It’s one of the greatest war crimes of modern times—and the truth still hasn’t been told. On July 17, 2014 at about 16:20 local time, Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine. All 298 passengers died, including many children. Who fired the missile? Over several months the Berlin-based investigative newsroom CORRECT!V has gathered facts, investigated in eastern Ukraine and Russia, and found witnesses to the missile launch. The investigation unveiled a clear chain of evidence. MH17 was downed by a ground-launched BUK missile—launched by a unit of the 53rd Russian Air Defense Brigade from Kursk. The brigade unit, tasked with protecting Russian tank units, was operating in mid July on Ukrainian territory without displaying national emblems.
Less than half an hour after the plane crashed, the commander-in-chief of the pro-Russian separatists in Donbass, Igor Girkin, celebrated the downing of a Ukrainian military jet. Girkin posted on his profile on the Russian version of Facebook, Vkontakte: “We warned you, don’t fly through our sky.”
The post is a success, it quickly received over 2000 likes. Then the post was deleted.
Girkin, formerly a colonel in the Russian intelligence service, later said the post was fake.
From that point on people began to speculate about why flight MH17 was shot down on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
American diplomats say the airliner was destroyed by a SA11 (BUK M1) missile fired from territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists. The separatists reject blame. Ukraine blames Russia, Russia blames Ukraine. Nobody offers any hard evidence.
The evidence is difficult to find. Eastern Ukraine is a war zone. In April 2014, irregular forces evicted Ukrainian government officials from their offices in major eastern Ukrainian towns including Luhansk and Donetzk. Since then Ukraine has fought back mobilizing troops for attack supported by its air force. Meanwhile Russia sent tanks forces into eastern Ukraine to reinforce the separatists.
Whoever wants to investigate this case needs to work their way through a thicket of disinformation and false trails. There is absurd speculation including a claim that flight MH17 is actually the Malaysian Airlines plane that disappeared in March 2014 and already had corpses on board when it crashed.
Months of neglect
For a long time, the crash site was a macabre killing field. The passengers´ bodies began to decompose in the hot Ukrainian summer as fighting continued—and people looted the luggage. After nerve-racking diplomatic negotiations, most of the body parts were recovered and transported to the Netherlands.
Then for months nobody took care of the crash site.
In November a wing of the Boeing 777 stuck up out of a misty, overgrown field. In a garden lay the broken pieces of a dead passenger’s record collection next to a piece of the cockpit and an empty liquor bottle. Sometimes pro-Russian separatists posed in front of the plane’s wreckage. The fighters were bored. Journalists rarely came by anymore. A few days after our visit more parts of the wreckage were collected and transported to the Netherlands.
In September the Dutch air traffic authority OVV published an interim report based on their investigation. The facts were listed without drawing conclusions or placing blame. This work allows us to reconstruct the final minutes of the flight.
At around 13:00 UTC, 15:00 in Germany and 16:00 in eastern Ukraine, the pilot of flight MH17 asks for permission to divert north by 20 nautical miles due to bad weather. There are storms around Donetsk. The Ukrainian air traffic control grants permission. Everything is normal. No excited voices, no panic, no disruptions in the airplane. That’s what the black box shows.
Then the recording abruptly ends at 13:20 UTC, 16:20 local time.
The report says this is when the airplane was hit by a large number of “objects with high energy.” These objects hit the airplane from above and the front at a high speed and with such a force that the rump broke apart in the air.
The key question is why
Few people know more about the air-combat-weapon systems of the former Eastern Bloc than Rupert Smid. He is a leading expert on air combat. Throughout our investigation we met him as part of our reporting in several countries including Ukraine, Russia, Austria and the Netherlands. His name is not really Smid—but he can’t reveal his true identity. He works for an organization that does not want to be involved in this issue. We can only assure you that Rupert Smid is a leading expert on Russian air combat systems.
Smid tells us: “There is no doubt: flight MH17 was shot down by a missile. And this missile was fired from the ground and not from a fighter jet.”
Smid’s information is confirmed by Harry Horlings, a former Dutch fighter pilot, who was trained by the US Air Force. Only a rocket fired from the ground has the explosive power displayed in the destruction of MH17, Horlings says.
These experts say, fighter pilots would attack a hostile airplane from the tail and not from the front. The back of the plane is the blind spot. Moreover, flight MH17 was approaching Russian airspace; it was shot down around 40 kilometers from the border. “An attack plane at this altitude and velocity would have to be coming from Russian airspace,” says the air combat expert Horlings.
A ground-to-air missile is programmed to explode just in front of and above the targeted airplane, says Smid. The plane then flies through a cloud of deadly shrapnel. And that’s just what the Dutch investigators described. They said “objects with high energy that penetrated the airplane from the front and above.”
And if it was a surface-to-air missile, officials from Russia and the US say, it was a BUK M1, an airplane killer developed by the Soviets. The BUK M1 is highly mobile—and can shoot down airplanes at high altitudes with great precision. It can easily reach 15 kilometers of altitude, approaching its target at three times the speed of sound. The warhead contains 70 kilograms of explosives. Just before impact it explodes into thousands of pieces of sharp shrapnel—“objects with high energy”.
A BUK-unit consists of four subunits which are often positioned kilometers apart: a missile launch pad mounted on a tank; a radar car from which soldiers search the sky for targets; a commando vehicle from which officers give the command to fire. And a supply vehicle carries additional missiles. The subunits operate separately—and the radar and commando cars do not move with the BUK launch pad. On flat ground they can be positioned up to 30 kilometers apart, says the air combat expert Smid.
Another significant point is that the BUK M1 system acquires its targets with an active radar: radar waves are transmitted into the sky, the enemy is acquired through the returning echo. But the active radar places the BUK team in danger. The pilot of the enemy fighter jet knows when he has been spotted. Smid: “As soon as a BUK’s radar is opened, an alarm light flashes in the cockpit that fighter pilots refer to as the ‘Oh shit lamp.’”
The pilot immediately has all necessary information about the missile type and position. The BUK team operating the radar is aware of this risk. A deadly duel ensues: shoot first and survive.
“Every second when the radar is on is life-threatening,” confirms a former BUK operator from the Ukrainian army in Kiev. For that reason, the radar is only active for up to 40 seconds during attack.
Complicating things even more, the BUK’s active radar cannot identify the type of airplane targeted. Fighter jet? Passenger plane? It is difficult for missile operators to tell. They can only determine whether a friend or foe is approaching. Friends are airplanes of their own air force. All other aircraft are enemies. Civilian planes such as MH17 are tagged as enemies. “If the plane doesn’t respond to the friend-foe query, or sends the wrong response code, then the air defense team will treat the aircraft as if it is an enemy aircraft,” Horlings said.
The inherent poor design of the Soviet air defense system has had fatal consequences in the past. In 2001 a misfired surface-to-air missile caused a catastrophe. The Ukrainian forces mistakenly shot down a Russian civilian plane near Crimea during a military exercise. All 78 passengers on board the Tupolev died. The Ukrainian Security Council took action to prevent a repeat incident: Ukraine mothballed its surface-to-air missiles including BUKs for several years.
Now we turn to the issue of tanks—and the irresponsible carelessness of the airlines. The BUK guided missile system has a clear tactical function—to protect tanks and ground troops. “Russian tank units only move when they are accompanied by BUKs,” says Rupert Smid, the air combat specialist. “Without missile protection such vehicles are easy targets for fighter jets.” This is a military fact-of-life for military commanders in all NATO states.
Mobile air defense systems are always found in the vicinity of tanks, confirms a German army spokesman. But the German Defense Ministry refused a request for an in-depth interview. Anyone who knows that Russian tanks are accompanied by BUKs—which in turn create a threat for civilian airplanes—might face questions about why they didn’t issue a warning.
In an email a German Defense Ministry spokesman cites a statement that the Federal Government submitted in response to parliamentary questions in August 2014: “The Federal Government could not assume that civilian air traffic at the given altitude would be targeted in attacks.”
Were there tanks in eastern Ukraine?
Yes—on June 13, around a month before MH17 was shot down, the US State Department said Russian tank units crossed the border to Ukraine and were sighted in the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne. NATO also published photographs of tanks without national markings in this eastern Ukrainian town. Russia denies the deployment.
In the following weeks the war escalated. Ukrainian fighter jets and helicopters attacked tanks in the separatists’ territory, with success: the pro-Russian separatists were pushed back.
But the Ukrainian air force also suffered losses. On July 12 a Ukrainian attack helicopter was shot down over eastern Ukraine. Two days later an Antonov An-26 military jet suffered the same fate. Another two days later two Suchoi Su-25 fighter jets were downed.
Experts say not all of these airplanes could have been hit by shoulder-fired missiles. The targeting of the two Su-25 and the Antonov suggest the use of complex weapons systems such as BUKs.
In response to the new military situation, Ukraine changed its fighter jet strategy. A Ukrainian Security Council spokesman said fighter jets were later deployed more cautiously due to losses in the first phase of the “anti-terror operations.”
The human shields
High above the conflict zone in June and early July, at an altitude above 10,000 meters, passenger jets continued to fly in the eastern Ukraine. In the week before the disaster hundreds of airplanes crossed the war zone, including Lufthansa flights.
After the Antonov was shot down, the Ukrainian air security authorities closed off the airspace just below 10,000 meters. Above that level civilian air traffic continued as before.
But even this altitude is a combat zone in modern air-tank warfare.
Besides the Su-25 planes, the Ukrainian air force also uses MiG-29 fighter jets that can reach an altitude of 18,000 meters. The jets then drop down to a lower combat altitude to attack enemy tanks and BUK units. A BUK team risks its life if it does not already attack an enemy plane at a high altitude during its approach.
Civil air traffic granted Ukrainian fighter pilots valuable seconds in their fight for survival against BUKs. Ukrainian fighter jets have the ability to hide just beneath passenger planes without the civilian passengers and crew even knowing of their presence. Anyone who targets a fighter jet from the ground risks shooting down a passenger aircraft.
A spokesman for the Ukrainian Security Council said Ukraine did not deploy combat aircraft on July 17. The spokesman did not respond to questions about civilian flights.
The human shields
The EU states could have warned the airlines. Their military experts knew they couldn’t rely on cooperation with the Ukrainian authorities in a wartime situation. In July 2014 the Ukrainian state was close to falling apart, a civil war was raging, entire regions were occupied by Russian troops.
But nothing happened. Germany and the EU were slow to call the war a war; its member states knew that Russian tanks were in the separatists’ territory, but they refrained from drawing the necessary conclusions. In an email response to questions, a government spokesman cited the previously mentioned statement which said Germany did not perceive a danger to civil aviation in eastern Ukraine prior to July 17.
For the airlines, diverting to longer alternative flight routes entails higher costs.
In an email, a Lufthansa spokesman said the German airline flew over eastern Ukraine until July 17, 2014. Furthermore, he said that Lufthansa conducted a security analysis, but only governments possess all the necessary military and intelligence information required to determine risk. The spokesman said Lufthansa’s primary concern is the safety of its passengers. “Governments are responsible for closing air routes,” the spokesman said.
A spokeswoman for German’s Foreign Intelligence Service declined to comment for this story.
Without their knowledge, hundreds of passengers became human shields in the aerial war zone over eastern Ukraine.
Putin offers explanations
In the evening after MH17 crashed, the Russian president Vladimir Putin made a statement on Russian television. He said the government in Kiev is responsible for the tragedy—and directed the Russian authorities to collect “objective information” about the catastrophe to offer the Russian view of the event to the world public.
Four days later, lieutenant general Andrey Kartapolov, deputy chief of staff of the Russian armed forces, presented the “objective information” in a press conference that was broadcast live on TV. The officer sits under a massive screen with two stars on his epaulette and neatly parted hair, offering maps, tables and photographs. Kartapolov develops two scenarios for how MH17 might have been shot down, an old principle of propaganda: mix the truth with so many plausible stories that even absurd versions seem plausible.
The first scenario: Kartapolov said the MH17 could have diverted from its given route and come within three kilometers of a Ukrainian fighter jet. This jet could have fired a missile.
An unlikely scenario: the Dutch report, which was published about a month after the Russian press conference, makes no mention of a fighter jet in the vicinity of MH17. CORRECT!V’s air warfare experts agree, the missile that destroyed MH17 was fired from the ground.
The second scenario: Kartapolov presents satellite pictures that allegedly show a BUK unit from the Ukrainian army in a field near the village of Zaroshchens‘ke. He asserts that two points could be seen on July 17th: two BUK launch pads from which the missile might have been launched. We went for a look.
Nobody saw anything
When a BUK is fired it produces noise and clouds of exhaust. The launch is deafeningly loud; a BUK attack is accompanied by a “substantial noise both during the missile launch and its flight,” according to a study by the Association of Russian Engineers. Or, as the aerial-weapons expert Rupert Smid said: A blast, a prolonged sound, a sonic boom, and a second explosion in the sky.
The missile is launched out of a fireproof container, leaving few visible burn marks on the ground; the launch vehicle in turn leaves marks on the ground that are identical to those of a tank.
Did the inhabitants of Zaroshchens‘ke see or hear anything?
Eastern Ukraine, late October. The drive begins in Donetsk, a pro-Russian separatist stronghold. Fear of war has frozen life in the city of over a million. Shopping malls are closed or have been looted. Banks are bolted shut, cash machines are empty. The streets empty before nightfall. Despite a ceasefire that began on September 5, explosions can be heard from the battle for control of the city’s airport.
Zaroshchens‘ke is about 50 kilometers to the east via the N21 road. It connects Donetsk and Luhansk, the two primary strongholds of the pro-Russian separatists, and is controlled by their fighters. As was the case on July 17. The road passes through flat territory. The asphalt bears the scars of the war: traces of tanks and explosions. The asphalt is initially thick, before Luhansk it becomes a dirt road.
Checkpoints have been set up before every town and turnoff. Armed men in makeshift uniforms inspect the cars. There is a noticeable number of women in camouflage among the fighters, they carry Kalashnikovs on their shoulders. The landscape is flat; we see heaps of coal and rubble along the horizon. Donbass is a coal-ming region. But most of the mines are closed.
Zaroshchens‘ke is an inconspicuous village. Flat wind-skewed farm buildings lie along two streets; nearby are vegetable gardens and stables. Behind them is the path seen on the satellite photos presented in July by the Russian Defense Ministry. The clay path bears traces that could be from a tank. Deep marks in the ground can be seen at two points. Something heavy must have been here.
But the overgrown field shows no traces that suggest a missile launch. Only one thing is noticeable: a deep furrow has been dug behind one of the marks on the ground. The rest of the field is unworked and completely overgrown.
The villagers will not be named in this story. The people in eastern Ukraine need to be protected from possible consequences. The inhabitants of the separatists’ territory are afraid—of the pro-Russian separatists and of the Ukrainian army. They don’t want to say anything wrong.
Above the field a 70 year old retired woman lives in a little cottage. Her white hair is tied back, her rugged face has been tanned by the sun. The old lady lives alone. No, she says, on July 17 she noticed nothing out of the ordinary. No unusual noise, no condensation trails, no suspicious vehicles. Definitely not from the Ukrainian army. “The Ukrainians weren’t here, they don’t dare come to these parts.”
The lady is an ardent follower of the Russian separatists—and buys into the most abstruse conspiracy theories. She said, US oil companies wanted to exterminate the population of Donbass through fracking. After this failed, the US and the Ukrainian fascists drew the country into war. Only Putin was able to prevent a genocide of the Russian-speaking Ukrainian population, she said.
But many villagers have other worries. “I have cows that need to be milked every day,” says a women who stands by the gate of her farm in a headscarf and jacket. She was also in Zaroshchens‘ke on July 17 and did not notice anything. She received an excited call from a relative in Moscow after the press conference. But no: “All nonsense, nothing happened here.” Up until now they have been spared from the war, only one rocket flew over the town at the end of July. “We ran into the basement with the children,” a resident said.
The villagers gather on the street. Nobody saw anything, nobody heard anything. There was no BUK missile fired in Zaroshchens‘ke on July 17 2014. Definitely not by the Ukrainian army because separatists control the fields around Zaroshchens‘ke.
The Russian general’s lead is a red herring.
The BUK’s path across eastern Ukraine
There is a second hot lead discovered by an international investigative team. Bellingcat.com is led by the young journalist Eliot Higgins. His method: meticulously investigate the traces that an event leaves on the internet. Photos, videos, posts in social networks. Higgins has shown that digging around in the depths of the internet can lead to stunning revelations. Among other things, Bellingcat was able to uncover secret arms shipments in Syria and reconstruct a poison gas attack.
And a BUK launch pad is an impressive vehicle. It is bound to be noticed.
On July 17, the day of the catastrophe, a BUK launch pad is in transit on the N21 road. It leaves Donetsk in the late morning. It sits on a flatbed truck with a white driving cab; a photographer from the French magazine “Paris Match” shot a photo of it from a passing car. The photographer is close by: we can see the scuffed flank of the launch pad, parts of an identification number that has been painted over are visible.
On the side of the truck is a telephone number. It belongs to a truck rental company in Donetsk. The owner later said the vehicle was stolen from him in June by pro-Russian separatists.
The truck with the BUK launch pad continues on its journey. It was filmed again in Zuhres.
Later a pedestrian in the city of Torez photographed the BUK from a gas station.
The missile launcher later reached the mining town of Snizhne. Here the BUK drove off the truck; a photo shows the armored vehicle driving through the city with four missiles.
CORRECT!V investigators compared the photos from the web with the actual venues. The photos are authentic. There is no doubt: on the afternoon of July 17 2014 a BUK took position in the little mining town of Snizhne, a territory controlled by Russian separatists.
Where did the missile come from?
Bellingcat was also able to determine the missile launcher’s origin. Every BUK has an identification number. Based on an analysis of launch-vehicle photographs posted in the internet, Bellingcat investigators concluded that a BUK launcher with the identification number 3*2 (* stands for an illegible number) was photographed while traveling in June with a convoy from western the Russian city of Kursk to the Ukrainian border. Later on July 17 the same BUK, now with is identification number 3*2 painted over, was photographed by the Paris Match photographer in eastern Ukraine.
Bellingcat investigators based their conclusion on an analysis of photographs of the BUK launcher in Russia and later in Ukraine. The dents and scratches on the launcher are identical—like a fingerprint.
The convoy was part of a unit dispatched by Russia’s 53rd Air Defense Brigade which is based in Kursk. At the end of June, the convoy drove to the Ukrainian border. CORRECT!V fact checked the Bellingcat results, their finding are convincing.
And there are further peculiarities. A sergeant of the 53rd brigade who is particularly active online posted numerous pictures of his unit on his page on Vkontakte (vk.com), the Russian clone of Facebook. The sergeant’s name is Ivan Krasnoproshin. Among his pictures is a photo of a document reporting his discharge from the Russian army in mid-June. The photo showing a page in his unit’s logbook lists the names of the soldiers reporting for the evening roll call. Number one: Sergeant Krasnoproshin, followed by 13 privates. Every day is crossed off. The last entry is on June 13. Then there is a hand-written note behind Sergeant Krasnoproshin’s name: “Discharged due to completion of service period according to order no. (illegible).”
Indeed, according to the logbook, Sergeant Krasnoproshin was not the only member of his unit to be suddenly discharged from the Russian military on that day. Three additional soldiers in Sergeant Krasnoproshin’s unit—including Sergeant Krasnoproshin nearly one third of the unit’s members—were discharged on the same day and for the same reason.
Discharges of this type raise questions. The Committee of Russian Soldier Mothers has reported that many soldiers are required to sign discharge papers before they are sent to fight in Ukraine.
In the middle of June, several days after Krasnoproshin and his comrades were discharged, the long convoy of the 53rd air defense brigade made its way towards Ukraine. Again someone posted a photo in a social network. Again we can see the same BUK launcher 3*2.
There is little doubt: it was the 53rd Russian air defense brigade from Kursk that took position in Snizhne in eastern Ukraine on that fateful afternoon.
The crime scene
Snizhne, in November. The asphalt is furrowed with tank tracks. The marks are everywhere. On the square by the market, on the main road, in little alleyways. Countless tanks must have driven through here. The town has been controlled by pro-Russian separatists since April. The marks could not have been created by Ukrainian tanks.
July 15 2014—two days before MH17 was shot down—was a dark day in Snizhne. At the break of dawn a missile hit and destroyed a residential building. More than 10 people died. Was it targeting tanks?
An Armenian restaurant near the market. Everything is red, the wallpaper, the tablecloths and the chairs; curtains cover the windows. Alexander Bondarenko enters the room. He is the leader of the pro-Russian separatists in Snizhne. “I’m a miner,” he introduces himself, offering a heavy handshake and a quiet voice. Until the beginning of June he worked as an engineer at one of the mines. He has a rugged face and exerts the prudence of a technician. He only wears a uniform when he must.
Bondarenko sits down at a table and folds his hands.
Question: “There are photos of a BUK in Snizhne. Do you know about these photos?”
“No. There was never a BUK in Snizhne.”
“Are you sure?”
“Absolutely sure. Otherwise it would have been photographed, just like the tanks.”
“The ones that came from the region of Luhansk.”
“Who did the tanks belong to?”
“They didn’t say on them who they belonged to, they were green. Ideally they were ours.” He laughs.
“Who flew the attack on July 15th?”
“Those were Ukrainian fighter jets of the Su class.”
“How did you react to that?”
“We set up air defenses in the North of Snizhne because Russia is to the south and we don’t have to worry about anything coming from there.”
“Also with BUKs?”
“No. With shoulder-fired missiles. With a maximum range of 5000 meters altitude.”
This is war, and the truth is a weapon. But Bondarenko admits that Russian tanks were in the town—and our research has revealed that BUKs must therefore be close by, at least according to Russian military doctrine. And Bondarenko says that the separatists established air defense systems in the north of Snizhne. An important piece of information. This fits with a low-quality satellite photo published on the Facebook page of the US embassy in Kiev. It shows an area north of Snizhne—and a field from which the deadly missile was allegedly fired at MH17.
The launch site
The field cannot be seen from the road. To the east, a factory site blocks the view to the N21 road, a railway embankment and a little forest protect the field from sight in the north. Beyond the embankment lies a settlement.
The field is unworked. There are a few beer bottles lying around. In some places the ground is darker. Wide track marks are visible within a field of grain, too wide for a tractor. They must be from a track vehicle with a wide wheel base.
The settlement by the railway embankment consists of flat farm buildings surrounded by fences and walls. Dogs bark. At first there are no people in sight. If someone appears, they immediately go on their way. The people are afraid. “They’ll kill me if I say something,” says one man.
A woman lives with her daughter by the embankment. She was in her house on July 17, 2014. “I heard a loud bang,” she says, then her neighbor called and told her that an airplane had been shot down. “We saw the smoke.” She refuses to answer any further questions.
After long knocks an old man with scrubby white hair under a cap appears and agrees to talk. The man says he was not in the village in July, but that the roof of his house was broken when he returned—as was the case with many others in the village. Everyone here has a clear memory of July 17, 2014. Everyone remembers what they did on that day. Two women and two men come by. A conversation begins.
A woman says: “An airplane flew by, well, we don’t know if it was a plane. We heard something, a long sound, then there was a noise.” A zumm sound. A long prolonged swooshing noise. She remembers it well.
Another woman could “see thick smoke” from the factory. “Everyone was alarmed,” she said. Where did the smoke come from? She becomes unsettled. “How should we know what that was? We heard something explode.”
A man suddenly says: “Over there the railroad ties and the grass were burning.” But then one of the women elbows him in the side and he stops talking. A cell phone rings, the people walk away.
Another visit, two days later. It’s early. The streets in the settlement are empty. Dogs bark once again, they pull on chains between metal doors. After long knocks a villager opens his front door. “Are you a spy?” is his first question after a quick introduction. The man fled town in August because of the fighting. But on July 17, 2014 he was here. Any question about this day scares him.
“I remember, but you know I won’t tell you everything about that, I’m afraid it would end badly for me.” The CORRECT!V journalist introduces himself—and shows identification. He says that he is here to learn more. The people in Europe want to know what happened, why so many people had to die here in Ukraine, shot down in a peaceful airplane.
The man hesitates. Then he starts to talk: “They shot it down. The missile flew from here. We saw it, as it flew.”
He points to the railway embankment. A friend of his had already seen the missile. “He called me and said, ‘there’s this amazing thing here with four missiles.’” The friend will also remain unnamed. “He is afraid. These are dangerous times.” But one question still bothers the witness. “They planned everything. I just don’t know why they brought the missile here?”
He continues. “I was in the yard and heard an explosion, a bang. It was a really loud bang. The tiles on my roof shook. The bang came from over there, it was easy to hear. Then there was a long sound. And then a very loud explosion: bang, bang. And just as I ran out into the road, the plane began to fall. Down the road several kilometers from here. Do you understand? And you could see it burn.”
Asked about the loud bang, the witness had an explanation. “It launched from over there,” he said.
When asked whether Russian soldiers or separatists fired the missile, the man laughs. For him the rocket launch could only be executed by Russian soldiers. “Which miner shoots missiles? No, those were specialists. Do you think I go about launching missiles?”
This witness completes the picture: it was a BUK M1 rocket that brought the passenger plane out of the sky—brought into position by soldiers of the 53rd air defense brigade from Kursk who were in the city of Snizhne without national markings to protect Russian tank units.
Only one question is still open. Who gave the command to shoot? A Russian officer? A pro-Russian separatist?
The smoking gun in Luhansk
On the evening of July 17, when the news of passenger plane shot down is going around the world, a video is made of the BUK launch pad. Once again, the missile launcher is standing on the flatbed truck with a white driving cab. It drives under an advertising sign for the Ukrainian car dealer “Bogdan.” The BUK launch pad is not covered up. There is one missile missing.
This video is important because all sides—even the Russians—recognize it as authentic.
Lieutenant general Kartapolow presented a freeze frame from the video at the press conference in July—and claimed that it was taken in Krasnoarmiis‘k. The city was controlled by the Ukrainian army at that time. Kartapolow confirmed that the BUK launch pad is missing one missile. This provided proof for his conclusion: the video proves that the Ukrainians are to blame.
“We have a number of questions,” said lieutenant general Kartapolow at the press conference. “What kind of a missile launch pad is this? Where was it brought? Where is it now? Why is it not transporting a full load of missiles? And when was it last fired?”
But when Bellingcat examined the Russian version of the freeze frame, they discovered a text bubble had been inserted; when enlarged, it supposedly showed the text of an advertisement with a car dealer’s address—in Krasnoarmiis‘k.
But: it was faked.
In reality there is no address on the sign, it merely says: “nationwide car dealer.” The Russian lieutenant general presented a photo montage.
But by confirming the freeze frame of the launcher was taken near the launch site, shortly after the launch, the Russian Lieutenant General lent authenticity to many other photos that show the BUK launch pad on the bed of a truck with a white driving cab. On July 17, on road N21, in the separatists’ territory.
The video with the missing missile was actually taken in Luhansk, at the end of road N21—between the launch site and the Russian border. CORRECT!V investigators visited the crossroads in Luhansk in November and can confirm: the site is authentic. Even the advertisement for the car dealership “Bogdan” is still there, although it is torn.
To recap: After the destruction of MH17, a BUK launch pad that was missing one missile drove from Snizhne towards the Russian border.
Once again we want to know: who operated the BUK controls when the missile launched? Who gave the command to fire? A Russian officer? A Ukrainian separatist?
Meeting with a warlord
A meeting with the powerful separatist commander Aleksander Khodakovskiy. Just after July 17 he told a reporter from the news agency Reuters that the separatists possessed a BUK on the day the plane was shot down. As soon as the statement was made, he retracted it, claiming he had been misquoted. What did he really say?
It’s nighttime, Khodakovskiy drives a heavy all-terrain vehicle through pitch-dark Donetsk. He commands the Vostok battalion; the 42-year-old is proud to be the principal leader of the separatist army. At this time of night the streets of Donetsk are empty. The inhabitants are afraid to go out. The commander steps on the gas pedal. A heavily armed bodyguard sits next to him.
During the drive the commander negotiates a deal with the Ukrainian army via radio. One of his subordinates wants to go to his father’s funeral on Ukrainian territory and requires safe passage. Khodakovskiy used to be in the Ukrainian spy service. He is a specialist for counter-terrorism and still has many friends on the other side. The Ukrainian loves deals, and he wants the reporter to take note.
He reads Kierkegaard and cites Schopenhauer. A kind of eastern Ukrainian Wallenstein. “What we need, we steal,” he says. Like a flatbed truck with a white driving cab?
Then Khodakovskiy says: “I know for sure that the popular militia did not shoot down the Boeing.”
“We don’t have and didn’t have specialists who can operate such high precision weapons systems.”
“Do you have BUKs?”
“Now I have one.”
“As on July 17th?”
Again Khodakovskiy evades the question: “I knew that the BUK missile was on its way there at the time of the tragedy, but it didn’t arrive. And when the tragedy occurred, they didn’t want to be blamed. So as far as I know the missiles were sent back.”
Question after question, he avoids direct answers. Again and again. But he admits two things: The missile that destroyed MH17 was fired from the area around Snizhne—but not by the separatists. And the separatists can’t operate complex weapons systems such as a BUK.
Who pulled the trigger?
Khodakovskiy takes his time to answer the question. He drinks a sip of tea and talks about world politics, from the US to Russia. He lectures more than he answers the questions. At the end the commander becomes philosophical. “What’s important is not the action itself, but the perpetrator’s relation to the action.” The perpetrator could be proud of his crime, or regret it.
Is this thought marked by a feeling of guilt? And what would the separatist’s relation be to the shooting down of a passenger plane with 298 victims? Complicity? Shared responsibility?
Only specialists can operate the equipment
The air combat expert Rupert Smid has no doubt: “Russian missiles are only fired on the command of Russian officers,” he says.
July 17 did not begin well for the crew of BUK 3*2. That morning, the Ukrainian Security Council reported the destruction of three Russian tanks—which officers of the 53rd air defense brigade are tasked to protect. The Russian soldiers had failed, and they were under pressure not to allow a repeat incident.
The BUK is outdated, but it is a highly complex and deadly system; its mastery requires continuous training. During the Soviet era soldiers learned how to operate the guided missile system at the Institute for Missile Technology in Kiev. The training took five years. The institute in the Ukrainian capital was closed in 1995. Russia continues to train soldiers at missile schools, including one in Smolensk. Many of the former graduates in Ukraine have left the service, but they remember their time as students.
“It’s not like riding a bicycle,” says one former graduate from the missile institute. The BUK squad needs to be a well-rehearsed team that continuously trains the process. “Even veterans lose touch quickly,” says one former soldier. Today he is a businessman. He does not want his name to be printed.
Viktor Kusovkin, a comrade of Ivan Krasnoproshin, confirms these statements. Kusovkin served in the 53rd Russian air defense brigade in Kursk. After four months of training he was allowed to drive the BUK launcher tow vehicle. We reach him via telephone, Viktor Kusovkin had posted his number on Vkontakte (vk.com). Firing a BUK? That never even came into question for him. “Of course not. You don’t let conscripts fire. That doesn’t work. You have to graduate from a military institute first,” said Kusovkin. “That’s a pretty difficult task. Only officers can do it.”
We asked many experts who could have fired the missile that destroyed MH17. We spoke to separatist leaders: military commander Khodakovskiy and the deputy prime minister of the self-named Peoples Republic of Dontzk Andrej Purgin. We also asked our international air warfare experts and our witnesses at the site of the launch. We heard the same from graduates of the Institute for Missile Technology in Kiev and former soldiers of the 53rd Air Defense Brigade in Kursk. They all agree, the separatists did not have the know-how to fire a BUK missile. There is hardly any doubt: a Russian officer must have given the order to shoot down MH17.
Everyone shares the blame
The Russian military under Vladimir Putin is responsible for the downing of MH17. The Russian military destabilized east Ukraine; it provided the separatists with troops and the equipment needed to kill the passengers aboard MH17. The attack could have been intentional or occurred in a moment of panic.
The Ukrainian government takes partial responsibility. It used the passengers of civilian aircrafts as human shields in air attacks on Russian tanks. Its fighter jets hid among planes packed with vacationers, placing hundreds of innocent lives at risk.
The German government and the EU governments must also assume partial responsibility. They were afraid to call the war in eastern Ukraine a war and did not prohibit airlines from flying over the war zone. The EU should have recognized that Russian tanks and air defense units were active in Ukraine and ordered a no-fly-zone. Politicians focused on negotiations with Russia rather than the security situation.
Finally, the airlines are also responsible because they didn’t see the danger, and they endangered the lives of their passengers by flying over eastern Ukraine.
They all share responsibility.
President Putin is primarily responsible. But to this day the international community has not addressed this issue.
The courageous air acrobat
Now, let us try the impossible—we want to find out which Russian officer ordered the missile launch.
Kursk, December 2014. The 53rd air defense brigade is situated in a pine forest east of the city. Even the name sounds like a tank rolling over asphalt: not far from the city the German Wehrmacht and the Soviet army fought one of the largest tank battles in history in the summer of 1943—with over 10,000 vehicles. The cemeteries of the fallen soldiers stretch into the horizon.
Memories of the “Great Patriotic War” mark the city. A slogan on a high-rise building reads “Kursk, city of war glory”; extensive myths of honor commemorate the victory and “everlasting glory.” A wide road was turned into a mile of victory after the end of the Soviet Union; it has an arch of triumph, a church, tanks and cannons between the lanes.
Drizzling rain, temperatures just below freezing; the winter is mild and gray. People are anxious, the fall of the ruble exchange rate has caused worry.
These days it is difficult to approach soldiers and officers. Russia’s military institutions are secretive, and now Russian television only shows the Kremlin’s propaganda: a fascist coup d’état has occurred in Ukraine; the US is crushing Russia; foreigners are spies.
The officers of the 53rd air defense brigade—the men who could have given the order to shoot down the civilian airplane—live with their families in the high-rise complex “Marschall Schukhow” in a pine forest across from the barracks. The complex was built by a Turkish construction company in 1992 with funds from the German government. It was to be a home for Soviet soldiers who were relocated from Berlin to Russia after German reunification. Today about 4,500 people live in Schukhow.
Five-story buildings, a school, nursery school and an “officers’ house.” The complex has seen better days. The streets are ripped up, there is no restaurant or café. Only small shops that mainly sell cigarettes and liquor.
In the evening the children who live in the complex perform during a concert in the “officers’ house.” They plan to present dances from around the world. For a long time the room is empty aside from the children’s parents. But then, five minutes before the show begins, about 60 recruits from a neighboring barracks arrive on the scene.
Lockstep march, gather, halt. The recruits take position by the entrance. Then they march into the concert hall.
“Can we talk to you?”
“No,” exerts a commander, “no questions.”
“Is it Okay to take photos?”
“Alright, fine with me.”
The children dance and sing. The soldiers clap. The concert comes to an end after one hour. Stand up, halt, and march back to the barracks. One of the soldiers manages to hop into a store to buy cigarettes. Then they disappear into the pinewood forest.
Eventually a businessman puts us in contact with a government official; if anyone knows something about the missile brigade’s movements, then it is him and his colleagues.
We meet Sergej—also an alias—in an almost empty restaurant. We speak in whispers. We fall silent when the waitress approaches the table, but we have permission to record the conversation on tape.
For a long time the official talks about his work, his former colleagues, the missile brigade. Suddenly he remembers something unusual. “You know, I have many friends who are fighter pilots, and I know from them that the Russian air force has a tradition: they celebrate military victories with wild air acrobatics.” The pilots are allowed to have some fun.
On July 17 he looked out the window and saw something incredible. “A Russian Su fighter jet was going crazy in the sky. The pilot was making the most daring stunts. It was magnificent.”
Sergej watched the air show go on and on. “I figured they must have some reason to celebrate,” he continues. Shortly after that he saw the news about MH17 on TV. “That shocked me. Was it a coincidence? I can’t say.”