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By John Helmer, Moscow

The Russian and US intelligence versions of what preceded the destruction of Malaysian Airlines MH17 on July 17 have come close to agreement on the same set of facts. Their disagreements and conflicts of evidence are much smaller, by comparison.

The Russians and Americans concur that a Buk-M1 missile battery (lead image, interior operator panel) fired an SA-11 missile which detonated in front of the Boeing, and brought her down. The US Government now says it lacks the evidence to say who fired the missile. It also claims that “Ukraine had no antiaircraft missile system within range of the Malaysian flight at the time it was struck”.


Diagram from the New York Times

Three US intelligence officers, who briefed reporters in Washington on July 22, say they are confident an air-to-air missile was not fired by an aircraft at close range to the Boeing, detonating at the rear, or at the engines of the civilian aircraft. The evidence for this is the concentration of shrapnel in the forward sections of the Boeing fuselage recovered so far; as well as the volume of shrapnel which is more consistent with the warhead of a ground-launched missile than with that of an air-launched rocket. Further analysis of the engines and the fuselage will be definitive on this point.

According to one report of what the US intelligence officers said, “the jet was downed by accident, likely by forces who believed they were taking aim at a Ukrainian military aircraft.”

Russian generals Andrei Kartapolov (Army) and Igor Makushev (Air Force) have presented satellite pictures showing that on or before July 17 the Ukrainian military moved at least three Buk-M1 missile batteries – comprising a tracked launcher and a target acquisition radar van – out of their depot north of Donetsk, and into positions, all of which were within 30 kilometres of the Boeing’s flight path; the SA-11’s range is 30 kilometres. One unit in particular was photographed at the village of Zaroshchenske, south of the bigger settlement of Shakhtarsk, and south of the main road H21. This position is about 15 kilometres from the M17 flight path and from the impact site.

The Russian location evidence can be seen on this Google map:

Click for wider view of locations: https://www.google.co.uk/

The US release of this illustration (below) of the area lacks resolution and scale, so no launcher can be seen. The firing location and the green line of trajectory are unverified guesswork. The US has not presented evidence that on July 17 a Buk-M1 battery was in Snizhne. But the Russian evidence for a Ukrainian military launcher at Zaroshchenske puts the distance between this pre-firing location and the purported Snizhne launch position at less than 25 kilometres. There is also a gap of several hours between the time of the Russian photograph and the confirmed firing time at 1720. Between the two locations, highway H21 would allow a mobile launcher unit and radar van to redeploy within 45 to 60 minutes.


The Russian radar tracks identify the presence of a small Ukrainian aircraft with Su-25 identifiers on the Boeing flight path, and within range of the ground missile launcher within minutes of the shoot-down. The US intelligence briefing neither confirms nor denies the presence in the air of the Su-25; no US satellite or radar records have been released to corroborate the point. Instead, the US briefing denies the Su-25 fired rockets at the Boeing.

Responding to the Russian radar presentation, President Petro Poroshenko told CNN the presentation was the “irresponsible and false statement of the Russian [defense] minister”. Poroshenko appeared not to be familiar with the Russian radar evidence. He said: “When the Russian [Defense] ministry makes such a statement, it must provide proof. The sky over Ukraine is monitored by many satellites and air defense systems. Everyone knows that all Ukrainian planes were on the ground several hundred kilometres away [from the crash site] at the time of the accident.”


In a clear sky, if the Su-25 was as close as the Russian radar plot indicates, it is likely the pilots of MH17 would have seen it, and would have communicated this to Ukrainian air control on the ground. The record of that communication, the radar tracking data at the Ukrainian air control centre, and communication from the air controller in charge of MH17 are all in the safekeeping of the Ukrainian authorities. A website posting from the Ukrainian State Air Traffic Services Enterprise (UkSATSE) promises to “provide all necessary data from ground facilities, evidence and assistance in order to determine the actual causes of the tragedy”. So far they have not released the evidence.

sokolenkoOleksandr Sokolenko (right), chief of the Dniepropetrovsk air control centre, refuses to say what has become of his records of the July 17 operations, and he won’t comment on what he knows. Whether Poroshenko has reviewed this evidence isn’t known.

The same data, including flight information and voice communications between cockpit and Ukrainian ground control, are also held by the black boxes from MH17. Malaysian Airlines executives took charge of the boxes from the Ukrainian separatists on Monday. They have been freighted by a Belgian Air Force jet to a laboratory in the UK accredited by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). These data have yet to be decoded; verified as authentic and complete; then published. The process may take months.

So what really happened? A crew fired an SA-11 at a target they believed to be a military attacker, and hit MH17 by mistake. The missile was made in Russia and supplied to the Ukraine by Russia. Whether the crew was from the Ukrainian military, or from the separatists, is not yet known. If they were Ukrainian forces, they are likely to have believed they were defending against a Russian military attack they had been expecting as retaliation for Ukrainian artillery shelling across the Russian frontier last week.

If they were Ukrainian separatists, they are likely to have believed they were defending their positions in and around Donetsk and Lugansk from combined air and ground force attack.

The Russian and US intelligence versions now agree the missile shot was a mistake committed by men who thought they were in the middle of combat. The difference between the two versions remains who fired. The evidence available should be conclusive on this point. For the time being, the US intelligence officers say they aren’t sure.

If the US withholds its satellite pictures of the missile launch, and if the Ukrainian authorities withhold the air control tapes of the radar tracks, radar screen shots, and cockpit communications, then the preponderance of the evidence shifts — and the probability grows that it was the Ukrainian military who fired.

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