Ukraine Liveblog Day 154: Heavy Fighting in Donetsk

July 21, 2014
Separatist T-64 in Donetsk on July 21. Photo: Richard Galpin

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

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For links to individual updates click on the timestamps.

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

What We Know And Don’t Know About The Downing Of Flight MH17 And The ‘Buk’ Missile System

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.  

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.

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).

There is no visual confirmation that the Buk was ever in Chernukhino, 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. 


There is extremely strong evidence that the separatists possessed the Buk missile system, and that the Buk missile system was used in this attack. There is strong circumstantial evidence that the Russian government gave the Ukrainian rebels the crews that operated such sophisticated machinery.

Where Did The Buk Come From And Where Did It Go?

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 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). That vehicle, according to Ukraine, was seen in Krasnadon, as is reflected on our map. However, there are claims that this video was taken in Ukrainian occupied territory — in Krasnoarmeysk. Based on an evidence review, we think that this video was not taken in Krasnoarmeysk and very well may have been taken in Krasnadon. It’s also unlikely that the Buk could travel from the area where MH17 was shot down to Krasnoarmeysk without being spotted.

On Friday 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.

There is a problem with this press release, however. One picture included shows a Buk on a truck, labeled with the number 312. It is probably not possible to geolocate this picture and the Buk pictured is not missing any missiles.

In March there was a video of a convoy of Buk missiles, reportedly taken in Soledar. There was no conflict in southeastern Ukraine during this time period. The news story concerning the video notes confusion about who actually owns the weapons and why they were traveling through the area. One of the weapons is clearly marked with the number 312. We do know, however, that Buk systems were seen moving in this area in April, so it’s possible that they were also on the move in March.

Since then, however, the mystery appears to be solved. As a commenter on the Ukrainian web site Stop Fake and Igor Brigadir noted, a picture posted on Facebook in March shows the weapon on the move and was clearly taken at the same time in the same location as the picture released by the SBU. So it would appear that the SBU made a mistake by including this picture in their latest release as it does not appear to show a Buk that was in possession of the rebels. 

Also, for clarification, Soledar is not in range to have shot down MH17.

Russians Scramble To Edit Wikipedia So The Kremlin’s Claims Make Sense

As we reported earlier, the Kremlin now says that flight MH17 was “tailed” by a Ukrainian military Su-25 aircraft during much of its flight over Ukraine. As we pointed out, this claim may be physically impossible since Russia says that the Su-25 was consistently between 3 and 5 kilometers away from MH17, but the Su-25 can’t fly high enough to have this claim make any sense.

Well, today the Su-25 has been given some significant upgrades — at least on Wikipedia. Several IP addresses that track back to central Moscow appear to have edited the maximum altitude of the Su-25 from 7 kilometers to 10 kilometers to match the flight path of MH17.

One such IP address that made such a change appears to use the “ROSNIIROS” ISP (Russian Institute for Public Networks) and, according to one IP tracking service, is associated with an organization called “JSK IT. Information Technologies Co.”

Another address that made this change is also from Moscow and was tracked back to the “Closed joint-stock company Telecommunication company.”

We have not translated the full transcript of the Russian press conference yet, but according to an editor for the Russian Kremlin-operated propaganda network RT, the claim is that the Su-25 can briefly climb to 10,000 meters (though there’s no indication of this capability on the manufacturer’s website).

Russia’s Stocks Plummet After MH17 Shoot Down

In recent weeks one  news story has been a Russian stock rally as Russian indexes replaced their losses incurred during the crisis in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. Russian stocks, for a time, were outperforming most other indexes, though as we pointed out at the time this was a market correction — investors pulled money out of Russia during the initial crisis, they then believed that the worst-case scenario would not happen and it was time to reinvest.

They were wrong.

For more than ten days the Russian stocks have been sliding because, despite the market correction, the Russian economy continues to be stagnant and far too reliant on raw materials and energy, sectors that were predicted to struggle long before the Yanukovych government in Ukraine fell. As you can see from the chart, however, the Russian stocks are in near free fall since MH17 was shot down. The MICEX is down 2.56% today and has lost more than 6% of its value since its high on Thursday (notice the spike in trading volume — a lot of “sells”).


Russia Claims A Ukrainian Su-25 Aircraft Was Tailing MH17 – But It Can’t Fly That High

CNN reports that according to the Russian government a Ukrainian jet was tailing Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 before it was shot down. 

On Monday, Russian officials floated the possibility that a Ukrainian fighter jet might have downed the plane.

Russian monitoring showed a Ukrainian Su-25 fighter jet flying along the same route and within 3 kilometers to 5 kilometers (1.9 miles to 3.1 miles) of Flight 17, Lt. Gen. Andrei Kartapolov of the Russian Army General Staff said at a news conference, Russian state media reported.

“We would like to know why the Ukrainian plane was flying along a civilian route on the same flight path as the Malaysian Boeing,” Kartapolov said, according to the reports.

Pro-Russian rebels have also denied responsibility for the shootdown.

In an interview with Cuomo broadcast Monday on CNN’s “New Day,” the self-declared rebel Prime Minister in Donetsk, Alexander Borodai, said he believed Ukrainian forces either shot the plane down with a surface-to-air missile or, as the Russian general suggested, one of its own fighter jets.

There are a few problems with this theory. First, flight MH17 was shot down five days ago. For five days the evidence has been growing that the separatists, armed with the Buk surface-to-air missile, shot down this aircraft. So why wasn’t this claim reported by the Russian government five days ago?

A second problem — according to the manufacturer of the Su-25, Sukhoi, the maximum altitude of the Su-25 carrying no external ordnance and stores is only 7 kilometers (7000 meters, 23,000 feet). MH17 was flying at 10,000 meters, about 33,000 feet. By this logic, even if the Su-25 was flying directly under MH17 it would be at least 3 kilometers away. How does that fit with the claims that the Russian government is making?

Update – It’s been pointed out that the Su-25 can briefly fly higher than 7km because while its service ceiling is 7km it can surge to higher than this, perhaps even 10km. However, all these altitudes are calculated based on an aircraft carrying no missiles or bombs. All of this raises new questions — if it was Ukraine’s design to shoot down a civilian aircraft, why wouldn’t they use another aircraft, like the Su-27, which is a far better tool for the job.

Ultimately there is yet another question. If Russia believed on Thursday that Ukraine’s airforce was just shooting down civilian aircraft, why didn’t they raise the alarm sooner?

We consulted several aviation experts to answer some of these questions, but none of them wanted to go on record for the same two reasons: 1) they believed the claim was ridiculous and 2) they decided that it would bring too much heat from the trolls to go on record.

Fire Breaks Out at MH17 Crash Site as Dutch Investigators Arrive

Ukrainska Pravda reports (translated by The Interpreter):

A fire has started at the site of the Boeing-777 aeroplane catastrophe.

An Ukrainska Pravda correspondent at the scene reports.

Belongings of the victims are on fire. As the UP correspondent reports, the fire was caused by the weather conditions.


Earlier today, three Dutch investigators arrived at the scene of the crash.  

Reuters reports:

The head of the team inspected the storage of the bodies in the rail cars and, despite an overwhelming stench of decomposition when the doors were opened, said it was fine.

“The storage of the bodies is of good quality,” said Peter van Vliet, whose team went through the wagons dressed in surgical masks and rubber gloves.

Van Vliet said he had been told the train would be leaving the station at Torez later on Monday so that bodies can be taken to where they can be identified and repatriated. He could not say where it was going.

Meanwhile, analysts began to discuss images of the debris.  

Justin Bronk, a research analyst at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), tweeted that a section of the cockpit showed damage consistent with attack by a SA 11 missile fired from a Buk launcher, which detonates a short distance away from a target, showering it with shrapnel.

Jeroen Akkermans, a Dutch RTL correspondent, uploaded a series of detailed photos of the debris to his Flickr page.

Here are two of those images which may show shrapnel damage:



Swedish Citizen Seized by Separatists Near Lugansk

Interfax-Ukraine reports:

Pro-Russian insurgents have taken a Swedish citizen captive, Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council representative Andriy Lysenko said at a briefing in Kyiv on Monday.

The incident occurred last Sunday, Lysenko said. According to the information of the National Security and Defense Council, the Swede was captured at a checkpoint near Perevalsk in Luhansk region.

He is held in Horlivka now, Lysenko said.

Other details of the incident are not given for now.

Ukrainian Army Makes Advances in Donetsk reports that Andrei Lysenko, the spokesman of the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council (SNBO), has told reporters at a briefing today that Ukrainian forces have seized key positions near Donetsk Airport.

He stated that air strikes and artillery fire would not be used in residential areas.

He said (translated by The Interpreter):

“Our soldiers have managed to take the main routes into Donetsk from Donetsk Airport. Alongside our offensive operations, work is under way to fortify firing positions, which will enable us to draw up new forces for the Ukrainian troops and continue the offensive.

Work is under way right now on many fronts, including Donetsk, to clear the approaches to the town and destroy the terrorists’ checkpoints. There is an order: air strikes and heavy artillery fire will not be used in residential areas.”

Another report on the same site cited the press office of the government’s Anti-Terrorism Operation, saying that Ukrainian forces were now in control of the village of Peski, just to the north-west of the area of fighting in Donetsk today. 

Meanwhile smoke was seen rising over the city. Here is video showing smoke near the Tochmash factory:

Smoke visible in the same direction, from the Donbass Arena:

At Least 4 Dead in Donetsk Fighting reports that the Donetsk Regional Health Administration has announced that four people have been killed and two wounded in the area between the airport and the train station in Donetsk. 

Interfax-Ukraine reports on the deaths of two civilians (whether these are counted among the four announced by the Donetsk Health Administration is not yet known) following the shelling of a residential area. 

They cite an announcement from the mayor of Donetsk and the City Council, reporting that the two were killed in house number 51 on Slovatskaya street

Heavy Fighting in Donetsk

There are reports of heavy fighting in Donetsk this morning, with shelling, gunfire and armour all reported.

Ukrainska Pravda reports (translated by The Interpreter):

A battle has been under way since Monday morning in Donetsk.

This was reported by the website of the mayor of Donetsk.

“There is fighting in the quadrant formed by the Krasnoarmeysk highway, Marshall Zhukov street, Stratonatov street and Artyomovsk street.

We ask residents, living in this quadrant, not to go out onto the street and to stay in their houses and apartments,” said the statement.

“We also bring to your attention that the Zapadny bus station is closed. Due to this, we ask citizens not to use this destination,” said the mayor’s office.

In addition, a market near the station in Donetsk caught fire. The fire broke out as a result of shelling. A 9-storey housing block, located nearby, was also damaged.

Ukrainska Pravda noted that:

The night of June 20-21 passed relatively calmly in Donetsk. In the morning, citizens were awoken by gunfire and explosions, which sounded fro the direction of the airport.

Novosti Donbassa reported that Donetsk train station had been evacuated by staff and passengers due to the fighting.

Journalists on the ground reported on sniper fire and armour on the move:

Video has also been uploaded which purportedly records the sound of gunfire on Dzerzhinsky Prospect:

This video shows damage caused by shelling to a residential area near the station:

The same building is seen here:

Donetsk news site reports that a shell exploded near the Amstor supermarket near the train station. 

According to eyewitnesses, there were both dead and wounded following the blast.  

Ambulances have not yet been able to reach the scene due to the ongoing fighting.

Novosti Donbassa also reports on the shelling of two apartment blocks in the city. Shells fell on house 57 on Slovatskaya street and number 223/225 Kuybyshev street.

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