On November 1, RIA Novosti published an article with excerpts from an interview with Volodymyr Tsemakh, a former officer in the Russian-led militant forces in eastern Ukraine and a suspect in the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 on July 17, 2014. Tsemakh, a Ukrainian citizen, was part of a prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine in September. Tsemakh had been captured from his home in Russian-controlled Donbas by Ukrainian special forces in a behind-the-lines mission conducted in July.
Tsemakh’s interview was part of a Russian state media documentary series called People of the Donbas, hosted by the former director of RIA Novosti’s Ukraine bureau, who was also part of the prisoner exchange, having been arrested and charged with treason by a Ukrainian court in 2018. RIA Novosti introduced Tsemakh as a “witness” to the downing of MH17, when in fact he has been classified as a “person of interest” by the Dutch prosecutor. (MH17 was flying to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam and many of the passengers were Dutch citizens).
The Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) investigation team at Bellingcat expressed doubt that Tsemakh was directly involved in the downing of the airliner. Still, their investigation found clear evidence that Tsemakh openly spoke on camera about Russian-led forces possessing the Buk and that he helped hide the missile system after the incident. Tsemakh also claimed that the “rebels’” Buk launcher had shot down a Ukrainian Su-25 ground attack aircraft the day that MH17 was shot down. That appears to be an admission that the rebels had this SAM system in their possession and that they launched a missile. However, the Ukrainian Air Force lost no aircraft on the day that MH17 was shot down.
Even without Tsemakh, RIA Novosti’s claims about the militia denying it had the capability to shoot down planes at a high altitude are false. On the contrary, prior to the downing of MH17, an official “separatist” Twitter account tweeted a photo of a Buk SAM system it claimed was in their possession. That tweet was only deleted after July 17, 2014, the day of the MH17 downing. Even more damning was the rebel claims to have shot down a Ukrainian An-26 military transport plane that day. As noted earlier, the Ukrainian Air Force lost no aircraft on July 17, and it quickly became apparent that the “An-26” claimed to have been shot down was actually the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777-200, a wide-body passenger jet. While that social media post was quickly taken down, a news story from the Russian state news agency TASS cites it as a source and is still visible today.
The RIA Novosti article also claims that Russia’s Defense Ministry proved the Buk missile was Ukrainian in origin and that Buk manufacturer Almaz-Antey proved that the missile was fired from territory controlled by the Ukrainian military. Both of these claims are false. Since the downing of MH17, Russian authorities and state media have presented numerous alternative explanations of how the airliner was shot down, some of which are mutually exclusive and/or physically impossible.