A new witness in the Savchenko case

Nadezhda Savchenko.

PHOTO: hrw.org

What might Estonian citizen Vladimir Poljakov who Ukraine desires to sue for fighting for separatists in Donbas, the Ukrainian army lieutenant Nadezhda Savchenko sentenced for 22 years of imprisonment in Russia last Tuesday, and the perished Russian TV journalists Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin have in common? In a moment of destiny, they all happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, in Eastern Ukraine near Lugansk on June 17th 2014. 

Based on highly questionable evidence, Ms Savchenko was judged guilty for directing Ukrainian artillery fire at civilians resulting in death of journalists working for Russian national TV and radio company VGTRK. Allegedly, as the mines went off, Mr Polyakov was right next to these two journalists. Sound operator Mr Voloshin died on the spot and his colleague and reporter Mr Kornelyuk deceased due to wounds at hospital, half an hour later. Mr Polyakov was lucky to escape with some splinters in back and other places in his body which were not lethal and he travelled to Estonia for treatment.

«Volodya went to take civilians towards Lugansk, out from under the gunfire, the journalists [Kornelyuk and Voloshin] followed after him. He warned them: «Don’t come here, film from behind the «amphibian» [an armoured vehicle].», but they climbed after him. At that moment, as directed by snipers, mortar fire «covered» Volodya and the journalists. The journalists are dead, but Vovka has several wounds from splinters.»

This being an excerpt from an interview (https://meduza.io/feature/2016/03/21/ya-ee-vzyal-i-lichno-peredal-plotnitskomu), this week published by a well-known liberal Russian media portal Meduza. Headquartered in Riga, Meduza is a respected and trustworthy news outlet staffed by former employees of Lenta.ru, once among the most read news sites in Russia. The interview is by a best-known Meduza journalist Ilya Azar with a combatant of separatist «People’s republic of Lugansk» (LNR) who claims to have seized Ms Savchenko on that tragic June 17th of 2014.

The combatant identified himself to the journalist by former call sign «Ilim». According to the Ukrainian site Mirotvorets collecting data on separatist combatants, this is a Ukrainian citizen Andrei Tikhonov. «Ilim» claims to be deputy head of a unit under LNR military command i.e. a leader of rather high calibre.  

The interview focuses on the events of June 17th in a suburb of Lugansk named Metallist, as recalled by «Ilim».

As «Ilim» in his narrative arrives at the moment that Ukrainian forces opened gun and mortar fire on Metallist to the north of Lugansk, he starts to relate about a very tall – he says over two metres tall – man with call sign «Frenchman» (Frantzus).

«You don’t mistake him for anyone,» says «Ilim». «In the gunfire he git a splinter in the area of his spinal cord and had to travel home, to Pribaltika (the Baltics). There, they sentenced him for 15 years.»

The description refers to Vladimir Polyakov (35) dwelling in Lasnamäe, Tallinn. As assured to Postimees by sources, he is very tall, was wounded in Donbas at that time, and returned to Estonia. In his younger days, Mr Polyakov did a stint at the French Foreign Legion which may have led to his call sign being «Frenchman».

The only thing that does not fit in what «Ilim» says is that Mr Polyakov has not been sentenced for 15 years but is under arrest in Estonia upon request by Ukraine and is currently in Viru Prison. At the beginning of this year, Tallinn administrative court declined from extraditing him to Ukraine and Mr a Polyakov is in Jõhvi, waiting for further decision by Estonian government regarding his fate.

Mr Polyakov’s lawyer Sven Sillar told Postimees that he could not confirm if this was the very Vladimir Polyakov the interviews was about.

«Meanwhile, he indeed was wounded. About a year ago, we were talking about where exactly he was wounded. Then, as related to that, I think he was talking about journalists who perished – that he was near them at that time,» said Mr Sillar. «Thus, the story may have truth to it.»

Defence police has no data about Mr Polyakov having been involved in the abovementioned events.

According to narrative by «Ilim», he saw the man he calls Volodya after he had taken the captured Ms Savchenko to Lugansk. Having handed Ms Savchenko over to Igor Plotnitsk, then the self-proclaimed LNR defence minister and Zarya battalion head (afterwards, he was promoted to head LNR), «Ilim» returned to Metallist and witnessed the death of Russian TV journalists.

«At that moment, civilians with white flag exited private sector [he means apartment houses] who were frightened of the cannonade and shots fired. From behind the «amphibious» [armoured vehicle] Volodya came to them,» the man call named «Ilim» told the Meduza reporter to describe how he witnessed the man call named «Frenchman».

From there, it happened as described above.

Meduza says that the narrative by «Ilim» confirms the claims by Ms Savchenko and her lawyers that the pilot could in no way have been linked to directing gunfire towards that specific intersection in Metallist where the Russian journalists and several other individuals perished, regarding whom there is contradicting data as to whether they were separatist combatants or civilians.

Presuming that the «Frenchman» referred to by «Ilim» is indeed Vladimir Polyakov and that the claims regarding him are true – but Postimees has no other sources to confirm what «Ilim» said –, then the Estonian citizen would definitely be of great interest to Ukrainian law enforcement if for the fact that he may relate details about the death of Russian TV journalists i.e. who they were with, whether there were separatist combatants around at the moment and how many, and whether he knew anything about the capture of Ms Savchenko, and if so, did the journalists perish before or after she was seized etc.  

To the knowledge of Postimees, Mr Polyakov does not deny he was in separatist-controlled territory in Lugansk oblast in the summer of 2014. He told security police that he did not take part in armed fighting. Mr Polyakov says he was interpreter between international OSCE observers and separatists as, unlike the latter, he spoke good English and French.

However, as shared by «Ilim», Mr Polyakov had his own call sign used by soldiers in radio communication –which civilians do not need, as a rule.

By June 17th 2014, battles between Ukrainian battalions and separatists of Lugansk and Donetsk had been going on for nearly two months. On that day, a platoon of soldiers of Ukrainian volunteer battalion Aidar were ambushed by separatists at Stukalova Balka heights near Lugansk, and many were killed. Another Aidar platoon was sent to help them, among them Ms Savchenko.

On that day, the Russian TV journalists were in Lugansk. Having heard of battle in Metallist, they came to film it. They stopped at the separatist control point at the intersection and at that very moment several mines and shells shot by Ukrainian heavy artillery hit the intersection.