The Interpreter

A special project of Institute of Modern Russia
James Miller
James Miller

Evidence Review: Who Shot Down MH17?

With all of the developments, debates, new evidence and new disinformation, let’s take a look at what we know and don’t know about the theory that a Buk missile system shot down Malaysian Flight MH17.

This post will be regularly updated as more information comes to light.

What We Know – The Separatists Had The Buk

The main theory is that a Buk missile system shot MH17 out of the sky. The separatist at one point admitted that they had a Buk, though that tweet has since been deleted. We have created a map of the areas around where MH17 crashed, and we see that to the north and to the south there are three towns where the Buk system may have shot down MH17. They are as follows:

Torez- Located near Snezhnoye, a geolocated picture placed the Buk in the town.  Since then, journalists have spoken to residents who say that the Buk traveled through Torez.

Another video appears to shows the Buk 24 kilometers away from Torez but moving in that direction.

Snezhnoye - A video showing a Buk has been geolocated to the town. Two AP journalists and a Ukrainian journalist reported seeing a Buk in Snezhnoye on July 17th, the day that MH17 was shot down. This is conclusive evidence that at least one Buk traveled in the Torez/Snezhnoye area on the day that the airliner was shot down. Since then, journalists have spoken to residents who say that the Buk traveled through Snezhnoye .

Chernukhino  - This one is less conclusive. The Ukrainian government released an intercepted phone call reportedly between separatist military commander and Igor Bezler (Bes, or “Demon”) and Vasily Geranin, who is described as a colonel in the Russian Federation’s GRU (main military intelligence), in which they talk about shooting down an aircraft in this area. In a second conversation two separatists say that the missile that shot the aircraft out of the sky came from this town.

Bezler admits that the audio tapes are real, but claims they were discussing an earlier incident – the shooting down of a Ukrainian airforce jet. But in his denial Bezler accidentally admits that the separatists are shooting down aircraft from this location, and that they are coordinating with the Russian government. This admission lends credibility to other leaked audio tapes including one in which separatists claim to have shot down MH17 accidentally thinking it was a military transport, and one in which the separatists speak with a contact in Russia and confirm the receipt of the Buk (and Russian crews to go with it).

In a leaked audio tape released on July 25th, Bezler is heard talking about a “birdie” that’s “really high.” The tape was reportedly taken just two minutes before MH17 was shot down. The voice is the same as the previous releases, and as stated before Bezler admits that this is his voice.

There is no visual confirmation that the Buk was ever in Chernukhino, and we don’t know exactly where this checkpoint is located, though it’s theorized that there may have been several of these weapons (perhaps 3) stationed in the general area around the crash site which might explain how a missile in Chernukhino could have shot down MH17 at the same time as a Buk (or two) were spotted elsewhere in the area.

See our interactive map of the MH17 crash site


Where Was The Buk Launched From?

One issue is that the launch site for the Buk has not been definitively located. However, as mentioned above, all of the areas where the Buk has been spotted are well within range of MH17. And so we have a circle around the crash site where the weapon may have been shot from.

A controversial picture was shared by the Ukrainian government which allegedly shows a smoke trail from the missile. A theory emerged that the area where the picture was taken had been located. Journalists from multiple news agencies then traveled to the area where the missile launch may have been and found unusual tracks in a field where there were metal artifacts and burn marks which may have been caused by the exhaust of a missile. Satellite images released by Google show that the tracks in the field may not have been there before MH17 was shot down.

As of now, this is the most probable theory for the Buk launch site, but more evidence is needed. Read our investigation here.

Where Did The Buk Come From?

One debate, whoever, is where the actual missile or missiles came from, and where they went. There is evidence that the missiles came directly from Russia, though the separatists have at various points claimed that they captured the weapon from Ukrainian stockpiles.

So far the Ukrainian government says that they have 60 Buk systems and all of them are accounted for.

On June 29th the Russian state-controlled media ran a story that the separatists captured a Buk from the Ukrainian military. We’d expect to see this news break in the Russian language, but the only source at the time we could find in Russian was the Russian network TV Zvezda, the news network for the Russian military. A skeptic might say that if the Russian government wanted to plant a story that the separatists had captured this weapon, then they would have done it through TV Zvezda. The only other source, in Russian, concerning this claims appears to have been posted on the Twitter feed for a fan account for the Crimea’s prosecutor. More analysis here.

As noted above, leaked audio shows the separatists admitting that the Buk came from Russia.

While there is no smoking gun yet that the Buk (or Buks, as there is some evidence that there may have been multiple systems given to the separatists) were supplied by Russia, there is a strong circumstantial evidence that the crews to operate such complicated machinery would have to come from a military. As Ukraine is not reporting the defection of any Buk crews, the prime suspect is Russia.

Where Did The Buk Go?

As far as where the missiles went afterwards, one video released by the Ukrainian government claims to show the Buk, missing several missiles, on its way back to Russia (presumably along paths highlighted on our map in black).

On July 18th the Ukrainian security services issued a press release in which a Ukraine SBU (Security Service) officer explains Ukraine’s narrative — that three vehicles carrying Buk missiles came from Russia and returned back to Russia after the incident:

At 2:00, July 18, two movers each with a Buk missile launcher crossed the Russian border in Luhansk region. At 4:00, another three movers: one of them empty, other carrying a launcher with four missiles and the latter allegedly with a control unit, crossed the state border.

[The Ukrainian officer] stressed that Russia attempted to suppress evidence of its involvement in the terrorist act.

The vehicle in question, according to Ukraine, passed through Krasnadon on its way back across the border as is reflected on our map. Claims that this video was taken in Ukrainian occupied territory — in Krasnoarmeysk, have been debunked. Furthermore, The Interpreter contacted the owners of the billboard locations and were provided with a complete list of billboard locations as well as images of many of the sites. After a careful investigation we can definitively conclude that this video was recorded in Lugansk, on a road between the MH17 crash site and the border crossing near Krasnadon. The Buk, which does appear to be missing one or two missiles, is traveling in the opposite direction as previous videos which show armored vehicles which appear to have been supplied by the Russian military to the separatist militia.

Read our investigation here. We have posted even more details here.

One picture has been removed from the initial press release after The Interpreter proved that it was an older photo of a Ukrainian military Buk which was nowhere near the MH17 crash site.

Conclusion: Strong Evidence Russian-Backed Militants Fired a Buk at MH17

For reasons stated above, the evidence is piling up that the Russian-backed militants fired the Buk at MH17. It seems likely that this was an accident since there is no evidence that the militants knew that this was a civilian airliner they were shooting at, initially they took credit for shooting down a military transport plane, and it’s not clear how shooting down a civilian airliner has helped their cause (the opposite is probably true).

But the evidence also suggests that Russia has becoming incredibly reckless in his support of the separatists. Russia has been supplying anti-aircraft weapons (including the Strela-10), has been supplying more tanks and rocket launchers in recent weeks, and has been caught firing GRAD rockets into Ukraine, a trend which has continued or even sped up since the downing of MH17. Circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that Russia supplied the Buk crews to the separatists, and while there is circumstantial evidence that Russia supplied the actual missiles to Russia, there is no evidence yet that the separatists captured intact Buk missile systems from the Ukrainian government.

Russian-backed militants control the crash site and have reportedly tampered with the evidence, so more definitive answers may never come. But while questions remain, the culprits are clear, and those accused of mass murder control the crime scene.




Ukraine Liveblog Day 158: Savchenko Refused Bail by Russian Court

Yesterday’s liveblog can be found here. For an overview and analysis of this developing story see our latest podcast.

Please help The Interpreter to continue providing this valuable information service by making a donation towards our costs.

View Ukraine: April, 2014 in a larger map
For links to individual updates click on the timestamps.

For the latest summary of evidence surrounding the shooting down of flight MH17 see our separate article: Evidence Review: Who Shot Down MH17?

Below we will be making regular updates so check back often.

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Russia This Week: Bolotnaya Defendants Udaltsov and Razvozzhayev Sentenced

Updated Daily. Russian and Ukrainian bloggers confirmed the sighting of the Buk anti-aircraft missile system. The Russian Justice Ministry has entered five leading human rights groups into the registry of “foreign agents” against their will. The Russian Defense Ministry held a press briefing to present their claims about MH17, but their geolocation of a video showing a Buk by a billboard issued has been challenged.

For last week’s issue on ultranationalist Sergei Kurginyan’s boast that an electronics specialist was sent to repair a Buk anti-aircraft system for the separatists in Donetsk; the citizen reporter at the lake in Gukovo who filmed Grad rockets launching from Russian territory in Ukraine has had his VKontakte page removed; the fifth anniversary of the murder of Chechen human rights activist Natalya Estemirova; the worst accident in the Moscow metro’s history, with at least 21 dead and 160 injured; opposition candidates hear their private conversations aired on LifeNews, then find a bug in a campaign worker’s car; a new low for Russian state TV in its broadcasting of lurid war propaganda against Ukraine; and Facebook executive’s secret trip to Moscow leaving open the question of how social media companies will comply with a new regulation requiring all Russian customer data to be located on servers on Russian territory, go here.

For the previous week’s issue on the return of “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR) prime minister Aleksandr Boroday to Donetsk with claims of fresh military support to come from Russia; the retreat of Col. Igor Strelkov from Slavyansk and the regrouping of separatist forces in Donetsk has causing some of his supporters among Moscow’s ultranationalists to denounce him; on various hypotheses regarding the role of Kremlin “grey cardinal” Vyacheslav Surkov in brokering a peace deal with Ukrainian oligarchs eager to preserve their properties and investments from war, possibly involving a a “Donetsk Transdniestria”; and on the continued exaggeration by the Russian government of refugee numbers, with claims of “verification” by “the UNHCR,” even as journalists are denied access to border towns under a state of emergency; go here.

Please help The Interpreter to continue providing this valuable information service by making a donation towards our costs‏.

July 25, 2014

0037GMT: Two opposition leaders in the long-running Boltonaya Case were found guilty by a Moscow court of “inciting mass riots” in protests against President Vladir Putin on 6 May 2012, Moscow Times reported. Sergei Udaltsov and Leonid Razvozzhayev were sentenced to 4.5 years of forced labor colony each. Razvozzhayev was additionally sentenced to a fine of 160,000 rubles ($4,723), the supporters’ site reported.

Sergei Udaltsov at sentencing in Moscow court 24 July 2014. Photo by Novaya Gazeta
Sergei Udaltsov at sentencing in Moscow court 24 July 2014. Photo by Novaya Gazeta

Udaltsov has been under house arrest since February 2013 and Rozvozzhayev was kidnapped in Kiev and forcibly returned to Russia for trial.

Novaya Gazeta ran a liveblog of the trial today by Olga Kryachkova. The Interpreter has translated an excerpt:

21:59 The court session is declared closed. The public shouts “Freedom!”

21:52 Sergei Udalsov is taken from the courtroom under guard.

21:51 The sentences of punishment are announced. Sergei Udaltsov – 4 years, 6 months of standard-regimen colony. Leonid Razvozzhayev – also 4 years and 6 months of standard-regimen coloney and fine of 150,000 rubles for unlawful crossing of the border.

21:49 Court comes to the conclusion of the proof of guilt of Udaltsov and Razvozzhayev in committing crimes.

21:43 The court declares all the actions of the defendants as committed deliberately.

21:42 “The actions of Udaltsov and Razvozahev in organizing mass disorders were carefully planned and coordinated.”

21:41 “The guiding chain consisting of unarmed police officers and Interior Ministry troops, guided the movement of the demonstrators and did not create obstacles. Despite the closed square and chain of enclosure, the demonstrators had the opportunity for free passage to the square.”

21:39 The court pronounces the testimonies of Udaltsov and Razvozzhayev as unfounded, which denied their participation in organization of mass disorders 6 May 2012, as well as their claims that the law-enforcement officers provoked participants into mass disorders to commit such actions.

21:36 Judge Zamashnyuk: “The court pronounces indisputably established that 6 May 2012, on Bolotnaya Square, the rally approved in advance grew into mass disorders. The court rejects the position of the defense stating that there was absence of evidence of a crime in the actios of Udaltsov and Razvozzhayev.

Translation: speed-reading.

The Interpreter has been covering the Bolotnaya Square trials for a year. Stories on sentencing of other defendants can be found here, here, and here, as well as and on the release and amnesty of several defendants.

July 23, 2014

0613GMT: On 21 July, we reported how Russian and Ukrainian bloggers and social media users began to crowd-search the location of a Buk anti-aircraft system in a video released by Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov on 18 July. The Buk system, missing one of its four missiles, was the chief suspect in the allegation that pro-Russian separatists shot down the Malaysian airliner MH17.

Then pro-Kremlin bloggers descended en masse pushing a disinformation response to these efforts that distracted from establishing the location, which we debunked here. The Russian Defense Ministry then officially promoted this false geolocation in its briefing, adding to doubts and confusion.

In summing up everything we knew about the Buks, we pointed out that while some of the material regarding the position of Buks was confirmed, one photograph was questioned because it was discovered to have originated in a Facebook posting in March 2014 of the Ukrainian military’s Buks, not those in the hands of pro-Russian separatists, who are believed to have obtained them from Russia. A source in contact with the Ukrainian security authorities confirmed for us that this March picture was a mistake.

The Interpreter has provided a translation of Interior Minister Avakov’s original post 18 July, and other statements below:

“Today 18 July at 4:40 in the morning a trailer loaded with a caterpillar missile system was recorded by the Ukrainian Interior Ministry’s covert surveillance divisions, moving in the direction through Krasnodon, toward the Russian Federation border. In the videotape the exposed missiles are visible. Two of the missiles are in place; the middle one cannot be seen.

Analysis is underway of this and other collected information.

Preliminarily, this is precisely the Buk missile complex that yesterday produced the shot at the civilian plane from Amsterdam to Kuala-Lumpur.

The criminals are trying to hide the tracks of this monstrous crime. They will not succeed. The Ukrainian Security Service and Interior Ministry of Ukraine have collected already and are continuing to collect indisputable facts and evidences indicating the authors of this tragedy from the terrorist organization DPR/LPR and its Russian Putinist backers. At the completion of the investigation of the events, the Interior Ministry will publish a complete report of the information. I believe this fragment is necessary to publish immediately.”

The following video uploaded to Youtube by the SBU was then posted:

LiveJournal blogger egroegor came up with the Internet version of the same ad as on the billboard for the Bogdan auto dealer.

Ad for Bogdan auto dealer with showrooms in Lugansk and other Ukrainian cities.
Ad for Bogdan auto dealer with showrooms in Lugansk and other Ukrainian cities.

Then on Monday, 22 July, Avakov appeared again to issue to the press the coordinates of the video taken by the Interior Ministry agent. Over on our Ukrainian Liveblog, we reported how eventually after a group of people including our staff reviewed the material, the location was confirmed as the same as in the video.

Here’s the intersection of Korolenko St. and Nechuya-Levitsky Blvd. on Google Maps where the billboard stands:

Intersection of Korolenko St. and Nechuya-Levitsky Blvd. in Lugansk, site of Buk sighting.
Intersection of Korolenko St. and Nechuya-Levitsky Blvd. in Lugansk, site of Buk sighting.

As this collage summarizing multiple efforts put together by Ukraine@war doesn’t explain the sources of the elements in the scene, we’ll take you through the contributions of Russian and Ukrainian bloggers.

Regional bloggers were the first to pick up and work with this material. Without their ground work no one in the West would be able to have ultimately confirmed the location.

Translation: A little bit more detail on the coordinates of the filming of the departing Russian [Federation] Buk in Lugansk.

But even with those coordinates to use on Google Maps, people remained skeptical because the scene on the film was done with a zoom lens and very close up, making elements of the picture smash together and then become difficult to tease a part on a map.

This picture from Panoramio contributed by user Dimc 12 October 2013 has a panoramic view of this junction in Lugansk, which was helpful in analyzing the scene.

Lugansk, Komsomol District October 2013. Photo by Dimc.
Lugansk, Komsomol District October 2013. Photo by Dimc.

Unnamed users also found this saved picture from a web cam trained on that intersection in Lugansk which also provides a panoramic view; interestingly, the web cam page now has a notice that “by orders of the government of the Lugansk People’s Republic, the web cam is temporarily suspended.)

Web cam in city of Lugansk viewing Nechaya-Levitsky St.
Web cam in city of Lugansk viewing Nechaya-Levitsky St.

By order of the government of the LPR broadcasting of web camers is temporarily suspended.
By order of the government of the LPR broadcasting of web camers is temporarily suspended.

All along we scoured billboard companies in the area to find the scene, although the company actually renting that corner’s billboards (or bigbordy as they are known locally) did not display the photo on their website.

LiveJournal blogger avva (Anatoly Vorobey) had one of the most useful threads on the hunt for the Buk.

This re-discovered 2 July story on Russian-backed separatists bringing a convoy of military vehicles and weapons through Lugansk at this very intersection was helpful — and drove home the point that the separatists take known routes in and out of Ukraine to Russia. The view in a photo published by also illustrates how some of the elements merge when viewed from an upper floor in a building, as the short video of the Buk was.

Then xeninghem, another LiveJournal blog taking part in avva’s thread brought together some useful points, with this annotated photo from Yandex Street View:

From avva and xemingem Live Journals
From avva and xemingem Live Journals

Translation (left to right): “Buk traveled here” “light pole” “billboard” “camera is from this side”

Yandex Street View, like Google Street View, then helps to illustrate where the rest of the elements line up — by going to Yandex Street View, you can immediately see that you are on an elevation, and that the camera view looks down on the next streets over, Stepan Razin St. and Korolenko St. So you can see as follows:

- the elevation on Nechaya-Levitsky Blvd.

Nechuya-Levitsky St. in Lugansk.
Nechuya-Levitsky St. in Lugansk.

- the red roof and white fence (which look like a red fence in the zoom view) and the grey roof of the building on Korolenko St, the next street over;

Korolenko St. in Lugansk
Korolenko St. in Lugansk

- the light pole with painted bottom and metal tag;

Intersection of Nechaya-Levitsky and Stepan Razin Streets in Lugansk
Intersection of Nechaya-Levitsky and Stepan Razin Streets in Lugansk

- and while you are looking around 360 degrees in Yandex Street View, be sure not to be run over by the trolleybus heading your way — here’s the view of its wires — yes, like Krasnodon, Lugansk has a trolleybus system, a detail critical to challenging the false geolocation by the Russian Defense Ministry.

Trolleybus wires in Lugansk
Trolleybus wires in Lugansk

As with Google Street View, it’s hard to get into the exact cameraman’s position because of the application’s limitations of perspective, but this should be enough not only to corroborate the Ukrainian government’s sighting of a Buk headed toward the Russian border, but to debunk the Russian Defense Ministry’s claim that this scene was in a completely different city under Ukrainian government control, as we reported.

And keep in mind as you view these contributions, how fragile the system of Russian-language reporting is — starting 1 August, under a new draconian law instituted by President Putin, all bloggers with more than 3,000 viewers will have to register as mass media outlets under Russia’s restrictive press law — or face blocking. An application for registration isn’t guarantee of acceptance, and we are likely to see a significant impact on the Russian-language blogosphere. Twitter and Facebook are under threat of blocking as well under a new law requiring all foreign providers to place customer data on servers on Russian territory; already bloggers like popular anti-corruption opposition leader Alexey Navalny have been blocked from LiveJournal under another law barring “extremism.” And in this region taken over by the pro-Russian separatists, the press is heavily restricted — as the shut-down of the Lugansk web cam that was recording their military movements in and out of Russia lets us know.

July 22, 2014

1336GMT: The long-anticipated “foreign agents” act has finally gone into effect against leading human rights organizations despite their efforts to contest the politicized designation in court, activists reported.

The Russian Ministry of Justice has published a list of non-profit organizations in its registry of groups that receive foreign grants and “perform the functions of foreign agents,” human rights activists reported.

The following is a translation by The Interpreter of the list of groups and some statements:

1. AGORA Interregional Association of Civic Associations (on the basis of representation by the prosecutor’s office of the Republic of Tatarstan of 3 June 2014);

2. EcoDefense! Women’s Council, Kaliningrad Regional Civic Organizations (on the basis of an act of the planned inspection of the organization of 9 June 2014 conducted by the Ministry of Justice for the Kaliningrad region).

3. Public Verdict Foundation to Promote Defense of Rights and Liberties (on the basis of presentation from the prosecutor’s office of the city of Moscow of 8 May 2013)

4. Memorial Human Rights Center Interregional Civic Organization (on the basis of presentation from the prosecutor’s office of the city of Moscow 13 April 2013)

5. Lawyers for Constitutional Rights and Liberties Autonomous Non-Commercial Organization (on the basis of presentation from the Zamoskvoretskoy Interdistrict prosecutor’s office of 7 May 2013).

Natalya Taubina giving a report on human rights in Russia at the UN in Geneva in 2012.
Natalya Taubina giving a report on human rights in Russia at the UN in Geneva in 2012.

The Justice Ministry notice mentions that the organizations can appeal the designation; some of them are already in the process of doing so and others have lost their court cases.

Now that the groups have been entered into the registry, they will be subject to greater scrutiny and reporting requirements that could lead to their suspension for non-compliance or violations:

“From the moment the referenced organizations are included in the register of non-commercial organizations fulfilling the functions of a foreign agent, the requirements of the Federal law on Non-Commercial Organizations applies to their activity. Such organizations must supply documents containing a report of their activity, the staff of the executive bodies and quarterly documents on the purposes of funds expended and use of other property including received from foreign sources.

Non-commercial organizations fulfilling the functions of a foreign agent are obliged once every half year to post on the Internet or provide the mass media for publication reports on their activity. Their annual accounting (financial) statement is subject to obligatory audit.

The materials published and distributed by such an organization must contain an indication that they are published (distributed) by a non-commercial organization fulfilling the functions of a foreign agent.

Violation of these obligations enumerated are subject to administrative liability.”

The board of Memorial Human Rights Center, which had already unsuccessfully tried to appeal the designation in court, issued a statement on the ruling today:

“We are convinced that these organizations like all the others earlier entered against their will into this register are operating exclusively in the interests of Russia, since they effectively help defend the rights of citizens from infringement by government bureaucrats.

The forcible entry of them into the registry of ‘foreign agents’ is an attempt to prohibit this activity.

Instead of combating the violations of human rights, the government is waging war with those who expose these violations.”

Aleksandr Cherkassov of Memorial Human Rights Center, foreground, with other Russian and Ukrainian human rights advocates at a meeting of the Ukrainian Human Rights Ombud Valeriya Lutkovskaya and Russian Human Rights Ombud Ella Pamfilova 13 June 2014 during a joint mission to Ukraine.
Aleksandr Cherkassov of Memorial Human Rights Center, foreground, with other Russian and Ukrainian human rights advocates at a meeting of the Ukrainian Human Rights Ombud Valeriya Lutkovskaya and Russian Human Rights Ombud Ella Pamfilova 13 June 2014 during a joint mission to Ukraine.

Yuri Dzhibladze, a long-time campaigner for human rights in Russia commented on his Facebook page:

“The government’s war with civil society has moved to a new phase. The Justice Ministry has included five leading non-governmental organizations in the list of ‘foreign agents’ [...] Even though their court proceedings were not yet finished. Apparently now ‘the worse, the better.’

Such a practice (including the very use of the term ‘foreign agent’) was already tried in the Soviet era and did not lead to anything good.

The current regulations about ‘foreign agents’ passed on an emergency basis are aimed not at resolving real problems facing the country but only to weaken civil society of Russia.

We are left to reiterate what we have said in the last two years, from the moment the ‘foreign agents’ act was passed in the State Duma: this law shames Russia, it should not be improved or amended but should be abolished.”

Dzhibladze added that another organization, Coming Out, defending LGBT rights, was also entered into the registry by the Vasileostrovsky District Court in St. Petersburg.

Gay flash mob staged by Coming Out in St. Petersburg. Sign says: "Ivan and Viktor, 47 Years Together, in Sorrow and Joy".
Gay flash mob staged by Coming Out in St. Petersburg. Sign says: “Ivan and Viktor, 47 Years Together, in Sorrow and Joy”.

July 21, 2014

1753GMT: The Russian Defense Ministry gave a briefing today for the press in which they claimed that information released by the Ukrainian government on Friday about Russian-backed separatists’ possession of the Buk anti-aircraft missile system likely used in the shoot-down of the Malaysian airliner was a hoax.

Among the items addressed at the briefing was a short video released by the Ukrainians showing what appears to be a Buk anti-aircraft system on a truck escaping for the Russian border. As we reported on our Ukraine Liveblog, the Buk was spotted before the shoot-down of the Malaysian airplane and ultimately geolocated to the town of Torez, near the location of the crash in Grabovo. Then the video, taken early the next morning on 18 July, showed a scene in Krasnodon, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said in a Facebook post 18 July:

Since then, there has been a massive effort online to geolocate the billboard/Buk video. And soon enough, the Kremlin troll brigade came up with a counter-narrative which they injected into thousands of web site discussions, social media, news comments, and so on, as we reported this weekend.

They claimed that in fact the billboard/Buk scene was in Krasnoarmeysk, and the proof of that was the ad on the billboard, which is for the Bogdan auto dealer which has a showroom at No. 34 Dnepropetrovskaya St. in Krasnoarmeysk. To be sure, there is a Bogdan showroom in Krasnoarmeysk, but that address is in fact not visible on the billboard in the video; it’s covered by trees. The Russian Defense Ministry briefing interpolates this address in its notation to the screenshot of the video, but in fact it’s not visible at all in the video — it’s speculation. The Russian state media and legions of social media posters have also claimed that the vantage point of the videographer looked on to a shopping mall where there was a StroiDom store.

There were a number of things wrong with the claim that the scene was in Krasnoarmeysk:

1. Krasnoarmeysk has power lines but no trolleybus system; Krasnodon has a trolleybus system; the billboard/Buk video clearly shows trolleybus lines.
2. The Bogdan dealerships are all over Ukraine, and can be found also in Lugansk, 45 minutes’ drive from Krasnodon, where a billboard might be reasonably placed.
3. The StroiDom in Krasnoarmeysk is indeed listed at No. 49 Gorky Street, but the building doesn’t match the scene in the video. [Note: previously we erroneously noted the StroiDom on Lermontov St, but that's the location in the Russian city of Krasnoarmeysk -- it's a chain of stores with multiple locations.]

Since then, Kremlin propagandists have furthered the claim by showing the location of No. 49 Gorky St. on Google maps, purporting to be a vantage point on to the shopping mall matching the camera perspective of the videographer who made the billboard/Buk video — red and white buildings seem to match.

Here’s a screenshot provided by @AricToler of the Google maps version of the site claimed by the Russian government. This is the location mentioned by the Russian Defense Ministry in their explanation starting at 10:18 on the video above:

So our problem with that claim is as follows:

1. The videographer’s perspective in the billboard/Buk video is on an elevation, looking down on the buildings into the next street; Krasnoarmeysk has no such elevation.
2. The red rectangle in the billboard/Buk video appears to be a fence, with a white pole in it, not the red roof of the shopping mall as in Krasnoarmeysk. And the trees disappear behind this building in the billboard video.
3. The small, triangular building in the billboard/Buk video in the background, below the cameraman’s position is small with a sharply sloped roof like other homes in Krasnodon and appears to have a smoke stack; the Krasnoarmeysk shopping mall is two storys and has a flatter roof without a smoke stack.
4. The scene in the billboard/Buk video has trolleybus lines; Krasnoyarsk doesn’t have such a trolleybus system and the area shows power lines which look different.

Here’s a photo of the Krasnoarmeysk mall on Panoramio/Google maps.

Krasnoarmeysk Univermag (shopping mall)
Krasnoarmeysk Univermag (shopping mall)

In short, we don’t see anything at all to match the billboard/Buk video. The Russian government claim is that the Ukrainian government has perpetrated a hoax, and supposedly released footage of their own Buk in a location nowhere near the area of the shoot-down of the Malaysian plane, the town of Krasnoarmeysk in area controlled by Kiev. But in fact the Russian claims cannot be verified.

A user named evgenriv has happened to take a photo uploaded to Google maps which is right next to the scene at No. 49 Gorky Street in Krasnoarmeysk claimed by the Russian Defense Ministry to be identical to the scene in the billboard/Buk video.

Near ul. Gorkogo, d. 49, Krasnoarmeysk. Google maps.
Near ul. Gorkogo, d. 49, Krasnoarmeysk. Google maps.

Again, there are a number of things that in fact aren’t a match — 1) the area is flat, not on an elevation; 2) there are power lines, not trolleybus lines; 3) the painted telegraph poles aren’t quite the same at the base.

We’re continuing to look at this information, and also at a Panoramio photo taken by Evdokima taken a few meters south of the Gorky Street shopping mall that looks like in fact it does have a StroiDom store, which has a distinctive bright red/yellow/green sign. Directories can be outdated, or show offices, not all branches. But even so, this building is two storeys and doesn’t have a sloping roof like the much smaller building in the billboard/Buk video.

Store on Gorky Street, Krasnoarmeysk. Evdokimov Jeka
Store on Gorky Street, Krasnoarmeysk. Evdokimov Jeka

But at this point we don’t think the Russian Defense Ministry and the legion of Kremlin trolls who paved the wave for their briefing in thousands of social media sites have a match.

That leaves open the question of just where that photo of the Buk said to be rushed out of Ukraine to Russian by the separatists is in fact geolocated. Given that the shoot-down happened at 17:30 local time, it was already getting dark. If the separatists began driving the Buk away soon after they realized they had the wrong plane, they might get as far as Krasnodon or one of the other small towns in the Lugansk Region on the way to the Russian border, but time of departure and driving speeds, etc. are all uncertain and roads can be poor.

Keep looking.

0925GMT: Ever since a video of the pro-Russian separatists anti-aircraft Buk system was uploaded to YouTube, legions of Russians and Ukrainians on social media have been trying to locate this scene.

As we reported on our Ukrainian LiveBlog, Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on Facebook the Buk had been taken through Krasnodon and was headed to the Russian border. A Russian convoy had been spotted in Krasnodon on 15 July.

Given the short snippet of film, it seemed nearly impossible to find anything to confirm the scene, but when Hive Mind got to work, eventually people figured out that the billboard in the scene was from an autodealer named Bogdan, which had its showroom in Krasnoarmeysk, another town, and evidently no stores in Krasnodon but one in Lugansk. Then people speculated on the location of other buildings and painted telegraph poles and then debated whether the area could possibly be in Krasnoarmeysk at all, given that this town has no trolleybus lines (as clearly visible in the video), but Krasnodon does. Some maintained that the lines visible in the picture could be power lines, but trolleybus lines are unmistakeable as this old photo of Krasnodan’s trolleybus illustrates.

Still other social media commenters at Avva’s LifeJournal concluded that the short video was in fact taken when the Buk was still in Torez, where the Buk has been earlier confirmed as parked behind a gas station and some stores. User Alexey Bobkov bolstered his claim by producing a dash cam footage, much like the one used by Aric Toler to confirm the original parked Buk, only driving from the other direction, and said the curb, meridian and poles — and even the billboard — were visible near the clearly-identifiable StroiDom store with the yellow, red and green sign and the five-story striped-edged brown building with the video ad. The problem is that Torez doesn’t have trolleybus lines, either.

Meanwhile, it’s clear that Kremlin propagandists have now gotten into the geolocation game, seeing how much it has fascinated Westerners and been used by them to debunk Kremlin propaganda. On Friday and Saturday, we noticed as did Russian bloggers an identical post appeared on hundreds of sites — such as social media, news portals, news media comments sections, and blogs — claiming that the scene had been geolocated in Krasnoarmeysk — but that this proved that the Buks belong to the Ukrainian military, which had control of Krasnoarmeysk “since May 11″ and therefore the Buk sighting video was Ukrainian disinformation. The post has the feeling of engineered propaganda not only because of its massive appearance everywhere simultaneously with either no name or various authors, but because it quickly appeared on Rossiya 24, Russian state TV, where Konstantin Knyrik coordinator of the South Eastern Front Information Center, a pro-separatist activist, repeated it almost word-for-word.

The Interpreter has translated the mass-produced post:

“A video is being disseminated in Ukrainian communities where supposedly the militia are hauling the shooting Buk toward the RF. But the city of Krasnoarmeysk is in the video, the billboard with the advertisement for the car dealership at 31 Dnepropetrovskaya St. Since 11 May and until now, the city has been under control of the junta’s forces, conducting the ATO! [anti-terrorist operation].

The Buk is missing one missile. In the photo and video with the trailer (the same one) there is a StroiDom [construction material] store. Address: Krasnoarmeysk, 49 Gorky Street. That is, the shooting Buk was located on a territory under the control of the junta and is still there. What questions are there? Everything is as clear as day — the Boeing was shot down by Ukrainian military by this very Buk, and now, in order for the video which leaked on to the web not to become compromising material, they decided to stupidly lay the blame on the militia, that they are hauling it. Remaining true to their lying nature (the Odessians burned themselves, the Luganskites blew up their own air conditioner, the DPR itself shells towns and so on). Mongrels.”

The propaganda technique here relies on a certain factology, playing on the fascination people have for geolocation. There are two things wrong with the story, however; one is that the StroiDom store isn’t at that location in Krasnoarmeysk, but on Lermontov St. The other is, of course, a lack of explanation for the trolleybus wires.

So it’s back to work looking through all the billboard companies in Krasnodon and their locations, and all the billboard companies in Krasnoarmeysk. Good luck!


Ukraine Liveblog Day 157: Fighting Continues in Donetsk

Yesterday’s liveblog can be found here. For an overview and analysis of this developing story see our latest podcast.

Please help The Interpreter to continue providing this valuable information service by making a donation towards our costs.

View Ukraine: April, 2014 in a larger map
For links to individual updates click on the timestamps.

Below we will be making regular updates so check back often.

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Russian-Backed Separatist Leader Khodakovsky Changes His Story to Reuters — or Does He?

UPDATED: This article was updated on 24 July at 1447 GMT to add the information from Reuters’ audio tape, below.

The question of whether or not Russian-backed separatist fighters in southeastern Ukraine possessed a Buk anti-aircraft system at all, or whether they may have used it to shoot down the Malaysian airliner MH17, has become further muddled today as a separatist leader first appeared to admit that the rebels may have had a Buk in their possession, then hours after publication, revoked his story.

At 2:28 pm 23 July, Reuters ran a story by Anton Zveryev, Ukraine Rebel Commander Acknowledges Fighters had BUK Missile based on an interview with Aleksandr Khodakovsky, a former officer of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) and commander of the Alfa Group, who crossed over to the separatist movement.

The thrust of Khodakovsky’s interview appeared to be to imply that a rival separatist group, the “Lugansk People’s Republic” (LPR), could have possessed Buks, and also to pin on the Ukrainian military ultimate responsibility for the shoot-down of the Malaysian plane, because they claimed to have confirmed the presence of Buks in the region, and should have re-routed civilian flights accordingly.

Neither of these statements constituted an admission that Khodakovsky knew for a fact that any group within the insurgency had any Buks; he has now further elaborated in a live telephone interview with LifeNews that the rebels never had any Buks at all.

Khodakovsky, one of the few separatist military leaders indigenous to Ukraine — others are Russians from Moscow — has had his differences with Col. Igor Strelkov, a GRU as well as FSB officer who has fought in the Chechen and Transdniestria wars, who is described as commander-in-chief of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR) and “defense minister” of the DPR. Recently, the two leaders made public statements appearing to patch over their differences as we reported, but remain as warlords vying for influence in the region.

When Strelkov took over Donetsk after the retreat from Slavyansk, he evidently persuaded Khodakovsky to resign 16 July from his post as “minister of security” — an additional title reflecting his past role in the Donetsk SBU — but to join the new military council created by Strelkov. He remained as commander of Vostok, and no new “minister of security” has been appointed yet.

Regarding Lugansk, where the Buk system has been confirmed as sighted near the area of the downed plane and on its way out of Ukraine to Russia the next day, Khodakovsky told Reuters:

“I knew that a BUK came from Luhansk. At the time I was told that a BUK from Luhansk was coming under the flag of the LNR,” he [Khodakovsky] said, referring to the Luhansk People’s Republic, the main rebel group operating in Luhansk, one of two rebel provinces along with Donetsk, the province where the crash took place.

“That BUK I know about. I heard about it. I think they sent it back. Because I found out about it at exactly the moment that I found out that this tragedy had taken place. They probably sent it back in order to remove proof of its presence.”

He further added:

Khodakovsky said his unit had never possessed BUKs, but they may have been used by rebels from other units.

“The fact is, this is a theatre of military activity occupied by our, let’s say, partners in the rebel movement, with which our cooperation is somewhat conditional,” he said.

“What resources our partners have, we cannot be entirely certain. Was there (a BUK)? Wasn’t there? If there was proof that there was, then there can be no question.”

He then went on to make his argument for Ukrainian military responsibility.

But within hours, Russian media and Twitter users were reporting that Khodakovsky had disavowed the interview, saying he had a tape of it to prove that he had been misrepresented by Reuters. As the “Donetsk People’s Republic” account tweeted, linking to a RIA Novosti article:

Translation: ‘I have a tape of the conversation’; Khodakovsky denies that he spoke about the militia having a ZRK [Buk].

Then Gabriel Gatehouse, a BBC correspondent had this to report about half an hour later:

Reuters appears to be sticking to its story:

What happened?

To get some insight into what Khodakovsky has been saying, we can look at a lengthy interview he gave just the previous day (22 July) to Russian ultranationalist Sergei Kurginyan, who uploaded it as an episode on his “Essence of Time” YouTube channel.

Some reviewers have seen this interview as well as tantamount to an admission the separatists have a Buk, but it’s actually cleverly couched as a hypothetical so as to keep a plausible deniability. In this video statement, Khodakovsky says the separatists have their own commission of experts examining the Malaysian flight downing, and are examining — as if they could be impartial — whether it was “the militia plus Russia” or “the Ukrainians” who were at fault. At this time “we do not have enough information,” he said.

Interestingly, he says nothing about any Buks sighted with Lugansk separatist units in this interview at all, but goes about constructing a hypothesis whereby the Ukrainian military is ultimately to blame based on their own claims. The entire message is cast in the Russian-language subjunctive.

Here’s the transcript of the video in Russian
. The Interpreter has translated an excerpt:

“We have completely reliable information from the Ukrainian media that supposedly the Ukrainians knew in advance that the militia had a Buk. We know that the Ukrainians placed in mass media tape recordings of telephone calls of various leaders of the militia formations or other fighters in the militia movement. They discuss the problem of the delivery of the Buk, the presence of a Buk. All of those conversations are dated a day earlier than the tragedy or earlier. So we can say that if the Ukrainians are claim they have reliable evidence, then they had in advance information that the militia’s Buk was a) present with them and b) was located in a combat zone, specifically, the area of Snezhnoye where in their opinion where the shot was made that destroyed such a number of lives.”

If the Ukrainians had information of the presence of Buks around Torez and Snezhnoye, then they should have detoured civilian flights around the combat area, he says. He adds a further claim:

“Moreover, unexpectedly, on that day, in the area of Snezhnoye, in the area of Saur-Mogila, Ukraine suddenly activated its air action and planes, which had been absent for several days before that over that zone suddenly actively began to bomb, the Saur-Mogila and the position of the militia.”

He concludes again with a hypothetical:

“If today, we can not guarantee whether the militia had a Buk or not — and there is evidence that there was no Buk there [emphasis added] — then at least if the Ukrainians say they have reliable information, then they themselves are digging their own hole. Thus, they are thus endorsing the fact that while possessing information about the presence of the Buk, and saying that supposedly the militia had brought the Buk in the combat zone, Ukraine still took part in drawing up the civil aviation routes, but never did anything so that those civilian craft did not come into the combat zone. In any case, this is a crime. In any event the Ukrainian government bears full responsibility and blame for what happened.”

The second part of the interview turns even more speculative and ideological, set up by the classic Leninist question posed by leftist ultranationalist Kurginyan, “Who profits?”

Khodakovsky believes Ukraine was losing the war and running out of resources to fight an urban war: “Any of the scattered militia groups with a grenade launcher is capable of destroying the existence of heavy armored vehicles stuffed with electronics and modern weaponry,” he maintains.

Faced also with having to destroy with air strikes what he perceives as “the backbone of the Ukrainian economy” — industries in Lugansk and Donetsk — Kiev wanted to do something to shift the war to another level, and ostensibly had the motivation to shoot down the civilian airliner to achieve this nefarious purpose.

Khodakovsky invokes a conspiratorial theme often repeated by the rebel leaders that Ukraine’s goal is to “do the bidding of its overseas patron America” and “draw in NATO forces” by “provoking a Russian invasion.

So to incite such an invasion – an outcome Khodakovsky actually says the separatists do not want — Russia and the “militia” have to be accused of something awful. He reiterates a common notion of Soviet propaganda, that NATO and the US only get into wars so that their defense industry can have earn maximum profits while Ukraine lies in ruins.

If this sounds confusing, contradictory and even crazy, it may very well be intended as such; after all, Khodakovsky is an officer in the SBU, trained by the Soviet KGB and then later cooperating (and infiltrated by) Russian intelligence today. Disinformation, sowing confusing, maskirovka or covering up of truths — these are all part of his job description.

The strategy of propagandists in Moscow throughout the crisis engendered by the Malaysian aircraft shoot-down has been to boldly and wildly throw up different contradictory explanations and make fierce accusations in rapid succession, seeing if one sticks and moving on to another as Western skepticism grows. Perhaps Khodakovsky is using the same methods.

Other possibilities are that Khodakovsky was free-lancing, and later instructed by either DPR leadership or Russian military intelligence — or a very angry LPR threatening reprisals — to change his story.

Westerners prefer to see the phenomenon of Khodakovsky as explained by him being a “loose canon” or even “going rogue,” but it’s important to remember that throughout the three months of the conflict, he has remained fighting as leader of Vostok and never been pushed out of power, like other leaders such as Denis Pushilin. He is not on the run now, as far as we know. He’s survived a number of internal political battles as well as real battles, and as of this writing, neither Col. Strelkov or Aleksandr Boroday have said anything to confirm or deny his claims or counter-claims to Reuters; they are letting nature take its course. Ruvesna (“Russian Spring”) is the only pro-separatist outlet to have addressed the issue; it has asked Reuters to publish a tape of the interview and “if Khodakovsky lies,” will publish this.

On the evening of 23 July, LifeNews carried a live telephone interview with Khodakovsky in which he said he was speaking of hypothetical scenarios, and implied he may have been misunderstood, although he stated that Zveryev spoke “fairly good Russian.” Twice, the LifeNews anchor interrupted him, and persisted in trying to get a straight acknowledgement out of him about whether or not the separatists possess Buks:

“There aren’t and never were?” asks the LifeNews anchor. “There aren’t and never were,” Khodakovsky confirms. Neither of them raised the subject of what Khodakovsky told Reuters he heard about the Lugansk separatists’ unit with possibly a Buk. Lugansk Region is where local eye-witnesses have uploaded pictures and videos to YouTube which have been confirmed, and also spoken to Western reporters.

Reuters then released the recording of the interview with Khodakovsky in Russian, which was published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. In it, Khodakovsky can be heard to say in Russian “Ya znal shto Buk shol iz Luganska” which would be more accurately translated as “I knew that a Buk was coming” in the past imperfect, not past perfect, “I knew that a Buk came,” as originally translated by Reuters.

He then said “v etot moment mne skazali shto iz Luganska shol pod flagom LNR v storonu Snizhne” “at that moment I was told it was coming from Lugansk under the flag of the LPR toward Snizhne”. He adds a line not included in the Reuters quoted excerpt or the RFE/RL translation transcript, “gde-to nakhoditsya kren ego ne izvestno” “located somewhere who the hell knows.” Then “ob etom Buk ya znal, ya slyshal,” “I knew about that Buk, I heard about it.” He then reiterates his point that Ukraine had the information in advance, so should have closed the airspace — which was the context for his reference to the news from Lugansk.

Additionally, we can note what’s happening when Western reporters and readers are tied up in knots trying to figure out where the rebels’ Buks are, like a game of three-card monte — they are distracted from asking more questions about Russia’s role in supplying and possibly supervising the Buk crews from within Russia which have been confirmed, as have been hypothesized by Ukrainian scholar Eugen Leng of a joint Russian-Ukrainian scenario.

Translation: And another thing about the ‘militia’s Buk”. So, imagine — you’ve seized a Buk system. Now go figure it out.

Andrew Bowen
Andrew Bowen

Enough Grandstanding. It’s Time For Real Sanctions Against Russia

Right and wrong in politics are subject to the force and ability of the powerful to impose their version or perception of such. It is malleable to the force of the victors and the glib propaganda that provides “alternate viewpoints” which massage, contort and finesse the understanding and perception of situations. The ability to obfuscate the fault for actions serves to distance a universally agreed act that is reprehensible, from the proper attribution and blame. In today’s world the goal for actors is to not deny that an act is right or wrong, but to muddy the waters and to inject enough confusion so as to deflect blame or preserve legitimacy. But right and wrong in world affairs is of little consequence, and ultimately vindicated by the acceptance as the status quo.

That is what is being done now in the aftermath of the terrible downing of MH17, a civilian passenger flight with no connection the unending imbroglio that has engulfed eastern Ukraine. And by any measure neither Russia nor the separatists really intended to shoot down the plane, it is in fact the worst possible event for their cause. Yet it was caused by the conditions that they created and continue to foster.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that separatists indeed did down the plane, Russia has chosen to again inject a level of question into the issue, no matter how ridiculous. That is because the goal is to prevent concrete outcomes, not moral indignation.

And to an extent it is a smart strategy, it allows Russia to claim ignorance of the atrocities being committed while deflecting blame for continuing to instigate the anarchy in Ukraine. It also creates the opportunity to undercut calls for stronger sanctions and repercussions against Russia and its conduct.

In the aftermath of Crimea, the U.S. initially imposed strong sanctions targeting Putin’s inner circle, while the EU held off and only targeted Crimean separatist leaders and those who were directly involved in the operation, along with a few companies located in Crimea. Eventually the U.S. followed suit and weakened its later sanctions in deference to its EU allies and their larger economic interests with Russia.

Initially, the sanctions terrified much of the Russian elite and had the potential to seriously alter Putin’s calculus, as the elite would not tolerate the increasing scrutiny of their capital’s provenance as it winds its way through western financial centers. Yet that initial worry was quickly satiated by the lawyers and bankers who serve as “gatekeepers” to the elite; they told them that the sanctions and the appetite by the West would be over in six months and they would gradually weaken. It would target some, and make life uncomfortable, but the status quo would not change.

And by sanctioning separatist leaders and others in the Russian security services involved in these operations while sparing higher level officials and businesses, the U.S. and EU proceeded to reinforce that vision. The idea was to induce Putin into being a proactive and positive influence in bringing the separatists into some sort of diplomatic solution. Yet that was not to be the case as Putin merely jumped from one hollow measure to another in attempts to undercut the impetus for sanctions, such as when he asked his Federation Council to withdraw the authority to invade Ukraine (which they dutifully did but he quickly followed it up by reserving the right to intervene to protect Russians wherever they are).

Yet if there was still any misguided hope that the Kremlin would back away from its anarchic and warlord induced dystopia that it had created—and had gotten away from it as there is increasing evidence of splits among the various separatist leaders and a surprising lack of coordination—MH17 destroyed that hope.

Nor can he just walk away. Putin is caught between the West and a situation that has spun out of his control and mutated far beyond what he wanted, and the virulent nationalists that had first saw him as their nationalist messiah, but now are starting to see him as something of a turncoat for his refusal to openly support and equip the separatists to their liking. And while the prospect of them overthrowing him is nigh impossible, they are a vocal group and are quite likely to make for a significant problem that he will eventually have to face.

This is why calls for weakened sanctions are misguided and in fact due more harm than good. They undercut the threat and fear that they pose. And that is precisely what they are designed to do, to inject fear and question into the Russian elite; an elite that is vastly different from the more isolated authoritarian regimes of Iran and North Korea. The Russian elite, and the wider economy that is primarily under state control or direction, depends on its access to international finance and freedom of movement. That is why sanctions against Russia posed a far more serious threat to Putin and to the elites that he relies on for support. Without their ability to pillage and plunder from the state economy, which is abetted by western financial institutions, the deal whereby Putin is allowed to rule with their support and the elites can continue their business unfettered is under threat.

Nor were sanctions ever designed to be the magic bullet that rolled back the intelligence agents and “little green men” that have a habit of mysteriously popping up wherever Russian interests are. They should be understood as a mechanism, one combined with diplomacy, which is designed to raise the costs and fear of the ruling and business elite to such an extent that they pressure Putin themselves. Sanctions are not a physical force that could eject the Russian acolytes from Ukraine or Crimea, only troops and NATO could do that, and nobody wants WWIII.

The U.S. and the Obama administration finally realized this fact and slapped serious sanctions against some of the largest banks, energy companies and arms manufacturers in Russia. The sanctions, while still relatively loose to allow for maneuvering room, were a dramatic step and differ from the previous sanction lists. Additionally, the U.S. was using its diplomatic power to prod, push and cajole the EU into finally becoming serious about Russia and its unending support for instability in Ukraine.

And that is why after yesterday’s EU foreign minister’s meeting there is hope, however incipient, that the EU is finally coming around to understanding the need for imposing serious sanctions, even if that means serious costs to their economies. Britain’s David Cameron gave a forceful speech to Parliament on Monday where he stated:

“For too long there has been reluctance on the part of too many European countries to face up to the implications of what is happening in Eastern Ukraine. It is time to make our power, influence and resources felt. Over the weekend I agreed with Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande that we should push our partners in the European Union to consider a new range of hard-hitting economic sanctions against Russia.”

Even France committed to not selling the second Mistral assault ship, part of a badly needed $1.6 billion deal, if the EU decided to go ahead with sanctions (although to an extent it is a halfhearted measure as the most important aspect of the deal, the training and transfer of technology, will be complete).

The EU finally agreed on a set of measures that, hopefully, will herald the beginning of a serious commitment by the EU to challenge Russia. They have committed to drawing up a list of individuals that will be subject to sanctions and revealed this Thursday, along with compiling a package of actions:

“The Council recalls the previous commitments by the European Council and remains ready to introduce without delay a package of further significant restrictive measures, if full and immediate cooperation on above mentioned demands fails to materialise. To this end, the Council requests the Commission and the EEAS to finalise their preparatory work on possible targeted measures and to present proposals for taking action, including on access to capital markets, defence, dual use goods, and sensitive technologies, including in the energy sector. The results of this work will be presented on Thursday, 24th July.”

And while it does not actually sanction any industries, it is a powerful step for the EU, and the beginning signs that the understanding that Russia is not committed to a peaceful negotiated settlement on anything other than its preferable terms, and that the West stands more to lose by doing nothing than mere financial interests.

As the 19th century Russian Poet Fedor Tyutchev said: “Russia cannot be understood with the mind, or measured by an ordinary yardstick: She has a special status…”

Let’s hope this realization lasts.


Ukraine Liveblog Day 156: MH17 Victims In The Netherlands, More Jets Shot Down In Ukraine

Yesterday’s liveblog can be found here. For an overview and analysis of this developing story see our latest podcast.

Please help The Interpreter to continue providing this valuable information service by making a donation towards our costs.

View Ukraine: April, 2014 in a larger map
For links to individual updates click on the timestamps.

Below we will be making regular updates so check back often.

Mark Galeotti
Mark Galeotti

MH17 and Moscow’s Magical Mystery Jets

After a weekend of virtual silence—while elements of the Russian media tried to fill the infospace with all kinds of lurid and rapidly-debunked rumor and conjecture—Monday saw Moscow hit back at the allegations that Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down by separatist rebels with Russian government assistance. Beyond President Putin’s strangely constrained personal statement (not the body language of a man at all comfortable with the situation), a key element were the “ten questions” posed by Lt. Gen. Andrey Kartopolov, chief of the General Staff’s Main Operations Directorate and Lt. Gen. Igor Makushev, chief of the Air Force Main Staff at a press conference on 21 July.

The overall intent is nakedly to shift blame onto Kiev (and Washington) and to provide the basis for subsequent challenges to the inevitable findings of any serious international enquiry: that MH17 was shot down by a rebel missile (as they themselves have been overheard admitting).

Broadly speaking, the “questions”—all unashamedly leading ones—framing Russia’s implicit defense argument concern three broad questions: the shift in MH17’s flight from its original route; the alleged presence of Ukrainian air defense units in the area, with their radars active; and the alleged presence of Ukrainian military aircraft close to the airliner shortly before and after it had been shot down.

The question of the aircraft’s route has been explained already. The Malaysian government has affirmed that there was no last-minute course change, just a slight deviation necessitated by a thunderstorm to the south and requested by the pilot.

Likewise, the issue of the presence of Ukrainian government air defense systems is something of a red herring, not least given the clear evidence that the separatists had deployed at least one Buk system in the area. Considering the evidence of increasing direct Russian intervention in the conflict—not least cross-border rocket barrages—then it would only be prudent for Kiev to watch its skies. But any attack from where the Russians allege the Ukrainian Buk-M1s were based would have meant the missile would have flown over rebel positions. It is hard to believe that no one would have noticed a large, loud, bright missile streaking through the skies above them.

Worth dwelling on, though, are the questions relating to alleged government aircraft:

6. What was a military plane doing on the route intended for civilian flights?

Russian monitoring systems registered that there was a Ukrainian Air Force jet, probably Su-25, climbing and approaching the Malaysian Boeing.”

The Su-25 was 3-5 km away from the Malaysian plane. Su-25 is capable of climbing to the altitude of 10,000 meters for a short period of time. Its standard armament includes R60 air-to-air missiles, which are capable of locking and hitting targets from 12 km and which are guaranteed to hit the target from the distance of 5 km.”

One wishes the Russians would make their minds up: was it a Ukrainian ground-based missile or a jet they are implying shot down MH17? In any case, setting aside the continued implausibility of this “false flag” hypothesis, or indeed Kiev’s claim that no such jet was in the area, let’s consider the details.

A Su-25 is a ground-attack aircraft. Yes, it can be armed with air-to-air missiles such as the R-60 ‘Aphid’, but its 3kg warhead—compared with the SA-11 Buk’s 70kg—is extremely unlikely to have done the damage visible on MH17. Eyewitness and photographic evidence from the crash site demonstrates a very broad and deep fragmentation pattern. Both the Buk’s 98M38 or 98M317 missiles and the R-60 are designed to explode just before impact to blast the target with shrapnel, but the size, pattern and above all quantity and kinetic energy of the two weapons’ warheads are very different.

Nor necessarily is an R-60 at all likely to have brought a Boeing 777 down with one hit. The KAL 007 747 brought down by Soviet fighters in 1983 was hit by two heavier R-98 missiles (with 40kg warheads) and still did not suffer the immediate, catastrophic destruction evident for MH17. Overall, the damage clearly points to a larger weapon than the R-60.

Meanwhile, the Russians are claiming that a second aircraft surveilled the crash site:

7. Why was the military jet flying at almost the same time and the same altitude with a passenger plane?

At 17:21’35, with [the Boeing’s] velocity having dropped to 200 kilometers per hour, a new mark detecting an airborne object appears at the spot of the Boeing’s destruction. This new airborne object was continuously detected for the duration of four minutes by the radar stations Ust-Donetsk and Buturinskaya. An air traffic controller requested the characteristics of the new airborne object, but was unable to get any readings on its parameters – most likely due to the fact that the new aircraft was not equipped with a secondary surveillance radar transponder, which is a distinctive feature of military aircraft,” said Makushev.

Detecting the new aircraft became possible as it started to ascend. Further changes in the airborne object’s coordinates suggest that it was hovering above the Boeing 777’s crash site, monitoring of the situation.”

Let’s consider this claim, too. The Russians are calling this a “jet” and suggesting that it was shadowing MH17. And yet, to “hover” requires a helicopter (or, if you want really outré conspiracy theory, a US V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor, and if that appeals, please feel free to ignore the evidence that the closest V-22 is at RAF Mildenhall in the UK). There is a distinct implausibility of the notion that a Ukrainian government helicopter could loiter within two miles of the rebel-held town of Hrabove without the separatists noticing it, let alone doing anything about it.

Furthermore, MH17 had been cruising at around 476 knots, or 545 mph. Even assuming it was slowing as it descended to its death, the fastest helicopter in the Ukrainian arsenal is the Mi-24. Its flat-out speed is some 210 mph, and flying at that speed for any time means not carrying external stores (such as weapons systems or sensor pods) and taking no precautions against the man-portable surface-to-air missiles the rebels have already used to bring down other government helicopters.

The Russian word barrazhirovat’, typically translated as ‘hover,’ can also mean simply patrol or loiter, though, so let’s run with that, too. The Su-25 has a stall speed of around 120-140 mph; in other words, if it flies any slower than that, a couple of miles every minute, it will fall out of the sky. The crash site covers an area of around eight square miles, on the very outskirts of Hrabove. In order to ‘patrol’ over this area, the jet would have had to have been circling constantly, at the very outside limits of its turning radius, and at its minimum speed, Even so, it would have been covering a circle which would have brought it over not only Hrabove, but also the nearby town of Rasypnoe, also in rebel hands. And yet rebel and civilian sources alike said nothing about seeing and hearing this plane repeatedly flying overhead, as the Russians appear to claim, in a pattern which would also leave it an excellent target for a MANPAD missile, as well as stressing the airframe to the limits. This seems hardly more plausible.

In short these particular allegations, like the others raised by Moscow and its chorus of apologists, simply fail to hold water. Their main role, after all, is not so much to convince the skeptical and the informed, but rather to reassure the sympathetic and confuse the uncertain, filling the information space with enough rumor, conjecture, conspiracy theory and downright misinformation to try to prevent any clear consensus emerging.

The point is not to let them.


Ukraine Liveblog Day 155: Train Carrying MH17 Bodies Arrives in Kharkiv

Yesterday’s liveblog can be found here. For an overview and analysis of this developing story see our latest podcast.

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View Ukraine: April, 2014 in a larger map
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Ukraine Liveblog Day 154: Heavy Fighting in Donetsk

Yesterday’s liveblog can be found here. For an overview and analysis of this developing story see our latest podcast.

Please help The Interpreter to continue providing this valuable information service by making a donation towards our costs.

View Ukraine: April, 2014 in a larger map
For links to individual updates click on the timestamps.

Below we will be making regular updates so check back often.