How We Know Russia Shot Down MH17

July 17, 2015
Photo: Maxim Zmeyev / Reuters

The Interpreter‘s James Miller and Michael Weiss report today at The Daily Beast on the overwhelming body of evidence demonstrating that Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down one year ago today by a Russian surface-to-air missile launched from separatist-held territory.


It’s been a year since Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot out of the sky, killing all 298 civilians onboard. The results of the official inquiry have yet to be released, and while the fact that this Boeing 777 was immolated has not been disputed, various theories have been floated by the Ukrainian government, the Russian government, and other interested parties as to how it was and who ultimately bears responsibility for this tragedy.

The vast majority of the evidence adds credibility to the theory that an anti-aircraft Buk missile launcher, controlled by either Russian soldiers or Russian-backed fighters and fired from a field south of the town of Snezhnoye, destroyed the commercial airliner. The Buk is an advanced weapons system capable of destroying military aircraft or even ballistic missiles at an altitude up to 82,000 feet, and so its presence on Ukraine’s battlefield was always set to change both the scope and intensity of the conflict. But it suspiciously arrived in the arsenal of the Russian-backed fighters at a time when the Ukrainian military was making rapid gains and was perhaps closing in on a military solution to the conflict.

Before MH17.

After Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in March, bands of pro-Russian fighters began to seize police stations, government buildings, and other strategic areas across eastern Ukraine. Even at that time there was evidence that these raids were organized or led by men who were associated with or members of the Russian military. Initially, the Ukrainian military, left in serious disrepair by the ousted Yanukovych government, was hesitant to respond to this threat. It’s likely that the Ukrainian interim government was initially concerned about a possible counter-revolution launched by disloyal members of the police, military, and security apparatus. Whatever the cause, the “separatists” began to take control of large parts of eastern Ukraine.

The Ukrainian military began its “Anti-Terror Operation,” or ATO, in April to reclaim territory that had been seized by the pro-Russian insurgents, many of whom were operating under the command of Russian citizens (and probably Russian soldiers) who arrived to fight against the new government in Kiev. On June 7, Ukraine elected its first post-revolution president, Petro Poroshenko, who won partially as a result of his pledge to restore order quickly to eastern Ukraine. The ATO had already started to gain momentum throughout May but, perhaps feeling that it had survived the aftermath of a sometimes violent revolution and now had a public mandate to act, the Poroshenko government mobilized the military to confront the separatist threat even more forcefully.

And for a while, it worked. By early July, the Russian-backed fighters had begun to lose considerable ground, including the key coastal city of Mariupol. On July 5, the Ukrainian military regained control of Slavyansk and nearby Kramatorsk, two major separatist bases. The next day Ukraine regained control of Artemivsk; by July 7 the majority of separatists in the northwestern area of their control zone had retreated to the city of Donetsk, their de facto “capital,” which was also soon besieged by the ATO.

If the rate of Ukrainian victories continued unabated, the Ukrainian military would soon be in a position to isolate the separatists from Russia, which Kiev had maintained from outset was supplying them with fighters and materiel. In less than a month the ATO had drastically shrunk the size of the self-proclaimed “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Lugansk, and were creeping up on the command centers of both.

These battlefield victories are crucial to understanding the context of the MH17 tragedy because all available evidence suggests that this is the exact period in which Moscow increased its direct support for its proxies in the area. By late August, the momentum of this war had quickly turned, the ATO was rapidly losing territory, and Kiev and Western governments declared that this was only made possible because of a massive influx of Russian military hardware—and conventional Russian soldiers. Indeed, the “Russian invasion” of eastern Ukraine became an established fact as of August 2014.

Among the weapons imported into eastern Ukraine in this period were advanced anti-aircraft systems including the Strela-10, Pantir-S1, and the Buk.

The Anti-Aircraft War

In November 2014, the weapons and munitions experts from Armament Research Services published the most comprehensive catalog of weapons used in this conflict to date. In the report, they note that advanced anti-aircraft systems like the Strela-10 (9k35) and 9k33 Osa were first seen in this conflict in early July. The influx of advanced anti-aircraft systems during this period corresponded to a growing number of Ukrainian aircraft that were shot down in combat.

Curiously, while most of the separatist weapons were supposedly captured from the Ukrainian military, these weapons showed up on Ukraine’s battlefields at a time when the Russian-backed fighters were on the defensive. So where were they captured from?

The first video showing one of the weapons, the Strela-10, in a tracked and armored vehicle designed for front line combat support, may provide a clue.

It was reportedly filmed on July 2, 2014. In that video, the Strela-10 is seen traveling on a road that is well-known to Ukraine researchers because the Buk missile launcher was seen traveling on it after MH17 was blown up 15 days later, but in the opposite direction and minus one missile.

The rate at which Kiev lost aircraft escalated quickly. According to ARES, from late April to early May, five Ukrainian helicopters were shot down near Slavyansk and Kramatorsk. However, soon the separatists began targeting Ukrainian military planes. On June 6 the Russian-backed fighters shot down their first fixed-wing aircraft, an Antonov An-30 surveillance craft northeast of Slavyansk, near Drobyshevo. On June 14, a Ukrainian Ilyushin Il-76 strategic airliner was shot down over Lugansk. One month later, on July 14—three days before MH17’s immolation—a Ukrainian Antonov An-26 was downed over the Izvarino border crossing. Remarkably, Russian media reported that this aircraft was shot down by a Buk that had been captured weeks earlier from the Ukrainian military.

Our team at The Interpreter reported on the claim that separatists had captured a Buk, and pointed out that this story only ran on TV Zvezda, a network run by the Russian Defense Ministry. No other sources appeared to carry this newsworthy information except for a curious tweet from the Twitter fan account for Natalya Poklonskaya, the pro-Moscow Crimean prosecutor who became a celebrity after Russia’s Anschluss of the peninsula, saying the separatists had received some “cookies” in the form of the Buk. Was it possible, therefore, that TV Zvezda was already creating a cover story to explain how the Russian proxies managed acquire such a recherché Russian weapon?

The Day Before

On July 16, two new milestones were reached in what can feasibly be called the Ukraine-Russian War. First, a Ukrainian Sukhoi SU-25M1 close air support jet fighter was shot down over the border. In that incident, the spokesperson for the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council claimed that an air-to-air missile fired by one of Russia’s jets was likely responsible.
Second, The Interpreter was able to definitively document through geolocated YouTube videos that a group of Grad rocket launchers positioned on the Russian side of the border were firing into Ukrainian territory.

The Day Of

On the morning of July 17, news surfaced that another plane, possibly a Ukrainian military cargo plane, had been shot down near Torez. Citizens and reporters near the crash site had already begun to post pictures and videos of the smoking debris. We now know that the only plane that crashed in this area was a civilian airliner, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.

The separatists, it seems, were also confused. A social media page associated with the then-military leader of the Russian-backed fighters, Col. Igor Strelkov (aka Igor Girkin), took credit for the shooting down of an aircraft near Torez. At 17:50 Moscow time—approximately 30 minutes after the aircraft was struck but well before most of the world was aware that a civilian airliner had vanished from the sky—a group on the Russian social-networking site VKontakte called Strelkov’s Dispatches posted the boast of the downing of the plane (with some of the same videos The Interpreter had already posted, used as corroborating evidence), adding: “We warned them—don’t fly ‘in our sky.’”

When the darker truth was eventually discovered, the post was deleted, although we had already captured screenshots. Titled “Report from the Militia,” it had in fact been copied from another forum where Strelkov was the moderator, called, at 17:37 Moscow time.

While Strelkov’s Dispatches has been challenged as “inauthentic,” in fact it was used by Strelkov and other separatist leaders before July 17 and since to post official information about the war. It’s also been cited by Russian state media on several occasions and has never been disavowed by Strelkov personally. He continues to allow the group to use his name and likeness, despite the renaming of the VKontakte group the “Novorossiya Militia Dispatches.”

More revealing, the Russian media, including ITAR-TASS, RIA Novosti, and, cited this forum and other sources that claimed the separatists had shot down a Ukrainian cargo plane—until, of course, it was learned that the crashed plane was a civilian airliner.

But added another important detail:

“Ukrainian military claim that the losses were caused by actions by Russia. The militia refuted this information, correcting that they had shot down the plane from a ZRK ‘9K37M1’ (better known as a Buk).”

In Putin.War, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov’s posthumously published report on Moscow’s military involvement in Ukraine, he points out that Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, tried to excuse the fact that the separatists claimed responsibility for the attack thus:

“People from the east (of Ukraine) said that they had shot down a military plane. If they believed that they had shot down a military plane, it was confusion. If it was confusion, then it was not an act of terrorism.” In other words, a high-ranking Russian diplomat was trying to account for why separatists shot down MH17—a disclosure that, as we shall see, was ignored and then vehemently rejected by Churkin’s superiors.

The Missile

One problem was immediately apparent after MH17 was reduced to a scattered pile of wreckage. Details began to emerge about the altitude it was traveling at before it fell from the sky—33,000 feet.

Each anti-aircraft missile has a rating for how far away and how high it can hit a target. This relatively high altitude ruled out multiple missile systems that had so far been documented on the battlefield in Ukraine. But Associated Press journalist Peter Leonard reported after the incident that one of his reporters saw a Buk missile system moving through the town of Snezhnoye.

The Buk is capable of hitting targets more than twice as high as MH17 was traveling. Furthermore, as The Interpreter’s original report on the incidentcatalogs, multiple pictures, videos, and eyewitness reports have emerged that place the Buk missile launcher in several of the surrounding towns. A significant amount of evidence puts the Buk clearly within range of MH17 when the aircraft was hit.

The Incriminating Tweet

In the hours that followed the announcement that a civilian airliner, not a military cargo jet, had been destroyed, the Russian-backed separatists took several steps to hide some of their previous statements. As we noted above, the claim by “Strelkov’s Dispatches” that the pro-Russian fighters had shot down a Ukrainian plane with a Buk was removed. But it was not the only incriminating Internet post that was removed.

On June 29, the official Twitter account of the press office for the Donetsk People’s Republic had tweeted a picture of a Buk missile system that they said their troops were now controlling (the origin of the missile is left unclear in the language of the tweet). This tweet, too, got deleted, and when Time magazine reporter Simon Shuster later queried the separatist leadership about whether they ever possessed a Buk, they said they didn’t.

Separatists were perhaps too eager to claim that they, and not the Russian military, were responsible for the downing of what they assumed was another Ukrainian military plane—a media strategy that quickly backfired once it became clear that a commercial jet was hit.

In an interview with the radio station Echo of Moscow, Dmitry Muratov, the editor of the well-respected independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, said Alexander Boroday, the self-appointed head of the self-declared “Donetsk People’s Republic,” told Russian journalists that his troops shot down MH17. Muratov was vague about his sources for the story, suggesting that they were reporters for other news agencies. Muratov told the radio station: “I know that Alexander Boroday called the head of one of the main media organizations that covers events in Ukraine approximately 40 minutes after the Boeing perished and said, ‘Likely we shot down a civilian airline.’ I was told this and people talked about this whose words I am accustomed to taking seriously.”


Read the rest of this report at The Daily Beast.