK’s ambassador to The Netherlands, Peter Wilson, added: “One of the GRU officers, who was escorted out of the country by our Dutch colleagues, Evgenii Serebiakov, also conducted malign activity in Malaysia.
“This GRU operation was trying to collect information about the MH17 investigation and targeted Malaysian government institutions, including the Attorney-General’s office and the Royal Malaysian Police.”
Russia has dismissed Bellingcat’s work as “criminal investigative activity”.