Early on July 28, police officers raided the home of investigative journalist Roman Dobrokhotov, The Insider’s creator and editor-in-chief. After searching his apartment, the officers escorted him to a local station for questioning about defamation charges filed back in April. For now, the authorities have named Dobrokhotov as a witness in their investigation. The available evidence suggests that the case’s victims are “undetermined persons within the Russian Defense Ministry’s Military Intelligence Directorate,” as well as the Dutch blogger Max van der Werff, whom The Insider and Bellingcat investigated last November, finding that he coordinated his efforts with Russia’s military intelligence to publicize “alternative narratives” about the causes of the July 2014 crash of MH17. This joint report (or rather, Dobrokhotov’s tweet promoting the article) is what van der Werff calls defamation. Meduza explains how an amateur researcher went from exposing Dutch war crimes committed during Indonesia’s decolonization to helping the Russian authorities cover up how a passenger plane crashed in Ukraine.
Max van der Werff (short for Maximilian Bernardus Willem van der Werff) was born in 1963 in the Netherlands to an Indonesian father and Dutch mother. His grandfather, he says on his blog, spent 41 months as a prisoner-of-war in Japanese captivity while serving in the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army — all without ever receiving a cent (unpaid wages known in Dutch politics as “the back-pay issue”).
The injustices the former Dutch empire visited upon its ex-colonies made a lasting impression on Van der Werff as a child. For example, he’s written about the profound emotions he experienced in 1977 when nine armed Moluccans hijacked a Dutch train for 20 days, demanding a free South Moluccan Republic.
Van der Werff has devoted his adult life to amateur investigations of war crimes committed by the Dutch army in the East Indies. The train hijacking opened his eyes. “For the first time in my life, I realized that governments lie, too,” he wrote on his website. Later, it dawned on him that Dutch society has an enormous blind spot when it comes to anything related to their colonial legacy.
Until 2014, Van der Werff devoted all his blogging to investigating Dutch war atrocities. Thanks to this work, he even appeared as a colonial history researcher in a documentary film about the victims of Indonesia’s War of Independence that aired on Dutch television in 2013. This was another war that affected Van der Werff personally: Indonesian revolutionaries killed one of his uncles for supposedly aiding Dutch imperialists. In the film, Van der Werf says he blames neither Indonesians nor Indonesia for his uncle’s death.
The film itself focuses on several massacres of Indonesians by Dutch soldiers that Dutch society still largely ignores, argues Van der Werff. The purpose of his entire investigative project, he told Dutch journalists in 2013, was to promote reconciliation between the Dutch and Indonesian peoples, under the motto “Forgive, but never forget.”
Max van der Werff’s interests took a sharp turn in July 2014 after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was knocked out of the sky above Ukraine en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 people on board.
Years later, Van der Werff told the pro-Kremlin English-language blog The Saker that he knew immediately after seeing news of the plane crash that the tragedy would have far-reaching geopolitical implications. The fact that most of the victims were his Dutch compatriots also resonated with him personally. In the interview, Van der Werff criticized the Russian authorities for promoting so many implausible explanations for the crash instead of offering a single, coherent theory. “Information management of the Russian Federation is of very low quality,” he complained.
“As far as I know, he didn’t do anything wrong when he was covering Dutch war crimes in Indonesia. That was a colonial war, and the Netherlands was in the wrong,” Bellingcat investigative reporter Pieter van Huis told Meduza. “But maybe that helps explain his subsequent transformation, which is a pattern that we’ve seen in others, as well. For some reason, he turned into someone who dislikes the entire West, Western politics and such, and suddenly they start seeing Russia as their friend.”
When MH17 was shot down over Ukraine, Van der Werff shifted his life’s work to proving Russia’s innocence and Ukraine’s responsibility for the tragedy. “There have been many ‘MH17 truthers,’ but Max is maybe the smartest among them,” says Van Huis.
In 2016, leaked email correspondence showed that Van der Werff contacted Tatyana Egorova, a staff member of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic’s (DNR’s) Ministry of Information, and volunteered advice on messaging around the MH17 downing, pointing out errors in the separatists’ public statements.
In this collaboration, Van der Werff advised the DNR to make a single person responsible for handling any public relations related to the MH17 disaster, in order to avoid embarrassments where different officials gave conflicting statements to Western journalists. By this time, judging by Egorova’s leaked messages, Van der Werff had already visited Donetsk multiple times. These trips, he explained in a blog post on his old website, were to help him counter “hardcore Dutch war propaganda” and allow him to conduct his own investigation into the MH17 crash.
Though the success of Van der Werff’s public-relations outreach in the DNR remains unclear, Russia’s state media soon recognized him as an ally in the campaign to “expose the Western mainstream media’s lies about MH17.” For example, after one of Van der Werff’s visits to separatist-controlled Ukraine in April 2015, he declared on his blog that a photograph taken by a local resident in Torez, outside Donetsk, showing a “Buk” missile trail in the sky on July 17, 2014, is actually a fake. In Russia, many state and pro-Kremlin media outlets (including some foreign-language publications) recycled Van der Werff’s claims, attributing them to “the investigation of a Dutch blogger.”
In early 2019, by which time Max van der Werff was a leader among the authors of “alternative” theories about the MH17 disaster, he and a former Russia Today television employee named Yana Erlashova founded a project called Bonanza Media. This is also when Van der Werff started referring to himself as a “journalist,” though no news outlet has ever employed him. (The Russian media now identifies him as a “Dutch journalist” and “documentary filmmaker.”) By his own account, he works as a manager in the German branch of a company that sells electric bicycles. His educational background is unknown. In 2019, Van der Werff did receive a press card from the Dutch Association of Journalists, but he failed to extend these credentials when he couldn’t prove that he earns money independently for his investigations.
In July 2019, Bonanza Media released a 28-minute documentary film, titled “MH17: Call For Justice,” featuring interviews with crash witnesses, victims’ relatives, and Malaysia’s former prime minister. In the video, Van der Werff and Erlashova don’t offer a coherent alternative explanation for why MH17 was shot down so much as they question the version of events that has convinced Western officials, the Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team, and prosecutors in the Dutch Criminal Court: that a missile fired from a Russian Buk system stationed in separatist-controlled territory hit the passenger jet.
Bonanza Media screened its movie a few times publicly in the Netherlands, including on the side of a truck parked outside the courthouse in Amsterdam where the MH17 trial was held. Local and international journalists mostly ignored the event, dismissing it as a bizarre sideshow, but Russia’s pro-government media covered it closely. The Kremlin’s interest in Van der Werff’s work on MH17 is undeniable. In February 2020, when Bonanza Media published leaked materials from the MH17 criminal investigation that supposedly vindicated Russia and debunked the Joint Investigation Team’s conclusions, even President Putin’s press secretary invoked the documents.
According to the joint investigation released in November 2020 by Bellingcat and The Insider, Yana Erlashova closely coordinated all these actions with Russia’s Military Intelligence Directorate.
Citing excerpts from intelligence officers’ hacked emails, researchers at Bellingcat and The Insider say Russian military intelligence directly controlled the content on Bonanza Media’s website. Agents could literally make their own edits to draft texts, and they coordinated trips to eastern Ukraine for Van der Werff and Erlashova. The Insider’s report (“How [Russia’s] Defense Ministry Spreads Fakes Through Foreign ‘Journalists’”) — or rather Roman Dobrokhotov’s tweet promoting the article — is what prompted Van der Werff to file his defamation lawsuit.
“In the Netherlands, he’s not succeeding, but in Russia he of course can. It’s important to realize, though, that it’s happening in Max’s name, but it doesn’t mean that he’s behind this case,” says Bellingcat’s Pieter van Huis. “Don’t overstate his role. It’s political persecution [against Dobrokhotov]; it’s got nothing to do with one citizen against another.”
Van Huis says he’s certain that Russia’s military intelligence community is using the defamation lawsuit to exact revenge on the investigative reporters who exposed its ties to Bonanza Media, but he also believes that Van der Werff fully understands that he’s being manipulated. “So unless he’s very stupid — and I know he’s not stupid — I think he definitely knows what’s going on,” Van Huis told Meduza.
Van der Werff told the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti that he faced targeted harassment in the Netherlands because of his investigations into the MH17 crash. Alexander Ionov (the same “anti-globalist” activist whose official complaint led to Meduza’s designation as a “foreign agent” in Russia) wrote on his Telegram channel that Dutch police persecution forced Van der Werff to leave the country.
Meduza found no evidence that the Dutch authorities are investigating Max van der Werff for any reason, but it’s true that he and his family are no longer in the Netherlands. Since at least 2019, they’ve lived in the Philippines, where his current phone line is registered.
When Meduza called Van der Werf and requested an interview, his refusal was absolute. “Not interested [in] talking to you,” the Dutch blogger said.
Translation by Kevin Rothrock