Russia Update: Challenges to Engineers’ Report in Novaya Gazeta on Downing of MH17

May 7, 2015
A picture reportedly shows the launch of the Buk missile which shot down flight MH17

A document leaked about Russia’s MH17 investigation by Novaya Gazeta claiming a Buk missile shot down the plane but from Ukrainian-held territory has been contested by bloggers.

Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.

The previous issue is here.


Russia This Week:

What Happened to the Slow-Moving Coup?
Can We Be Satisfied with the Theory That Kadyrov Killed Nemtsov?
All the Strange Things Going On in Moscow
Remembering Boris Nemtsov, Insider and Outsider (1959-2015)

Special features:

With Cash and Conspiracy Theories, Russian Orthodox Philanthropist Malofeyev is Useful to the Kremlin
Alexey Navalny On the Murder of Boris Nemtsov
Theories about Possible Perpetrators of the Murder of Boris Nemtsov
Novaya Gazeta Releases Sensational Kremlin Memo

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Russian Blogger Blocked on Facebook for MH17 Post Restored; Management Admits ‘Mistake’ reported today that the Facebook account of prominent blogger Sergei Parkhomenko was blocked today after he tried to post something about the Russian engineers’ theory of a Ukrainian Buk shooting down MH17 (we have covered the story of the engineers’ report and challenges to it here.)

But later Parkhomenko was back to say he was restored to Facebook after complaints were filed (translation by The Interpreter):

“Friends, my account has been unblocked. The post about the Boeing MH17 has been restored. Thanks to all who were concerned and helped. Shame on Kremlin bots and provocateurs.”

Parkhomenko’s comment reflects a widespread belief that the Kremlin deploys  automated programs or bots on social media in support of its disinformation campaigns and to silence dissent. The belief is engendered by numerous incidences of the blocking of Russian posts and accounts on Facebook even if they cannot be shown to have violated the terms of service with, for example, hate speech. The belief is backed up by visible instances throughout Twitter of bots operating with new and similar-looking accounts simultaneously posting the same texts. 

What’s also possible on Facebook  is that concerted groups of real people, perhaps managed by the Kremlin troll farms, file abuse reports against a given post or person. The systems of social media are set up to respond automatically, often by blocking first and enabling human beings to answer later, only if there are complaints. Complaints about the abuse-report system’s functioning itself are notoriously hard to file and get attention to, but Parkhomenko’s case illustrates that the effort is worth it.

Facebook management told that it was a mistake (translation by The Interpreter):

“Since our team deals with thousands of issues and complaints daily, in rare cases we make mistakes. In this case we mistakenly blocked the post on the page of Sergei Parkhomenko but it was restored as soon as we were notified that it was a mistake.”

Translation: Story of the removal of the text about the Boeing MH17 and the blocking of my Facebook: epilogue: “In Facebook, they admitted…”

In his original post
now restored, Parkhomenko advanced the theory that as the time for the
Dutch publication of the report on the downing of MH17 draws closer, the
Kremlin’s narrative for MH17 will switch from futile claims that a
Ukrainian plane fired a missile to saying a Ukrainian Buk fired the
missile from the ground. This would be a welcome acceptance of the facts
available so far, as nothing can sustain the theory of the SU-25 plane
or the claims that such a plane was supposedly seen.

That means
the claims of pro-Kremlin TV commentator Mikhail Leontyev on Channel 1
are now rejected, as is the claim of “a whole team of liars” interviewed
by Komsomolskaya Pravda, says Parkhomenko. (Leontyev’s photoshopping was debunked by bloggers.)

In an interview with Ekho Moskvy
Parkhomenko recounts all the versions of the story we’ve had from the
Kremlin since last July — remember when Col. Strelkov claimed that
frozen corpses were deliberately loaded on to a flight in order to
discredit the “Novorossiya” cause?

Now, says Parkhomenko, the
Kremlin’s task is merely to say “that’s not our Buk.” He predicted that
when the facts are presented pointing to a Russian Buk, the next stage
of the disinformation will be to prove that while it was a Russian
system, Ukrainians pulled the levers.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Russia Shows Off Its New Armata Tank In Red Square — Can the West Counter It?

The Russian military is preparing for the parades which will mark the May 9th Victory Day celebration, commemorating the Soviet victory over the Nazis 70 years ago. It’s taking advantage of this event to debut several weapons systems, including the new T-14 Armata Main Battle Tank.

The Armata is a brand new weapons system, with a chasis designed to be used not only by the T-14 but also several other armored vehicles. The idea was to create a next-generation tank capable of competing with American and European weapons, but also to significantly upgrade older infantry fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers, and other armored vehicles. In concept, by standardizing the platforms across multiple vehicles they will become more-easily repaired in the field, and the maintenance costs will also decrease.

In order to be successful, the T-14 will have to prove that it really is a next-generation tank, more capable than its foreign competitors. But the Armata system will also have to prove more reliable, more affordable, and more capable across multiple vehicle designs. The theory is finally being put to the test.

Jack Stubbs witnessed the new Armata on parade in Red Square yesterday, and he was less than impressed:

Stubbs writes that despite Moscow’s claims that this weapons platform is a “masterpiece,” one of the tanks appeared to break down:

The tank’s driver raised a small red flag to show he had problems but managed to drive on about 30 minutes later after an attempt to tow it away was abandoned, a Reuters witness said.

The parade announcer later announced that the stoppage had been planned to demonstrate how military equipment could be evacuated from the battlefield, prompting laughter from the rehearsal audience.

It was an inauspicious start for the Armata T-14 which will roll across the square in front of President Vladimir Putin and foreign leaders as part of Saturday’s parade, marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two in Europe.

Moscow has a lot riding on this vehicle, since the weapons system is designed to out-compete the U.S. M1 Abrams tank. Military Times has a rundown of the Armata’s capabilities — or at least, its stated capabilities, since the tank has not been seen in the field yet:

The summary:

Russia’s new tank reportedly will be faster than America’s Abrams, may have a larger main gun and could be part of a 13-vehicle system that will put everything from personnel carriers to self-propelled artillery onto the same chassis.

The T-14 Armata also could become “fully robotic,” Russia’s RT news reported. But until Monday, its public appearances came with a decidedly low-tech camouflage system: Fabric covering the turret.

Experts say the first real public showcase of the T-14’s capabilities could come at the annual Russian Arms Expo in September…

While one question is whether the Armata will perform up to its design, another is whether it will have any competition. The U.S. M1 Abrams was first put into service in 1980, and though it has been upgraded many times since, on paper the Armata may be a more capable weapon. The United States and many of its allies have shifted focus from building new Main Battle Tanks to building smaller, faster, more maneuverable systems like the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, more suited for fighting insurgencies in conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan than for countering .

Recently, the U.S. military unveiled the new M109A7 Self-Propelled Howitzer:

“The M109A7 stands at the vanguard of a series of ground combat modernization upgrades, which will significantly enhance the Army’s combat fleet for decades to come,” said Heidi Shyu, the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology.

This next generation howitzer incorporates enhanced capabilities such as a brand new chassis, engine, transmission, suspension, and steering system – components common to the Army’s Bradley Fighting Vehicles. This commonality reduces overall program cost and the logistical footprint coupled with improved survivability to maintain dominance on the battlefield.

But The Diplomat puts the weapon in perspective. First, the importance of the weapon is perhaps greater than it was expected to be, since the howitzer is highly effective in conventional warfare which, in large part thanks to Russia, is making a come back faster than many in the U.S. government (over multiple administrations) anticipated.The Diplomat also notes that while the M109A7 PIM is a significant upgrade and a highly capable weapon, two next-generation weapons systems were scrapped in order to pursue a more cost-effective system:

With the previous cancellations of the two bottom-up next generation self-propelled howitzer programs – the XM 2001 Crusader and XM1203 Non-Line-of-Sight Cannon – the M109A7 will be the U.S. Army’s first new artillery piece in twenty years. The M109A7 constitutes a, ”new approach to acquisition, in which expensive, ambitious, all-new designs give way to incremental but still substantial changes to existing platforms,”according to Sydney Freedberg over at Breaking Defense.

However, the vehicle’s cannon will remain unchanged, despite a new electronic gun drive system – which had been developed for the cancelled Non-Line-of-Sight Cannon – and an improved automated loader. The M109A7’s main 155/39 mm gun can fire four rounds per-minute, including M982 Excalibur precision munition, which boasts a maximum range of 40 km.

What makes the army’s new artillery vehicle unique in comparison to other weapon procurement programs is its cost-effectiveness.  “The M109A7 shares engine, transmission, tracks and some other components with the Bradley infantry fighting vehicle. Such commonality allows to reduce production, operating and maintenance costs,” according to

The potential problem, then, isn’t any single weapons system which could counter any single Russian weapons system. The problem is that a revanchist and aggressive Russian military is developing and deploying new weapons now, and if the strength of the NATO arsenal is supposed to deter Russian aggression, it’s not clear that the strategy is working.

James Miller

Challenges to Russian Engineers’ Report on Downing of MH17 Published by Novaya Gazeta

Novaya Gazeta has published a leak of a confidential report from Russian engineers that claims the Malaysian airliner MH17 shot down last year was struck by a Buk missile — but from Ukrainian-held territory. This publication by a news site long described as “independent” has caused dismay among some bloggers such as Andrei Malgin who have characterized it as a “plant”.

The document is titled “Result of Expert Assessment of the Fact of Investigation of the Boeing 777 (Flight MH7) Air Crash in the South-East of Ukraine 17.07.2014” and is said to have been prepared by engineers from the military-industrial complex to be presented to the Dutch experts who are investigating the tragedy in which 298 people were killed.

The engineers’ report contains a number of satellites photos and complex drawings and diagrams to make the claim that the existing fragments of the airplane showing destruction of the fuselage, and the place where the plane was reportedly damaged, could only indicate impact from a Buk. This puts to rest the Russian government claim that another plane, an Su-25, could have shot the missile. Yet the engineers then go on to claim, based on their calculations and reconstruction of the plane’s trajectory, that the missile could not have possibly been fired from the location where first Ukrainian citizen journalists then Western bloggers and journalists calculated as near the town of Snezhnoye in territory held by the fighters of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic.”

Novaya Gazeta sidesteps responsibility for the document by saying (translation by The Interpreter):

Journalists are not experts on questions of aviation, ballistics and missile design; there we cannot and do not consider ourselves to have the right to give an evaluation of this investigation.

Yet that shortchanges the work of bloggers and journalists who have done the most research in the public domain to date and gathered compelling evidence including eyewitness reports, video showing smoke in a field behind a coal mine near Snezhnoye, and scorched fields visible on satellite photos taken by Google Earth.

There are also the rebels’ own verbal reports made to social media and state and pro-Kremlin media on July 17 where they at first bragged about hitting what they thought was a Ukrainian cargo plane before backtracking and deleting their comments from VKontakte. These were retrieved from Google cache, however and the statements for mainstream Russian media remain.

Nevertheless, the Russian engineers say their conclusion “is based on the following facts” (translation by The Interpreter):

– the direction of the main stream of damaging elements formed in the explosion of the 9N314M warhead, perpendicular to the vector of the movement of the missile;

– the overwhelming majority of visible damages to the design of the fuselage of the plane was made by damaging elements moving along the aircraft.

Thus the missile moved crosswise from the direction of the plane, which is realized only by firing at the directional parameter.


 Translation: Drawing 18 – Results of modeling of the launch area.

The engineers go on to claim that “according to space intelligence” from the Russian Defense Ministry the self-propelled Buk systems of the Ukrainian Armed Forces were located in the town of Zaroshchenskoye.


Regarding the launch site, the engineers say (translation by The Interpreter):

a) The damage to the plane, the manner and consistency of the damage of the aircraft design in the air rules out the possibility of a launch of a missile from any point in the region of Snezhnoye.

Their final conclusions (translation by The Interpreter):

a) It is most likely that the destruction of the MH17 plain in the air was caused by the action of an anti-aircraft guided missile 9M38M1 with a 9M314M warhead which is the main missile ZRK Buk-M1.

b) The conditions that occurred for the impact of the missile with the plane, and as a consequence of that, the field covered with shrapnel was realized only with firing on the directional parameter. The missile moved crosswise to the trajectory of the plane at an angle of 72-75 degrees on the horizontal plane and 20-22 degrees on the vertical plane.

c) On the basis of the conditions of impact of the missile with the plane, the most likely region for the launch of the missile has been determined (2.5 x 3.5 km),and is  located to the south of the town of the population center Zaroshchenskoye.

Novaya Gazeta then added their own conclusion:

This report does not say the final word; what is more, it engenders both new doubts and new questions.

The main one among them is: where was the Buk-M1 launch made and who did it? It is not easy to determine this; after all, there was not a single front line during this period and the map of combat was reminiscent of a layered cake with a large number of so-called gray zones where anyone at all could come in and go out again.

The Interpreter has compiled evidence about the shoot-down of MH17 which tends to confirm the thesis that the Russian-backed militants shot down the plane with a Buk missile system near Snezhnoye.

The main points to make counter to the narrative of the engineers are as follows:

1. The town of Snezhnoye was definitively taken over by Russian-backed rebels by mid-June as we reported. The nearby town of Torez and the surrounding areas were held by the separatists throughout July before the downing of MH17, when they downed several Ukrainian military cargo planes in the days before July 17.

2. As noted in our evidence review, a photo of a Buk with 4 missiles loaded was geolocated to Torez and then later geolocated to Lugansk with 3 missiles, heading in the direction of the Russian border. These towns remained under rebel control; in fact, after the crash, the OSCE international experts had difficulty gaining entry to the area and it took weeks to remove the bodies of the victims and bring in the airline specialists to examine the debris — with the crime scene hopelessly contaminated by then.

To be sure, later, in early August, including one where Russian state journalist Andrei Stenin and two separatist reporters were killed likely in crossfire. This area saw some fierce fighting. But the Ukrainians’ blockade for 9 days and the subsequent break-out by rebels wasn’t until August.

3. According to the battles maps maintained by pro-separatist blogger Kot Ivanov available around that time (July 28-21, 2014) the territory was under separatist control. The front line was not “a layer cake” and it was not true that “anyone could come and go.”

The town of Zaroshchenskoye is too small to be on this “Novorossiya” map, but we can see its relative location first on Google Maps south of Shakhtyorsk (Shaktarsk) and north of Blagodatnoye (Blahodatne).


Then we can see the area was under separatist control according to Kot Ivanov’s map:


Unfortunately, the original web site where Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) published its daily situation maps is gone, and only saved the site in September 2014.

But Bellingcat happened to publish a copy of the NSDC map for July 14, 2014 in a study of the numerous artillery attacks made in this region by the Russian-backed forces on Ukrainian army. While it is not as detailed as the separatists’ map, it tends to confirm that the area was not under Ukrainian control:


4. The Russian engineers’ report does not take into account any of the persuasive work already done on the subject by Western journalists and bloggers. As we reported in March 2015, when a new picture came out, journalists who visited the area found some evidence of vehicle activity and burnt grass.


The blogger @DaveyPetros of Ukraine@War was the first to pinpoint the launch position.

Both Reuters and Olaf Koens of RTL Nieews interviewed eyewitnesses. Furthermore, they had photographs and videos
from local citizen journalists which we translated and analyzed.

BBC reporters Kriszta Satori noticed that in one of the videos, a man heard speaking on a cell phone to a friend seemed to refer to the Buk system being brought to their area.

In a post titled “How It is Done,” blogger Andrei Malgin bluntly describes Novaya Gazeta as having printed “a KGB plant” under the rubric “Investigation” where in the past they have printed investigation from their own journalists about the murder of Boris Nemtsov and Anna Politkovskaya, on corruption, the family business of Security Council chairman Nikolai Patrushev and so on — in other words, raising a serious concern about whether they have lost their independence. Editor-in-chief Dmitry Muratov has recently commented on the pressures the newspaper is under.

Malgin said the Novaya journalists didn’t even comment on what was in his view an obvious lie — that the town of Zaroshchenskoye, where supposedly a Ukrainian Buk was stationed that brought down MH17 was in Ukrainian hands, when in fact it was controlled by the separatists. We would agree that the evidence points to separatist, not Ukrainian control of that area at that time.

The Ukrainian Security Services said in a briefing yesterday May 6 that the claims of the Russian engineers were made on the basis of fake satellite photos, Slon and Apostrof reported, citing Vitaliy Naida of the SBU.

Naida accused the Russian General Staff of fabricating the materials for the purpose of framing Ukraine in the MH17 tragedy.

Indeed, it seems that as it becomes clear any version of events involving an air-to-air missile and an SU-25 will not stand up to scrutiny, a version of a surface-to-air missile must be conceded that still fingers the Ukrainians. That means the Russians are trying to place that missile launch outside of separatist territory.

Translation: On Google Earth there is a photo of the area needed by Zaroshchenskoye for 16 and 20 of July 2014. Do you see any vehicle tread marks? I don’t.

The SBU said the satellite photos appear to have been retouched
and some were made before the plane crash. The SBU says the photo taken
July 14, 2015 near Teplichnoye, where a radar battalion was stationed,
is claimed to have contained a Buk-M1. The SBU said this battalion
didn’t even have a Buk and that at the moment of the crash it had left
the area, which had fallen under control of the Russian-backed forces.

SBU also pointed out that satellite photos for the area around
Zaroshchenskoye don’t show any evidence of Buks. Instead, the photo
shows an unmowed field, although in reality by July 17 it was mowed.

A blogger also made this point:

Malgin also pointed out that right on cue, the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” has come out with a statement that
reinforces the Russian engineers’ leaked report. DNR deputy prime
minister Andrei Purgin now claims that the Kiev dispatchers unlawfully
transferred air traffic control over the fated MH17 to their colleagues
in Dnepropetrovsk on July 17.

Malgin also notes that while Novaya Gazeta, Ekho Moskvy, Snob and other independent outlets are publishing this news, Channel 1, Vesti, Izvestiya
and NTV have not had a word; the implication is that Russian
intelligence planted the story with independent outlets to make it more

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick