‘New pieces of the puzzle’ have led the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to accuse four senior military men of the shooting down of Flight MH17 and the murder of 298 passengers. There is even mention of the Kremlin’s direct involvement. In this piece I make an assessment of what the conclusions made in the JIT press conference of June 19 last are worth.
By Hector Reban
Published in Dutch on Ravage Webzine, July 1, 2019
Published in English on the author’s blog, July 21, 2019
‘We have more and more pieces of the puzzle’—that is the message that systematically follows every press conference of the international investigation into the case of Flight MH17. Partly on the basis of new evidence presented on June 19, the public prosecution has decided to initiate legal proceedings against four senior military—three Russians and one Ukrainian—who were active in the conflict zone of eastern Ukraine in 2014.
The indictments are based on their responsibilities as commanding officers high up in the chain of command. ‘Although they did not press the button themselves, the suspicion is that they cooperated closely to get the BUK-TELAR and deploy it at the launch site, with the purpose of shooting down a plane. Therefore they can be jointly considered suspects in the downing of Flight MH17.’
The new evidence consists notably of tapped phone conversations supplied by the Ukrainian intelligence service, SBU. These would prove that on June 8, 2014, the commander of the local forces, Igor (‘Strelkov’) Girkin, made clear he would need more Russian equipment, because otherwise the struggle would be lost.
The JIT also bases its case on a conversation in which Alexander Borodai, the self-proclaimed president of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), calls Putin’s advisor, Surkov, ‘our man in the Kremlin’. That would make Surkov, as the JIT suggests, directly responsible for the delivery of the air defence equipment Strelkov had requested—in other words, the Buk. In this way the JIT links the murder of 298 people directly to the Kremlin, a matter of internationalconcern and importance that can hardly be underestimated.
To anyone following these matters closely and critically, the new pieces of the puzzle offer very little to build on by themselves, as has also been the case on previous occasions. The tapped phone conversationwith Igor Strelkov reveals only that the commander, as he himself makes clear, provides information that is widely available. Without Russian military support of whatever type, the Donbass will not be held. Stelkov mentions a range of military equipment he needs, including more powerful anti-aircraft artillery than shoulder-launched missile systems (MANPADs).
In fact this says very little—or does it? At the time of the conversation Strelkov was on the frontline near Kramatorsk and Slavyansk, in the northwest of the rebel-held area. ‘Support should have been arranged’, his interlocutor replies to Strelkov. However, in practice little had been forthcoming; four weeks later Slavyansk did fall, on July 5, 2014. The sole Buk observed in the area belonged to the Ukrainian army, as can be seen from the picture in this article.
Strelkov retired to the region around Snizhne, the new front line in the war. The area controlled by the insurgents was shrinking fast. There is little doubt he was still in need of all kinds of equipment to have a fighting chance. In mid-August 2014 Strelkov resigned as de facto Defence minister of the DPR.
However, in the tapped conversation he does not mention specific weapon systems, such as air defence equipment , let alone a Buk, which even if it would arrive with an experienced crew, would have been of little use without the remainder of the unit (radar vehicle, command vehicle, and the supply vehicle with extra missiles).
There were continuous civilian flights passing over: Around the time of the disaster, there were four of them, including MH17 (see the map from the provisional report of the Dutch Safety Board below). A B777 of Indian Airways was right behind MH17. In principle those regular civilian flights would have produced a series of ‘beeps’ on the Buk radar screen, indicating that several planes were flying over at high altitude.
How, then, should we interpret the story? A trained crew, which according to the official narrative would have accompanied the Buk, finds itself in the field for several hours. The chain of command
knows nothing of passenger planes passing over the area, so the crew has not been briefed about the presence of civilian flights. With the radar vehicle of the unit absent the capabilities to monitor the airspace are quite limited.
According to the SBU-taps a spotter does notice something but cannot identify it because of the cloud cover. ‘Something big?’ He doesn’t know. The Buk then activates its own radar for the first time – as the crew doesn’t seem to be aware of flights at high altitude. Next it notices MH17 coming into view, whilst a Boeing 777 of Indian Airways coming right behind it at a distance of about 30 kilometres, is apparently lost from view. Then they launch a missile.
It may also be that the Buk operated in the so-called ‘limited detection mode’, in which the radar only covers a small portion of the sky, and therefore lost sight altogether of the planes at high altitude.
This cannot be called anything other than kind of “full-blind” mode. In this case the crew apparently decided to play Russian roulette in the air, with only vague information from a spotter to go by. Otherwise, the launch would be inexplicable (and just happened).
Each option is equally problematic, but that is not the concern of the proponents of the Russian Buk scenario. There is a Buk, delivered by Russia, and a plane has been shot down. Just connect the dots and it will be clear the commanders are responsible. And so is the Kremlin.
That a conversation from Slavyansk on June 8, 2014 would be proof of a Buk deployed on request at Snizhne on July 17, seems quite a leap. The only thing the phone tap proves (and nobody has been particularly secretive about it) is that there was a call for Russian support.
It is really very much the same with the conversation between Borodai and Surkov. On July 11, 2014 Surkov tells Borodai that he is not entirely confident that the people who were to provide support from Russia for the defence of the DPR, would in fact deliver. In fact, he merely recommends that Borodai holds out.
At any rate, what did arrive in the months of June and July 2014 was not enough. According to the Ukrainians , the insurgents did shoot down planes flying at relatively high altitudes on 14 and 16 July, respectively, but according to the official story, at that point the Russian Buk had not yet arrived.
Before and after July 17, 2014 the Ukrainian Anti-Terror Operation recaptured large parts of the DPR and the Luhansk People’s Republic. It was only late in August that the insurgents were able to recover terrain. Two weeks later, the Minsk I agreement was concluded and a truce followed.
In the end, Strelkov did receive more powerful air defence artillery. On July 10, the Vostok battalion, a unit of volunteers from Chechnya and Ossetia fighting on the rebel side and apparently connected to the Donbass oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, among other things, paraded ‘Strela-10’’ anti-aircraft artillery in Donetsk. On July 16, one day before the disaster, commander Strelkov was interviewed near Snizhne. The image shows a Strela-10.
What evidence does the JIT actually have?
In fact the entire burden of proof is connected to the so-called fingerprint analysis presented by the JIT in its press conference in May 2018. On the basis of a ‘unique set of seven characteristics’ of the Buk recognised from video material trickled through from the Donbass on July 17, it was possible to identify a Buk from the Russian 53rdair defence brigade. It was that Buk that had been seen and filmed in a convoy from its base in Kursk to Millerovo on the Ukrainian-Russian border in late June.
Last year the JIT all by itself presented the complete video (possibly falsified frame by frame, ) of which the French magazineParis Matchalready had received two stills one week after the disaster. Prior to the press conference, the JIT also showed more material of the Donetsk-Snizhne route, particularly from Torez (a video) and Donetsk (a picture). Suddenly there was also a high-resolution image from the Buk in Makeevka available. Interestingly enough, these were also the four sources of the fingerprint-matching procedure.
The elements of the Kursk story had been pre-cooked by Bellingcat long before. They collected the first video material (without exception, of imprecise authenticity, provenance and date), supposedly showing the Buk on July 17. They mapped the convoy from Kursk in reports dated September 8 and November 8, 2014.
On the recommendation of a former British soldier resident in Ukraine, one ‘Mark Brown’, a fingerprint analysis had already been performed in these same reports, based on the video material published by Paris Matchon July 25. 
In fact, the Kursk narrative was waiting to be grasped right from the start. After all, the Buk had to come from Russia. Looking for Russian Buks in the border zone, Bellingcat soon discovered, following a tip-off, images of a convoy. From that moment on this account, which had the potential to directly incriminate the Russians, would crowd out another important story: the possibility that separatists had captured a Buk on a Ukrainian army base. This idea now quickly disappeared into the background noise.
There was never any mention of Ukrainian Buks, for as the Bellingcat dogma maintains, ‘If there is no social media material, it does not exist’. The JIT has its own version of this mantra: ‘If the Americans say there cannot have been an Ukrainian Buk, we second that without further ado’. Hence no further substantive attention was paid to this option.
That is in itself is quite remarkable. It is not known where the Ukrainian army had deployed Buk units that were part of the Anti-Terror Operation, nor where other units (for instance, the Buks captured by the rebels) were located. Intelligence about the deployment of the Ukrainian Buk missile battalions is still lacking.
If we could just get the hot air out of the story of the accumulating evidence, the ‘new pieces of the puzzle’! In contrast to the Dutch Safety Board, which in its reports did not have a single reference to Bellingcat, the JIT has practically copied the entire narrative provided by the research collective by several steps, each taking years. Nor is there any solid forensic evidence to base it on, merely a large amount of social media content.
There were no videos of the vehicles of the Kursk convoy covering the period June 25 to July 17, 2014, either. The JIT claims that the Buks returned to Kursk by train in September, except for the one identified as the murder weapon. No images of the return transport were available. Neither were any public satellite images available of the Millerovo air force base between June 6 and September 29, to check if the vehicles of the convoy were parked there. This is strange, to say the least.
Indeed, the JIT appeared to have no idea how and where the Buk had entered the Donbass and left again, a movement of which, according to the joint Dutch intelligence services (CTIVD report, p. 24), there is no evidence. At the June 19 press conference, the prosecution presented a chat found on Russian social media, in which a soldier from the Kursk convoy has a conversation in 2015 with a young Russian woman. The soldier appears to suggest that the men of the third battalion (to which the suspected Buk allegedly belonged) had been going west (i.e., to Ukraine). If this counts as evidence, it is certainly meagre.
Moreover, the JIT has never presented any solid proof of the actual launch from the designated location. It has been known for some time that the pictures of the presumed launch trail could not have originated from the official launch site near Pervomaiske; this much had been proven by elementary physical mathematics.
Secret American evidence, probably from infrared satellite observation (SBIRS) and made public with a lot of noise a few days after the disaster, is partial at best, if not entirely based on projection. When the Russians finally made available primary radar data of the area, it turned out that ‘no objects had been visible near MH17’ at the time of the catastrophe. No Su-25 fighter jets, but no missile launch from a spot south of Snizhne either.
What is equally lacking is an adequate damage analysis and a precise calculation of the launch trajectory on which it is based. The DSB did attempt such an analysis, but the executive institute of the Defence Ministry, the National Aerospace Laboratory, removed a section of the suspected area. That included terrain to the southwest of the designated area—the part where Ukrainian troops and militias were positioned.
What was accumulating was not so much evidence, but the manipulation of evidence from the disaster zone.At the April 2018 press conference, the JIT made a big show of Buk missile parts allegedly found near the crash site; however, in the small print it was added that it is uncertain whether these parts actually belonged to the murder weapon. That possibility was further reduced when in September last year the Russians produced documents showing that these Buk parts belonged to a missile from the Ukrainian arsenal.
There was already the case of Jeroen Akkermans, a reporter for the Dutch TV channel RTL4, who discovered a piece of bowtie-shaped shrapnel from a Buk (from the current type of Russian Buk missiles) in a piece of wreckage, which could never have been hit by Buk ammunition.
Next, there were doubts about the discovery of a compressed piece of a Buk missile tail in the window frame of the cockpit wreckage, in a spot that cannot be squared with the incoming trajectory of the missile. (See thisfor a discussion of both pieces of evidence.) Again the question arises of what an objective judge would think of all these elements.
Although there are weak indications of a Buk launch from a location not controlled by the separatists, notably on the basis of an analysis of the damage pattern inflicted on the plane and the missile trajectory,  what speaks for the JIT/SBU/Bellingcat narrative is really that there is no comparable evidence for any other scenario in place.
The Russians were never able to present credible intelligence supporting such a different narrative. Satellite images supplied by Russia, showing Ukrainian Buks, were most likely falsifications. A map supposedly showing all the locations of Ukrainian Buk units in the conflict zones, did not include the one known location, Izyum. The Russians’ own raw radar images definitively shot down the story of an Su-25 attack.
Russia’s behaviour recalls the mode of operation in the case of Stan Storimans, the cameraman of RTL4 channel, who was killed in Gori by shrapnel from a Russian cluster bomb during the Georgian-Russian war of 2008. President Medvedev promised an investigation, but nothing came of it. The Russians closed the book, whilst informally maintaining their innocence.
Putin proved to be not particularly respectful, nor interested, when he made a reference to the notorious Carlos tweets in an interview series with the American director, Oliver Stone, in 2018. The Spaniard, Carlos, who claimed to be an air traffic controller in Ukraine, tweeted alleged inside information from a control room several hours after the disaster. There had supposedly been an attack by two Su-25s. After my own investigation I found that Carlos was politically interested in the Ukraine conflict, but he lived in Romania, where he had once been arrested for fraud.
In his response to the latest JIT press conference (see the official Russian response here), Putin again failed to convince when he provocatively posed the rhetorical question, ‘Who neglected to close its air space? Not us!’ This did imply Ukrainian responsibility, but only for collateral damage as a consequence of a separatist action that could hardly have been avoided. The Russian president appeared to be saying, this happens in a war if you don’t pay enough attention.
Apparently Putin did not know either that Russia had in the meantime supplied radar data contradicting direct involvement of Su-25 jet fighters. In the same interview he asked, again rhetorically, ‘What about the story with the jet fighters?’.
What’s to make of all this?
Prime Minister Mahathir of Malaysia expressed himself very critically regarding the JIT investigation. By so doing he openly sided with Russia, at least according to our geopolitical analysts. The initial exclusion of Malaysia from the JIT could thus be justified in hindsight. However, is there really no proof whatsoever, as he and Putin stated?
Absolving the separatists and/or the Russians completely is in fact only possible if proof can be presented that Ukrainian forces pulled off a false flag operation or made a fatal error. Simultaneously, manipulation and falsification of all Donbass Buk images (and some other instances of social media messages on July 17, 2014) must be accepted. It is practically certain that all SBU taps published on YouTube have been manipulated, but the question remains whether they do not on occasion contain kernels of truth—such as the presence of a Buk.
After the gas attack in Ghouta, Syria, in 2013, MH17 was the second case of international importance that reached the mass media and politics through open source intelligence. The question arises to what extent false triggers for war are launched through these channels? Can it be that these two events are experiments to see whether the perceptions of state institutions, the judiciary, and the mass public, can be manipulated on the basis of so-called neutral open sources?
The issue of the Douma gas attack  seems to prove that a false flag operation with scenes designed for media consumption, can influence public perception and force an international response. But in the Douma case there was a whistle-blower who leaked a report that contradicted the official narrative.
As for Ukraine, had there perhaps already been a Russian Buk for a longer period? In that case, one could imagine a scenario in which Ukraine might yet be held responsible for provoking the situation as follows. First, responsibility for the presence of such a weapon system within the country’s borders and doing nothing about it (by sabotaging or bombing it); secondly, keeping open the airspace, and finally, a possible provocation with Su-25s to make it launch a missile. In such a scenario we would at least have an explanation for all the lies and dissimulation by the Ukrainian side.
Will justice be done?
In spite of the above, the JIT has decided to leave Ukraine entirely off-limits. The latest press conference appears to have had only one intent, putting direct pressure on Russia, through Strelkov’s request for Russian aid and the subsequent Surkov-Borodai contacts suggesting that this request was being granted. From the American side nothing more is heard since the press conference of former Secretary of State John Kerry on July 22, 2014, which must have been coordinated by the United States together with NATO headquarters.
Nevertheless, nothing from the rebel-Russian conversations specifically refers to a Buk. It is no proof. At best they are illustrative for the claim that in penal law, officers in a chain of command involved in an operation, are legally responsible in a case that can be considered a war crime.
All the same, such an argument will only rarely be made in official Dutch circles. Following the unmasking of Bush and Blair, on account of the lies on which the Iraq War was based—a war that has so far caused the loss of one million lives—we did not hear anything from the Netherlands.
With the Scheveningen Act the United States has covered itself against any possible prosecution for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Maybe that is the reason why Russians have no appetite to concede guilt and be made to look like a fool in a court case. That would mean a tremendous loss of face and damage their aspirations as a world power, certainly if there would be no consideration of the thousands of ethnic Russian casualties in the Donbass and the hundreds of thousands of refugees; such a humiliation they would wish to avoid at all cost.
No Russians will therefore turn up for the court case that will start on March 9, 2020, held in the absence of the accused party. Such a trial will not contribute to establishing the truth, as maintained already by the Dutch specialist in international criminal law, Geert-Jan Knoops. Therefore the questions raised in this piece will not be posed in court either.
- According to the German intelligence service, S125 Pechora (SA3) were deployed in the conflict zone. Also there are reports of the presence of Osa ‘Wasp’ (SA-8 Gecko), of Strela-19, Tochka and Smerch air defence systems; as well as (Ukrainian) Buks of course.
- A striking detail is that the DSB in its report took over the altitude from the Ukrainians whereas the CTIVD dismissed that information as unreliable.
- See my blog,Project Haunt the Buk,Paris Match photos decisively debunked;
- The story surrounding the video evidence published by Paris Match, can only be called suspicious. Initially it was claimed that the source was a photographer who wanted to remain anonymous. He or she supposedly had taken a pictureat Snizhne. A blogger from the anti-Russian stable [email protected] was enlisted to retrace this to Donetsk (for which somebody was dispatched by car, who discovered the exact spot). After the JIT press conference of 28 September 2016, the story changed: now the journalist (whose role actually was no longer mentioned) had made a video with a handy-cam. On 1 July 2017 the Dutch TV show, Nieuwsuur, broadcast an interview with the French photographer, Capucine Granier-Deferre, from which it transpired that that she had only seenthe two stills on 17 July and probably received them later. Deferre: ‘Initially I did not pay much attention to it. He showed it and said, “Look, there are huge missiles there.” Since we were about to depart, I did not do anything further with it.’ This story squares with the previous, mistaken time and place. Deferre had been contacted by an unknown source, possibly the SBU. They showed her the images and provided the accompanying story (‘a Buk on the way to Snizhne’). She then passed on the images later, along with the mistaken location of Snizhne. I once asked myself in a blog how a journalist could possibly not have known where he or she was during a take. That question was now answered. The photographer never made the recording but was ‘fed’ with it.
- It is very likely that that the intercepted conversation on ‘a bird that is approaching’ and ‘the miners’ group has shot down a plane’, are related to hitting a Su-25 near Horlivka, with a Manpad, one day before the disaster. Separatist channels broadcast the news and also some reports on downed jet fighters made mention of it. Ukraine however has never officially confirmed the incident. Because there is no video evidence of it either, no OSINT (Open Source Intelligence) in other words, Bellingcat in its latest report draws the conclusion it refers to MH17 nevertheless.
- See my blogs, The trail that wasn’t a launch plume, a reconstruction and The mystery of the two-faced launch plume
- It is possible that a radar does not register a fast moving object, for instance when the launch trajectory coincides with the rotating radar. Thus a launch from a different spot than Pervomaiske might have been possible without being registered by Russian radar. The JIT dismisses the Russian argument by stating that ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’ (of a launch from Snizhne). The claim of ‘absence of evidence’ might imply that data of a mobile Ukrainian test radar did not yield anything either.
- See here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=wLBpLVwa-lM
- See my blogs, The 13 October verdict: Dutch Safety Board versus Almaz-Antei and Did the Ukrainians shoot down flight MH17?
- On 7 April 2018 the town of Douma in Syria supposedly came under gas attack, causing dozens of dead, This turned out, in all likelihood, to have been staged affair, as maintained in my earlier story here.