Forensic Detail

07.17.15 5:00 AM ET

How We Know Russia Shot Down MH17

One year after 298 civilians fell to earth over eastern Ukraine, Putin’s regime is still denying culpability. Here’s definitive evidence to the contrary.

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 2014, 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.

A part of the wreckage is seen at the crash site of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 near the village of Hrabove (Grabovo), in the Donetsk region July 21, 2014. Russia's Defence Ministry on Monday challenged accusations pro-Russian rebels were to blame for shooting down a Malaysian airliner and asked the United States to produce satellite images to support its assertions. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev (UKRAINE - Tags: DISASTER TRANSPORT TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTR3ZJU5

Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters

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.

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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, Colonel 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 Antikvariat.ru, 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 Vzglyad.ru, 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 Vzglyad.ru 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:

A group of Ukrainian miners assist rescue workers in the search for bodies of victims in a wheat field at the site of the crash of a Malaysian airliner carrying 298 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur in Grabove, in rebel-held east Ukraine, on July 18, 2014. Pro-Russian separatists in the region and officials in Kiev blamed each other for the crash, after the plane was apparently hit by a surface-to-air missile. Members of the UN Security Council demanded a full, independent investigation into the apparent shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines jet over Ukraine.

Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty

“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 Interpreters original report on the incident catalogs, 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.”

Ukraines Intercepts

Eyewitness and journalist accounts placed a Buk near MH17 on July 17, and the Russian media and the separatists themselves acknowledged, in multiple outlets, that they shot down an aircraft—with a Buk. Notably, the Ukrainian government was also quick to adopt this narrative.

Only hours after the plane crashed, Kiev released what it said was a leaked audio recording, reportedly an intercepted phone call, reportedly between Igor Bezler (Bes, or “Demon”), a commander of the Russian-backed fighters, and Vasily Geranin, who is described as a colonel in the Russian Federation’s GRU (military intelligence). In that conversation, the two men confirm that “a plane has just been shot down” outside Enakievo, a town 62 miles northwest of Snezhnoye, by one of the separatist militias. After this, two men who are identified as “Major” and “Geek,” presumably two of the fighters, sound shocked as they learn that the plane was filled with civilians.

In a separate release by the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) later in the day, another separatist leader, Mykola Kozitsin, reportedly has a conversation with one of his fighters in which he is audibly unnerved that a civilian airliner, not a Ukrainian cargo plane, that was shot down. “What the fuck were they flying in here for? There’s a war on,” a frustrated Kozitsin told the man on the other end of the line.

The next day, the SBU released another allegedly intercepted conversation, this time between a separatist commander and a GRU officer who goes by the callsign “Oreon.” In this exchange, which can be read in English here, the separatist commander says: “We already have the Buk and we will shoot them [Ukrainian military planes] down.” Oreon replies: “Yes, I know that.”

In the same release, a separate conversation between two separatist commanders can be heard in which the fighters admit that they have “received” a Buk anti-aircraft system and that it came “through the stripe”—code for the security cordon on the border between Russia and Ukraine.

On July 25, eight days after the downing of MH17, the SBU released a fourth audio tape that it claimed was recorded just two minutes prior to the Boeing’s being hit. A man the SBU identifies as Igor Bezler speaks to a man called Naymanets (“hired hand” in Russian). Naymanets tells Bezler that a “birdie” is flying in his direction.

Bezler: “A ‘birdie’ has flown to us?”

Naymanets: “Yes, one, for now.”

Bezler: “A scout or a big one?”

Naymanets: “It's not visible behind the clouds. Its really high.” [Emphasis added.]

Bezler: “That it’s—I understand. Got it.”

Naymanets: “Uh-huh.”

Bezler: “Announce up top [‘report up the chain].”

The Russian government and the Russian-backed separatists have denied the authenticity of the tapes. Can they be authenticated?

The first clue that the tapes were real came from the speed with which they were released and the integrity of the details and narratives on them. The first two tapes were disclosed soon after MH17 was shot down; a third was released the next day, as the world struggled to piece together what had just happened and how. The tapes conform exactly to the narrative put forth by the Ukrainian government and are supported by a large body of empirical evidence.

But the most important confirmation of the tapes’ authenticity comes from none other than the separatists themselves.

Soon after the first audio leaks were released, and perhaps in a hurry to deny responsibility for an incident that had killed so many innocent civilians, Igor Bezler released a statement in which he admitted that it was indeed his voice on the recording with Geranin. But that conversation, Bezler insisted, happened before July 17, when a different plane was shot down. Bezler accused the SBU of editing the recording to make it sound like he was referring to MH17.

So Bezler confirms the authenticity of the conversation but denies its context. Yet in his confirmation is an important revelation: In his phone call with Geranin he describes a plane traveling over Enakievo, a town MH17 passed over before it was struck above Snezhnoye. This plane is described as flying at a high altitude (as was the one discussed between Bezler and Naymanets in the other intercepted conversation).

And yet according to the ARES analysis of all downed Ukrainian military aircraft until November 2014, no plane or helicopter was hit anywhere near Enakievo before July 17. (A MiG-29 fighter jet was downed close to the town on August 7.) Bezler cannot have been right in claiming that his conversation with Geranin occurred before MH17 was blown up

Members of a group of international experts inspect wreckage at the site where the downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crashed, near the village of Hrabove (Grabovo) in Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine August 1, 2014. International experts started recovery work at the wreckage site of the downed Malaysian airliner in east Ukraine on Friday despite clashes nearby between government forces and pro-Russian rebels.

Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

Buk at the Scene of the Crime

Before we consider some of the more technical aspects of this incident, it’s worth considering a more basic fact. Before July 17, several anti-aircraft missiles were documented as being in the possession of the Russian-backed fighters. The earliest examples of these are shoulder-launched MANPADS, which are more than capable of shooting down low-flying aircraft such as helicopters. Some of the newest additions, as explained above, were vehicle-based systems like the Osa and the Strela-10. These weapons are far more advanced, capable of downing helicopters but really designed to shoot down faster-moving aircraft like ground-attack jets. The presence of these weapons could explain the destruction of some of the Ukrainian aircraft that were shot down earlier in July. But none of these weapons is capable of shooting down an aircraft flying as high as MH17 was on that fateful day.

The only weapon in the area capable of shooting down MH17 and spotted by journalists, dozens of eyewitnesses, and many videos and pictures taken by citizen journalists was the Buk.

Proof that at least one Buk missile launcher was within range of MH17 when the aircraft was shot down:

■     Journalists from the Associated Press saw a Buk missile launcher in Snezhnoye before MH17 was shot down.

■     In a detailed report, Roman Bochkala, a journalist for TV Inter in Ukraine, wrote that he witnessed the Russian-backed separatists in possession of a Buk missile system, driving in a convoy from Torez toward Snezhnoye.

■     A geolocated video posted on July 17, the day of the incident, shows a Buk missile launcher in the center of Snezhnoye, driving south.

■     The Guardian interviewed residents of Torez who positively identified the Buk missile launcher and said it traveled in a convoy toward Snezhnoye.

■     A geolocated picture shows a Buk launcher in Torez, moving in the direction of Snezhnoye. BuzzFeed journalists later visited Torez, confirmed the details of the picture, and spoke to residents who saw the Buk travel through the town toward Snezhnoye.

■     Journalists from Novaya Gazeta traveled to the area around the crash site and interviewed witnesses to the MH17 disaster. One resident of Grabovo, where MH17 actually crashed, claims a “‘ball’ flew at high speed from the southeast [from the direction of Snezhnoye]” and disappeared behind the clouds before an explosion was heard. Novaya Gazeta also interviewed citizens of Pervomaiskoye, just south of Snezhnoye, where some suspect the Buk actually fired the missile. The reports of these citizens—many of whom were afraid to talk for fear of repercussions from the separatists who still control the area—are confused and somewhat contradictory (more on this in a minute), but they all seem to agree that a projectile or projectiles fired from the ground shot down the aircraft.

There is also a clear pattern to the data. Before the missile launch, multiple eyewitnesses, journalists, pictures, and videos describe the Buk as moving from Torez toward Snezhnoye, and from there south toward Pervomaiskoye. We also see that some eyewitnesses described the missiles as flying from somewhere south of Snezhnoye. This theory is backed up by open-sourced forensics and investigations launched by journalists.

A further clue about the launch site of the Buk was furnished by an obscure picture released by the Ukrainian government on July 18. Revealed later to have been taken by a Torez photographer from his roof, the image allegedly shows a smoke trail created by the missile as it traveled toward MH17.

The Ukraine at War blog was able to use landmarks in that picture to estimate where the picture was taken. The launch site, then, was somewhere south of Snezhnoye and west of Pervomaiskoye, just as was indicated by some of the eyewitnesses.

BuzzFeed’s Max Seddon confirmed where that picture was taken, from a vantage point looking toward the field in question. The Telegraph’s Roland Oliphant visited that field and found scorch marks on the ground, likely the backfire from a missile launcher, as well as other debris that suggests that Russian-backed separatists were operating there. Those reports match interviews conducted  by The Guardians Shaun Walker and others.

Ukraine at War then pinpointed the location of the possible launch site and compared satellite images taken three days after the incident with images taken before it to confirm that unusual tracks were visible in the fields, as if a tracked vehicle—perhaps a Buk—had traveled through the fields.

In December 2014, Dutch photographer Olaf Koens found the man who took the photo, and several others that were never published. Soon after, so did Russian blogger Sergei Parkhomenko, whose report was republished by Putin.War, the Nemtsov report. According to the photographer, he heard a loud missile launch, much louder than anything he had heard before, snapped a picture of the smoke trails, and then noticed the black smoke rising from the opposite direction, from Grabovo—the area where what was left of MH17 eventually crashed. This description matches exactly multiple other reports of the incident pieced together by various sources.

The Story Told by Debris

Investigators have access to an even more definitive forensic body of evidence—the debris field from the aircraft.

The Buk has a very different signature than many other types of missiles. Infrared tracking missiles, like the Strela-10, fire a missile that is attracted to the heat-generating engines and explodes on contract. Similarly, infrared homing air-to-air missiles fired by aircraft also target the engines.

Not so with the Buk, which uses radar-proximity missiles. These missiles travel toward the target and then explode when they get within adequate range. The explosions send fragmentation into the targeted aircraft, often ripping it apart. A defense analyst with IHS Jane’s noted that the pattern of damage seen on the fuselage of the plane was consistent with the theory that a Buk surface-to-air missile was used. A ballistics expert and lecturer at ANU Strategic Defence Studies Centre, Stephan Fruhling, agreed, noting that the damage was consistent with a fragmentation device such as a Buk, not a weapon such as an air-to-air missile, which targets the engines and does not send fragmentation rounds into the aircraft. A spokesperson for the SBU noted that some of the bodies of the victims of MH17 contained metal fragments not consistent with the aircraft itself. A journalist for Dutch broadcaster RTLNieuws discovered a fragment at the crash site that arms experts say is part of the explosive charge of a Buk missile.

Indeed, the Russian state-operated manufacturer of the Buk, Almaz-Antey, claims that a Buk was responsible for the shooting down of MH17, although it claims the missile was fired from Ukrainian government-held territory (a theory we will examine in a moment).

Perhaps most critically, the Dutch Safety Board’s initial investigation stated that the aircraft was “penetrated by a large number of high-energy objects” which “originated from outside the fuselage,” a description consistent with a Buk. This week sources working with the official Dutch investigation conducted by the Dutch Safety Board told CNN that their official findings will definitively say that a Russian Buk, fired from territory controlled by Russian-backed fighters, shot down MH17.

Russian Disinformation

There have been two alternative theories put forth by the Russian government. The first is that a Ukrainian Su-25 fired an air-to-air missile at MH17 and the second that a Buk fired from ATO-monitored terrain shot down the airliner.

The Su-25 theory was put forth by the Russian government four days after the grim event (but after significant, often contradictory, and widely conspiratorial speculation by the Russian state-owned media). It was immediately dismissed by experts who pointed out that the Su-25 is not capable of flying the flight plan described by the Russian government nor, in all likelihood, was it capable of shooting down a plane flying at over 33,000 feet. Furthermore, the Dutch Safety Board’s initial finding was that the missile which shot down MH17 exploded “from above the level of the cockpit floor,” not at the engines or below the aircraft, which is what we would expect to see from missiles fired by a Su-25. As the investigative bloggers at the citizen journalist website Bellingcat noted the problems with this theory are legion.

Even the Russian government seemed to abandon this line of thinking quickly. Engineers for the Russian manufacturer of the Buk missile claimed that, yes, the airliner was shot down by a Buk, but the specific missile in question is not used by Russia, and the missile that was used was not fired from near Snezhnoye, but rather from Zaroshchenskoye, territory controlled by the Ukrainian government.

All of these points were debunked.

The first problem with the engineer’s report: Even the separatists claimed at the time that Zaroshchenskoye was controlled by the Russian-backed fighters, not the Ukrainian military.

The second problem: Novaya Gazeta’s Pavel Kanygin went to both Zaroshchenskoye and the area around the MH17 crash site. While those near the crash site gave contradictory and somewhat confusing statements, they did see a surface-to-air missile fired at MH17, while no one interviewed in Zaroshchenskoye saw either the Ukrainian military nor a Buk missile launcher.

The third problem: The missile in question is used by the Russian military, and multiple missiles of this variety were documented in convoys moving on the Russian side of the border close to Ukraine.

The core absurdity with Moscow’s alternative theories—conspiracy theories, really—is even more basic. The Ukrainian government, citing intelligence sources, swiftly put forth a narrative whereby a Buk missile launcher was transported from the Russian border to the area where MH17 was downed; then the missile was fired and destroyed the civilian airliner before the launcher was evacuated back across the Russian border.

The Ukrainian narrative has been consistent from the start, and although Kiev made at least one mistake in its initial press release, a significant body of subsequent evidence supports this narrative. The Kremlin narrative, on the other hand, has been ever-changing, woefully substantiated, and largely contradictory—and many of the various theories put forth by its surrogates in the state-controlled media have been risible.

Whos to Blame?

How did the separatists get a Buk anti-aircraft missile? Did they capture one from the Ukrainian military, or were they given a Buk by the Russian government? Is it even possible that Russian soldiers pulled the trigger?

The first key to answering this question is to track the movement of the Buk on the morning on July 17, 2014. In The Interpreter’s first comprehensive report on this issue we published a timeline of events that combines our own work with a timeline posted by the Associated Press, which also includes claims from the Ukrainian intelligence assessment. An updated version is below:

■     01:05—Buk enters Ukraine on flatbed truck. (AP—Ukrainian counterterrorism chief Vitaly Nayda)

■     09:00—Buk reaches Donetsk, disembarks flatbed truck. (AP—Ukrainian counterterrorism chief Vitaly Nayda). A picture of the Buk was taken that places it in Donetsk at approximately 11 a.m. (read more on this here.)

■     Approximately 11:40—Picture places Buk in Zuhres, between Donetsk and Torez. (Bellingcat)

■     Approximately 12:00 to 13:00—Social media posts place Buk in Torez, then moving toward Snezhnoye. (Bellingcat)

■     Approximately lunchtime—Buk reaches Karapetyan Street in Snezhnoye. (AP—eyewitnesses)

■     13:05—AP journalists see Buk moving through Snezhnoye in convoy with two civilian cars. This was reported by AP before MH17 was shot down. (AP)

■     16:18—Intercepted audio released by Ukrainian SBU has separatist commander Igor Bezler speaking, told by rebel spotter that a “birdie” flying “really high” was moving into range. (The Interpreter)

■     16:20—Locals in Snezhnoye report one or two loud blasts. One minute to a minute and a half later, a second blast is heard. MH17 falls from the sky after this. (AP)

■     16:33—Intercepted phone call has separatists realizing that they shot down a civilian airliner, not a military transport plane. (The Interpreter)

■     16:40—An intercepted phone call has Bezler speaking to Vasily Geranin, who is described as a colonel in the Russian Federation’s GRU, indicating that an aircraft has been shot down. There is a discrepancy with the time stamp since only one aircraft was shot down in this area. Bezler says it was “30 minutes ago,” but it was really only 20 minutes earlier. (The Interpreter)

■     16:50—The VKontakte community “Strelkov’s Dispatches” posts a report “from the militia” about the downing of “an AN-26″ in the “region of Torez.” (The Interpreter)

■     17:14-17:42—Separatists see that the wreckage of the what they shot down is indeed a civilian aircraft, not a military one. The “Mayor” admits that they have shot down a “a super big civilian craft,” and a separatist reports “fragments right in the yards” and “civilian stuff, medicine, toilet paper, towels.”

■     17:18—Pro-Kremlin outlet Vzglyad.ru reports separatists taking credit for downing “an AN-26” (actually MH17) with a Buk; admissions of possession of Buks also covered on July 14. (The Interpreter)

■     Approximately 20:00-21:00—Video released by the Ukrainian government shows a Buk, missing one missile, in Lugansk on the road to Krasnodon, which leads to a key border crossing, likely approximately at sunset.

■     02:00-04:00 on July 18—The Buk launchers reportedly cross the border into Russia. (Ukrainian government)

Even more evidence has come to light since that fleshes out the Buk’s travels before and after MH17 was shot down. The investigative bloggers at Bellingcat were able to analyze a photograph, originally published by Paris Match, which places the Buk in Donetsk at approximately 11 a.m on July 17. The numbering on the side of the Buk in that picture, 3x2, with the “x” being a missing number, matches precisely a video of a Buk located in Stary Oskol, Russia, on June 23. Other investigations by Bellingcat suggest that the vehicles in the June 23 convoy were part of Russia’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade.

There is another far more basic reason to believe that the Russian military either directly controlled the missile that shot down MH17 or helped the separatists conduct the attack: the sheer complexity of the weapon, which mere “volunteers” could not operate by themselves. (See The Aviationist for a brief view of how complex the controls for this weapons system are.)

Evidence Still Emerging

Though MH17 was destroyed one year ago Friday, even more new evidence is coming to light. News Corp Australia has just released a new video that shows the Russian-backed fighters arriving at the scene of the crash site. In the video, the voice of a rebel commander can be heard issuing orders and communicating with other Russian-backed fighters by both radio and phone. He arrives at the scene expecting to find the remains of a Ukrainian Su-25 fighter jet that he seems to believe his troops have just shot down. Instead, he finds nothing but a civilian airliner.

News Corp also says that their investigation has unearthed evidence that the locals on the ground were being instructed to say that a Ukrainian jet shot down the civilian airliner.

The video is disturbing. Russian-backed fighters rummage through the luggage of the recently deceased in search for the aircraft’s black boxes and other identifiable paperwork and USB sticks. The commander continues to repeat that “they [the Ukrainians] brought down the passenger plane [with a fighter jet] and we brought down the fighter.” The problem—there is no fighter. This commander's troops have just shot down a civilian aircraft, a fact that begins to dawn on them over the course of the 17-minute video.

The commander can be heard off camera saying: “They say the Sukhoi [fighter] brought down the civilian plane and ours brought down the fighter…But where is the Sukhoi? There it is…it’s the passenger plane.”

Putins Cover-up

The last year has seen Moscow lie, fabricate, and insult the intelligence of all thinking people by tossing up self-evidently absurd “explanations” for how almost 300 innocents met their end. The Kremlin has also conducted a concerted smear campaign against journalists and investigators trying to unearth the truth in every damning detail. Most recently, President Vladimir Putin has rejected a Dutch attempt to convene an international tribunal seeking to find out who was responsible for the MH17 tragedy, saying it would be “counterproductive.” In short, in trying to hide its culpability for a horrific accident, the Kremlin has disparaged the memory of the victims and mocked the suffering of their survivors. It has therefore compounded a crime of sheer negligence with the greater one of obstruction of justice.