UPDATED Evidence Review: Who Shot Down Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17?

September 15, 2014
A picture reportedly shows the launch of the Buk missile which shot down flight MH17

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

This was originally posted on July 25th at 15:58 GMT and has been updated on July 31 and on September 15th.

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.

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.

The Best Theory Of Where The Buk Traveled Before And After It Fired

The Associated Press has published an important report of what they believe happened on the day of July 17th. The article is based off of the reports from AP journalists who actually saw the Buk in Snezhnoye, the reports of eyewitnesses in that town and others in the area, and information pulled from leaked audio tapes and from intelligence reports released by the Ukrainian government. What is impressive is that so many of the details pulled from so many sources line up perfectly.

Here is the chronology of what happened, combining information from multiple sources (all times local, sources in parenthesis):

  • 01:05 – Buk enters Ukraine on flatbed truck. (AP – Ukrainian counterterrorism chief Vitaly Nayda)
  • 09:00 – Buk reaches Donetsk, disembarks flatbed truck. (AP – Ukrainian counterterrorism chief Vitaly Nayda). A picture of the Buk was taken which places it in Donetsk.
  • Approximately lunchtime – Buk reaches Karapetyan Street in Snezhnoye. (AP – eyewitnesses)
  • 13:05 – AP journalists see Buk moving through town in convoy with two civilian cars. This fact was reported by AP before MH17 was shot down. (AP)
  • 16:18 – Intercepted audio released by Ukrainian SBU has separatist commander Igor Bezler speaking told by rebel spotter that a “birdie” flying “really high” was moving into range. (The Interpreter)
  • 16:20 – Locals in Snezhnoye report one or two loud blasts. One minute to a minute and a half a second blast is heard. MH17 falls to the sky after this. (AP)
  • 16:33- Intercepted phone call has separatists realizing that they shot down a civilian airliner not a military transport plane (The Interpreter).
  • 16:40 – An intercepted phone call has Bezler speaking to Vasily Geranin, who is described as a colonel in the Russian Federation’s GRU, indicating that an aircraft has been shot down. (There is a discrepancy with the time stamp since only one aircraft was shot down in this area, and Bezler says it was “30 minutes ago” but it was really only 20 minutes earlier – The Interpreter).
  • 16:50 – The VKontakte community “Strelkov’s Dispatches” posted a report “from the militia” about the downing of “an AN-26” in the “region of Torez” (The Interpreter).
  • 17:14-17:42 – Separatists see that the wreckage of the what they shot down is indeed a civilian aircraft, not a military one. The “Mayor” admits that they have shot down a “a super big civilian craft” and a separatist reports “fragments right in the yards” and “civilian stuff, medicine, toilet paper, towels.”
  • 17:18 Pro-Kremlin newspaper Vzglyad reports separatists taking credit for downing “an AN-26” (actually MH17) with a Buk; admissions of possession of Buks also covered on July 14 (The Interpreter).
  • 02:00-04:00 on July 18th – the Buk launchers reportedly cross the border into Russia (Ukrainian government – see below).

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 controlled 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.

Here is a screenshot from our interactive map which shows the route the vehicle may have traveled from Donetsk, through Torez, and ultimately on to the Russian border after shooting down MH17:

Malaysian Airline Map

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.

Eyewitnesses interviewed by the BBC say that the Buk missile crews were soldiers from the Russian Federation, which they could tell by the way they were organized, and by their accents which were not Ukrainian.

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.

Russia’s Theories, And The Dutch Safety Board Report

In the days that follow the shooting down of MH17, the Russian state-controlled media makes several wild, unsubstantiated, and largely contradictory claims about what could have happened to the civilian airliner. The Russian government, four days after the downing of MH17, released their first report on July 21st.  The Russian government report claims that a Ukrainian Su-25 jet was tailing MH17, and circled the area after the plane went down. The insinuation is that Ukraine’s airforce shot down the jet liner. However, some experts explain that claims made about the performance of the Su-25 are simply physically impossible. Regardless of those details, a missile or gunfire from an Su-25 could not have brought down MH17 in the way that the airliner crashed. New York University professor Mark Galeotti explains in an article published on July 22:

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.

On September 9th, 2014, the Dutch Safety Board released their report on the downing of the airliner. The report rules out technical failure, and cites evidence that the aircraft was “penetrated by a large number of high-energy objects” which “originated from outside the fuselage.” The report concludes that the aircraft broke up in mid-air, and there were no communications from the pilot or crew that suggest there were any problems. The likely conclusion is that there was a sudden and catastrophic event — consistent with the jet being destroyed by an advanced surface-to-air missile like a Buk.

Furthermore, the shrapnel that entered the aircraft did not come from behind or beneath the aircraft, as one would expect from fire from an Su-25 which was allegedly, according to the Russian military report, consistently behind or below MH17 (no evidence exists to back this claim). Many of the projectiles documented in the Dutch Safety Board report entered the aircraft “from above the level of the cockpit floor.”

mh17 objects entered above cockpit

The BUK is an advanced aircraft system that tracks its targets using radar and detonates when it is close to its target, triggered through a radar-proximity fuse. It’s warhead is a high-explosive fragmentation device weighing in at 70 kg,(154.3 Lbs), which sends shrapnel out at high-velocity, literally shredding the target. Weapons experts we consulted all agree that the tell-tale sign of this weapon being used would be large quantities of relatively small impact puncture sites in the fuselage of the aircraft (unlike an autocannon, which would leave a smaller amount of larger impact sites in a more linear pattern, or a heat-seeking missile which would impact the engines rather than tear the aircraft apart).

In our review of the Dutch Safety Board report we contacted Mark Galeotti to see if this new forensic evidence matched his earlier hypothesis. He said that the damage to the aircraft was consistent with the theory that the airliner was hit by a Buk surface-to-air missile, and the Russian theory did not match these results:

It is wholly implausible that an Su-25’s GSh-30-2 25mm autocannon would have done the kind of damage visible on MH17. The pattern of impacts would be very different. Furthermore, the cockpit recordings indicate no alarm on the part of the flight crew. Even if an Su-25 could approach unnoticed (not that hard, admittedly), it’s extremely unlikely that it could fire a burst of 390-gramme shells that would both fragment the aircraft and kill both of the pilots before they had the chance even to express their shock. That, to me, helps clinch that the plane was ripped apart by a large stand-off warhead shattering its aerodynamic integrity in an instant, catastrophic blast of shrapnel.

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, perhaps Russian Federation soldiers themselves fired the Buk at MH17 from the area near Snezhnoye and Torez. It seems likely that this was an accident since there is no conclusive 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 the separatists, 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. Since the last week in August, an increase in direct Russian support for the insurgents in eastern Ukraine has made access to the crash site even more difficult. While questions remain, the likely culprits are clear, and those accused of mass murder control the crime scene.