“K” for Kurator, or Catch Me If You Can

On 7 July 2020, Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) announced it arrested what it called a non-staff GRU operative who had played a crucial role in supervising the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) in 2014 and 2015. The detainee was identified only as “Andrey K.”, which could be expanded to Andrey Nikolaevich K. based on the telephone intercepts published by the SBU. The SBU also said that Andrey K. took an active part in the creation of the “Intelligence Department of the DNR”, and served as one of the kurators (handlers) on behalf for the Russian GRU, supervising the DNR’s military commanders in the unrecognized Donetsk “republic”.

The SBU also published a collection of telephone intercepts, in which Andrey K. speaks with Sergey Dubinsky, Leonid Kharchenko and Vitaly Lunev. The former two were, in 2014, in the command of the DNR’s military intelligence and are currently indicted suspects over the downing of MH17. Lunev was a economics and trade deputy minister in the DNR government.

The intercepts, whose authenticity has been confirmed by at least one participant – Dubinsky – portray Andrey K. as a Moscow-based, well-networked “problem-solver” for his Donetsk-based counterparts. Dubinsky and Kharchenko speak with him deferentially, and usually start the phone call with a military-style salute.

The calls are undated, but from the context of the conversations, they can be chronolocated to late 2014 and/or early 2015.

In one of the calls, Andrey K. tells Dubinsky that he knows he is being summoned to Moscow. From a different call it becomes clear that in Moscow, Dubinsky must meet “Vladimir Ivanovich”, whom we have previously identified as Col. General Andrey Burlaka, deputy director of the FSB’s border service. Andrey K. tells Dubinsky that there are certain problems relating to him personally that he is trying to help solve, and to that end says he has arranged a meeting with Vladislav Surkov, Vladimir Putin’s then-aide in charge of Ukraine and the Russia-led unrecognized separatist republics.

Andrey K.: I could not get through to you, today and yesterday, Leonid Vladimirovich [Kharchenko] gave me your new number.
Dubinsky: Alright.
Andrey K.: The one you are using now.
Dubinsky: Yep.
Andrey K.: Well, I actually called the day before yesterday and yesterday to tell you that you’ll be summoned… To Moscow…
Dubinsky: Ok.
Andrey K.: …I understand they already summoned you, right? Because…
Dubinsky: Yes, today I was called by Borodaihe said I should be there on Thursday. Ok..
Andrey K.: There you go
Dubinsky: Yes.
Andrey K.: We, for our part, are having certain difficulties.
Dubinsky: Of what kind?
Andrey K.: Well, I think we will overcome these difficulties, but I do not want to discuss it on this line.
Dubinsky: Probably connected with me, or what?
Andrey K.: Indeed with you, well we will solve them in principle; that’s not a problem, So… on Thursday after the meeting, ring me and we’ll do what is necessary.. I will either put you in touch with “S” by phone, or he will tell you a time… well Surkov will tell the time when you will meet.
Dubinsky: Thank you very much Andrey, well, so if I understand correctly there should be some progress already, right?
Andrey K.: We will resolve it, we will put pressure to get it done… We will be able to get the full-scale process off the ground only after the 8th…. All you need, and I want you to know that in any case, we will resolve this issue.
Dubinsky: Clear.
Andrey K.: Because people like you, they have to lead and have to in charge. Accept my thanks, and goodbye.
Dubinsky: Clear. Thank you, goodbye.

This call likely took place in the first days of December 2014. Based on leaked Russian air-travel data, in late 2014 Dubinsky traveled several times between Rostov (the Russian airport nearest to the border) and Moscow, but only one trip – on 3 December – fell on a Wednesday afternoon, in time for a Thursday meeting.

This was not, however, the earliest communication between Andrey K. and Dubinsky, as the two appear to know each other.

In another published call, which apparently takes place shortly after Dubinsky’s Moscow meeting, Andrey K. instructs him to prepare some sort of report, which – it appears from the call context – will be provided to FSB’s Director Alexander Bortnikov, ahead of a pending meeting between him and Dubinsky.

Dubinsky: I’m listening, hello.
Andrey K.: Hello, Sergey Nikolaevich.
Dubinsky: Yes, yes, I’m listening.
Andrey K.: I just had coffee with Oleg Ivanovich, he sent you his warm regards.
Dubinsky: Thank you, thank you very much.
Andrey K.: He asked for your report. Said you should send it via email, I will send you the e-mail address now.
Dubinsky: I’ll send the report… what should it be exactly?
Andrey K.: Well, general data, nothing [too specific], just the basics and all.
Dubinsky: About me? Or my vision about how I would, you know.
Andrey K.: No, you will present your vision personally later.
Dubinsky: Alright.
Andrey K.: General information.
Dubinsky: But what type of general information? Date of birth, last name, first name, patronymic, what exactly?
Andrey K.: Yes, yes, that, plus your ranks and all. And I think Alexander Vasilyevich will ask himself about everything else.
Dubinsky: Got it. Alexander Vasilyevich, who is this? Wait a sec..
Andrey K.: That’s Bortnikov.
Dubinsky: Ah, I understand, I understand. But, in principle, he should have everything, from Vladimir Ivanovich..

From the context of the calls it appears that while Dubinsky previously had a positive relationship with “the other service” (presumably, GRU, where Dubinsky worked before his retirеment), the FSB has serious issues with him personally, and Andrey K. has attempted to broker a warming of that relationship. This attempt appears to have been successful, and by December, Dubinsky had a direct relationship with the top FSB brass. After one visit to FSB’s Lubyanka headquarter, he reported to Andrey K. about a meeting he had with the director (presumably Bortnikov) to resolve an unspecified intra-DNR conflict. During the meeting, a status report was brought in by Col. Gen. Sedov, the head of the FSB’s second department (the so-called DOI, or Department of Operational Information).

Andrey K.: Hello. Good evening…Yes, I just got out of the meeting. Couldn’t speak earlier. You… you didn’t finish what you were saying. We talked about what the director signed.
Dubinsky: Yes, the director signed the order. A report was brought there. The head of the second department – Sedov signed an order for the release and so on… He gave instructions to the various services, who should do what. And I was told that on Tuesday, they will go also… and something must still be done at DOI. I just didn’t comprehend, there was an order from comrade “S” after all, what the heck is the role of DOI, I don’t get it. Well, the fact is… they said they’d try to do it all in a few days. The point is that the director signed off on the report of the head of the second service, agreed to it that I come in. Now, there’s no point in people lying to me there, a real general from the second service.
Andrey K.: So, what did he sign off on, I can’t get it?
Dubinsky: Well, something there… to the deputy Smirnov, instructions what to ensure there, to eliminate it, to clean it all up there – a flag, so… and something, I still don’t understand, they have to coordinate something with DOI there, for me it’s not clear, it will be clear on Tuesday.
Andrey K.: I think in any case, if this is the format, you will be summoned further and will communicate with them, either directly there or across the street.

The reference to “directly there or across the street” can be understood as the main office of the FSB, which is on Lubyanka square, and a secondary office complex of the FSB, which is on the other end of the square. That other office houses the FSB Border Service, and thus is the office of Col. Gen. Andrey Burlaka, the person who – based on intercepts released earlier by the Joint Investigation Team – was in direct control of the arms flow and priority assignment to the armed groups in Eastern Ukraine in the summer of 2014. In one previously published intercept between Igor Girkin and Sergey Aksyonov, for example, the latter tells Girkin that decisions are being made “in the two buildings“, again a presumable reference to these two FSB office complexes.

The full transcript of the intercepts can be read here

Who is Andrey K?

We have identified Andrey K. as Andrey Nikolaevich Kunavin, a Ukrainian citizen born on 5 July 1984. His name was first reported by Ukrainian media outlet censor.net based on a leak from Ukraine’s SBU. Our identification was made independently based on overlapping travel and telephone data with Dubinsky and Kharchenko.

Kunavin has a prior criminal record in Ukraine, and had a search warrant for a car theft and embezzlement of EUR 200,000. He was arrested in 2010 and sentenced to four years. Open-source data shows him listed as the winner of an arts competition for inmates held in September 2014, while serving time at a prison colony in Nikolaevsk. However, prison records indicate he was released on 12 June 2014, and we have found digital traces of him using a telephone registered in his name as early as August 2014. It is not clear if the competition listing was an error, if Kunavin’s entry was made before his release, or a Hollywood-worthy ploy to create an alibi. Regardless of the circumstances of the art competition, starting in June 2014, Kunavin began his supercharged rise from crime to the Kremlin.

In the latter part of 2014, Kunavin traveled extensively between Russia, the Donbas, and Kyiv, and took multiple short trips to Western Europe. Travel data shows that he was primarily based in Moscow, taking day trips to Rostov – the closest airport near the Ukrainian border. His travel itinerary broadened and intensified in 2015 and onward, with almost weekly trips to diverse destinations like Turkey, Germany, France, Bulgaria, Spain, Greece, Austria, Israel, the Netherlands, the Baltic countries, and many more. Moscow and Kyiv remained his two main destinations.

2009 police mugshot, Andrey Kunavin

In addition to his five Ukrainian passports under the name of Andrey Kunavin, he also used a Russian passport under a different name: Andrey Nikolaevich Anikeev. He registered his Russian telephone under that name, and held an (inactive) VK account under it. However, he appears to travel internationally on his Ukrainian passport, which allows visa-free movement to the EU. As there is no record of existence of an Andrey Anikeev with his birth-date in databases of Russian citizens we consulted, we conclude that Andrey Kunavin is his real identity, and “Andrey Anikeev” is just a cover name.

From Concierge of Crime to a Kremlin Broker

It is not certain how and why Andrey Kunavin rose from an indicted conman to a power broker between pro-Russian militants and the top brass at the Kremlin and the FSB. However, there appears to be enough evidence that Kunavin felt equally at ease among criminals and the political elite.

By mapping and identifying owners of Russian numbers that interacted with a Ukrainian telephone number used by Dubinsky in 2014 and 2015, we were able to find the number presumably used by Kunavin to communicate with him. In the crowdsourced caller-ID app GetContact, this number showed up as belonging to Andrey Nikolaevich Dru D.

Crowdsourced identification of the two numbers via GetContact

We then obtained, from a source at a Russian mobile operator, partial metadata (i.e. listing of call records) for the Russian number used by Kunavin. An initial identification of some of the numbers he communicated with include criminals, politicians, and entrepreneurs.

For instance, Kunavin communicated intensively with a daring international art thief by the name of Vadim Guzhva.

On 28 November 2018 three expensively-clothed men entered Vienna’s oldest auction house, and just before closing time, purposefully and calmly detached Pierre-August Renoir’s landscape Gulf, Sea, Green Cliffs, and slowly walked out of the Dorotheum. No one stopped them. As described on an art-crime blog:

On the day of the theft, under the guise of Russian art connoisseurs, one accomplice, thought to be Igor Filonenko, is believed to have distracted a guard with questions about another artist’s painting in order to create a ruse which would buy sufficient time for a second accomplice to deftly substitute the artwork with a laminated photocopy of the canvas.

The third accomplice – who simply walked out with the original which was expected to fetch up to EUR 200,000 the next day – was Vadim Guzhva, a 59-year-old Ukrainian with a prior history of bold art theft. He was arrested in Amsterdam two weeks later, apparently while trying to shop around the heist.

Vadim Guzhva, left. Photo: Vienna Police

Another person who was a frequent interlocutor with Kunavin was the former Russian politician Vasily Duma. Mr. Duma was member of Russia’s Senate between 2004 and 2011, and was assigned to oversee the Ukrainian diaspora in Russia. During his watch, Ukrainian diaspora organizations in Russia were in fact shuttered. A presidential award granted him by Ukraine in 2019 led to protests from the Ukrainian (Diaspora) Congress, calling Duma an anti-Ukrainian Kremlin functionary. Duma may be more internationally renowned for his daughter, Mira Duma, who – as described in the Mueller report – passed on an invitation from deputy prime-minister Pryhodko to Ivanka and Donald Trump to attend the 2015 St. Petersburg forum.

While not all of Kunavin’s circle of contacts in Moscow have yet been identified, it appears from the content of the phone intercepts that he had a working relationship with Putin’s aide Surkov, with whom he was arranging meetings both for Dubinsky, and – separately – for Kharchenko. In an interview given by Dubinsky to a Russian newspaper after the intercepts were published, Dubinsky describes Kunavin as a “Russian citizen who had some prior history and business with Ukraine…who represented the Russian government”.

Dubinsky denies, however, that Kunavin was a member of, or worked for, Russia’s military intelligence, the GRU. Indeed, none of the published intercepts provide a direct reference to his affiliation with GRU, as asserted by Ukraine’s SBU. However, his references to “them vs. us” when referring to the FSB, and his claimed links to Surkov (who is of GRU pedigree) suggests that there may have been a linkage to the GRU. It’s unlikely, however, that he was an officer or otherwise fully trusted by the GRU, who – unlike the FSB – do not tend to operate via criminal proxies.

What remains unclear is how Kunavin – with his mid-range crime history – was able to attain the confidence of Russian political figures sufficiently to entrust him with even a brokerage role vis-a-vis the Donbas “republics”. One theory proposed by a former Ukrainian police officer, who investigated Kunavin years ago and spoke to us off the record, is that Andrey Kunavin was more than a stand-alone criminal, but one integrated with higher-level Russia-based organized crime groups.

Potential relevance for MH17 Investigation

Kunavin is likely to have played a very limited role in the decision-making chain between the Kremlin and the militants in Eastern Ukraine. Regardless, he appears to have been – for a while at least – in the middle of the communication chain between two of the suspects in the MH17 criminal case, and the Kremlin, as well as the FSB. He received and passed on information between Dubinsky and the deputy directors of the FSB, and facilitated meetings with Surkov, and appears privy to the topics discussed. This information cache, alone, makes him a valuable witness for the MH17 investigation. His contribution would unlikely be valuable in terms of the actual events and facilitations that led to the tragedy itself, but may turn out to be one of the most informed witnesses as to the military and political chain of command in 2014. He would also be able to identify – or additionally validate the identity – of some of the persons of interests already named by the JIT – such as “Vladimir Ivanovich”.

Crucial to his usefulness for the investigation would be the starting time of his “insertion” into the communication channel between Moscow and the militants. The closer it was to the date of the shoot-down – ideally before it – the more weight his potential testimony will have. However, even if he found his – improbable, given his background – place in the the latter part of 2014, he may still have more first-hand knowledge of the military chain of command since the start of the conflict than any other available witnesses.

Whether Kunavin decides to talk to the investigators will depend on a number of factors – including how likely he feels that a possible “exit scenario” through a prisoner swap in Russia is. The case with Tsemakh, who was not a Russian citizen and whose exchange was largely seen as a tacit admission by Russia that it wants to get a potential witness out of JIT’s hands, suggests that the Kremlin may attempt this trick a second time. Whether the Ukrainian government is willing to take a political risk with handing off its own citizen to Russia – under no other plausible explanation than to remove a witness – remains to be seen.