While the investigations in to the downing of MH17 continue there’s been much debate about who was responsible, and the weapon system used to down MH17. These theories can be generally split into two broad groups, one where a Buk surface to air missile system was used to shoot down MH17, the other where a Ukrainian military jet, usually specified as a SU-25, shot down MH17.
Bellingcat has examined much of the evidence and claims related to a Buk missile system being used, in particular tracking a Buk controlled by separatists on July 17th and finding the same Buk in Russia in late June in our report Origin of the Separatists’ Buk. In this piece we’ll examine claims relating to the use of a jet fighter to shoot down MH17, which reveals not only continual inconsistencies between the various claims made by the Russian government and presented in the media, but also examples of outright and provable falsehoods being presented by the Russian government and media.
As with any major event there are many alternative theories and claims made on various message boards, social media sites, and blogs, but for the purposes of this piece we will focus on claims that have been made by the Russian government or have made their way into mainstream discourse.
The SU-25 Appears
On the day of July 17th it was already apparent competing claims about how MH17 was downed were being made by various sources. In the case of those sources claiming the Ukrainian air force was responsible there were a number of different claims made. It was reported that the Luhansk People’s Republic had claimed an Ukrainian SU-25 had shot down MH17 “after a ground attack aircraft was shot down by the militia of the Luhansk People’s Republic”, and rebel leader Andrei Purgin told Russia 24 News that MH17 may have been shot down after being mistaken for a Russian spy plane.
Elsewhere, the tweets of “Carlos”, who claimed to be an air traffic controller in Ukraine, were adding more details to the incident. In May, Russia Today had previously reported on Carlos, who had been commentating on the Ukraine crisis for a number of months, and claimed in his interview with Russia Today to have received death threats because of his work. In a series of tweets made on July 17th from his now deleted Twitter account, Carlos made a number of claims, including
- The attack was the Ukrainian government trying to make it look like an attack by pro-Russian rebels.
- Air traffic control in Kiev, where he claimed to work, was being taken over by the Ukrainian miliary, with phones and other equipment being confiscated from staff.
- That MH17 was being escorted by two Ukrainian jet fighters minutes before MH17 was shot down.
- That it was shot down by a missile, with the military present with Carlos confirming it was Ukrainian.
Already there’s clear contradictions between claims being made by Carlos and the Luhansk People’s Republic, for example the claim the Ukrainian government was trying to make it look like an attack by pro-Russian rebels, as opposed to the claim from the LPR that it was shot down in response to LPR militia shooting down a “ground attack aircraft”. Certainly, if Carlos was telling the truth the speculation by Andrei Purgin that MH17 may have been mistaken for a Russian spy plane would make no sense at all.
The Russian government owned news agency ITAR-TASS reported the claims made by Carlos, citing reports from the Russian government owned TV channel Channel One:
Two Ukrainian fighters were following the passenger Boeing-777 of Malaysian Airlines several minutes before the crash, Russia’s television Channel One said on Friday, citing a tweet made a Spanish air traffic controller of Kiev’s airport Borispol.
According to the Spanish air traffic controller, two Ukrainian fighters had been seen near the Malaysian jet three minutes before it disappeared from radars.
This information is confirmed by eyewitnesses in the Donetsk region who saw Ukrainian warplanes near the passenger jet. They say they heard sounds of powerful blasts and saw a Ukraine warplane shortly before the crash.
But as people began to look into the identity of Carlos some major questions were raised about his identity. The Spain Report contacted the Spanish embassy in Ukraine, asking about Carlos, and received the following reply:
This is not the first time we have been asked about him. This “Carlos” was also active during the Maidán revolution in Ukraine.
We have no knowledge of “Carlos” having been in Ukraine. There is no record of his passing through the Consulate, and no one from the (relatively small) Spanish colony knows him.
The airport where he supposedly worked for several years told us at the time that all of their air traffic controllers are Ukranian, and that in any case they have never employed any Spaniard for that or any other task.
Furthermore, the last information he was posting before the airline tragedy was of the same sort. He was saying, for example, that he lived in Kiev and had been threatened by radical extreme-right elements. No Spaniard or national of another country—to my knowledge—has ever been threatened in this country
“The Facts Juggled”
On July 21st, the Russian Ministry of Defence gave a lengthy press conference on the downing of MH17. It was split into three main sections, examining what was claimed to be the flight path of MH17 and other activity in the air at the time of the event, satellite map imagery of Buk missile launchers in Ukrainian territory, and their “proof” that a video produced by the Ukrainian Ministry of Interior showing a Buk missile launcher being transported through separatists held territory actually showed it in government held territory. As Bellingcat demonstrated last year, the last claim by the Russian Ministry of Defence, that the video was filmed in government held territory, is a provable lie by the Russian MoD. But what about the other claims made about the air traffic on July 17th?
The press conference opened with a map that claims to show the route MH17 took. The head of the Main Operations Directorate of the HQ of Russia’s military forces, Lieutenant-General Andrey Kartopolov, described how the map showed MH17 deviating from its air corridor, turning north, then turning back to the air corridor:
Since this claim was made the Dutch Safety Board’s initial report on the downing of MH17 has shown this claim is completely false. The below image from the DSB report shows the flight path taken by MH17 up until moment it was shot down, based on various data:
It’s clear from the above image that there was no course alteration as claimed by the Ministry of Defence in their July 21st press conference. In fact, after overlaying the two images it’s clear the Russian MoD’s flight path is incorrect:
The Russian Ministry of Defence’s additional flight data shown at the same press conference and published on their website on same day, claims to show the flight path of MH17, followed by what they claim was an image showing the jet that had just attacked MH17 appearing after MH17 was shot down. This video begins shortly after the supposed course change claimed by the Russian MoD, which was not visible in the Dutch Safety Board’s data.
Later in the press conference the SU-25 make its first appearance, with Lieutenant-General Andrey Kartopolov stating the following:
A Ukraine Air Force military jet was detected gaining height, it’s distance from the Malaysian Boeing was 3 to 5km…. The SU-25 fighter jet can gain an altitude of 10km, according to its specification…. It’s equipped with air-to-air R-60 missiles that can hit a target at a distance up to 12km, up to 5km for sure.”
There’s no mention of the claims made by the Luhansk People’s Republic of the SU-25 attacking MH17 in response to an attack aircraft being shot down, or any reference to any other military aircraft being in the area. It’s also claimed at the press conference that the SU-25 was only detectable after MH17 was shot down, but a number of informed sources have criticised this interpretation of the data presented.
Former military pilot Carl Bergqvist wrote a detailed explanation of some of the issues with the claims made about that data on his website, explaining that what the Russian press conference described as the SU-25 appearing on the radar was more likely to be large chunks of debris from MH17 being detected.
However, if we take the word of the Russian MoD we now have the claim that a SU-25 flew up to towards MH17 and fired at it with what was likely at least one R-60 missile from a range of 3-5km. This claim soon fell by the wayside as a new theory began to emerge.
On July 29th CBC’s interview with OSCE Spokesperson Michael Bociurkiw sparked a new wave of speculation about how MH17 was shot down. He stated damage he had seen to the aircraft “almost looks like machine gun fire, very very strong machine gun fire”, and this sparked speculation that this damage was caused by a GSh-30-2 30mm cannon, one of the SU-25’s armaments.
An article by former pilot Peter Haisenko published on July 30th added to this speculation. The article also referenced the claims of Carlos the mystery air-controller, and the claims made during the Russian Ministry of Defence’s press conference, and Peter Hasienko’s claims were referenced by Robert Parry in an article for Consortium News, which was then reported on by Malaysia’s New Straits Times, referencing their own previous day’s report where it was claimed both missiles and cannon fire were used to shoot down MH17, which itself was reported by RIA Novosti.
Later on in the year the Russian Union of Engineers would release a study that was widely reported on by various Russian media outlets that expanded on those theories. In their report they examined various claims, and came up with the following conclusion
At 17.17‐17.20, the Boeing 777 was in Ukrainian airspace near the city of Donetsk at the height of 10100m. An unidentified combat aircraft (presumably a Su‐25 or MiG ‐29), which was a tier below, on collision course, in the cloud layer, sharply gained altitude and suddenly appeared out of the clouds in front of the civilian aircraft and opened fire on the cockpit, firing from a 30 mm caliber cannon or smaller. The pilot of a fighter jet can do this while in “free hunting” mode (using onboard radar) or with the help of navigational guidance using airspace situation data from ground‐based radar.
As a result of multiple hits from shells there was damage to the cockpit, which suddenly depressurized, resulting in instant death for the crew due to mechanical influences and decompression. The attack was sudden and lasted a fraction of a second; in such circumstances the crew could not sound any alarm as the flight had been proceeding in regular mode and no attack was expected.
Since neither the engines or hydraulic system, nor other devices required for the continuation of the flight were out of commission, the Boeing 777, running on autopilot (as is standard), continued on its horizontal flight path, perhaps gradually losing altitude.
The pilot of the unidentified combat aircraft manoeuvred to the rear of the Boeing 777. After that, the unidentified plane remained on the combat course, the pilot provided a target tracking aircraft equipment, took aim and launched his R‐60 or R‐73 missiles.
This was the most detailed version of events so far, containing claims of both a missile and cannon fire being used, and even the revelation that the fighter jet had attacked the aircraft and turned around to finish MH17 off with a missile.
At this point it’s worth highlighting that the initial Dutch Safety Report states that “No aural warnings or alerts of aircraft system malfunction were heard on the cockpit voice recording, which ended at 13.20.03 hours. Crew communication gave no indication that there was anything abnormal with the flight.” This means that for the Russian Union of Engineers scenario to be correct the jet that managed to kill the crew also would have to disabled the black box recorders at exactly the same time, yet left MH17 in good enough shape that MH17 could continue on it’s course while the attacking aircraft flew past MH17, turned around, and then fired a R-60 or R-73 missile at it. This display of aerial acrobatics was something that had until their report been missed by everyone, including the Russian MoD’s radar, and certainly points towards a purposeful attempt to shoot down MH17.
By this stage even the Russian Ministry of Defence seemed to be doubting their version of events. On August 30th Reuters reported on comments made by Russia’s Deputy Defence Minister Anatoly Antonov, who said :
Where is the transcript of the recordings of conversations between the pilot of this plane and his command? How did a military aircraft come to be alongside a civilian one?
If people are saying today that a rocket was fired from the ground towards that military plane, then I’d like to look that military pilot in the eye who used a civilian plane as cover, if of course that’s what happened.
Now, instead of a jet appearing in front of MH17 it’s appearing alongside it, maybe even using it as cover from a surfaced launched missile. This would be an impressive feat of piloting considering the speed and flight ceiling of a SU-25 are both much lower than that of MH17, and certainly contradicts the claims made by the Russian Union of Engineers.
There’s also some interesting questions to be asked about the type of damage done to the aircraft. The R-60 air to air missile used by the SU-25 is a heat seeking missile, meaning it would target the hottest part of the aircraft, in this case the engines. The question is then, why is the damage to MH17 focused nearly entirely around the flight deck? It also appears the damage to the flight deck isn’t consistent with 30mm cannon fire alone, with entry holes being a variety of shapes and sizes, some of them even on the roof of the flight deck. How could the damage be caused by a missile that would target the engines rather than the flight deck?
“How Could We Check It? It Came To Us From The internet.”
Unconcerned by such questions, the Russian Union of Engineers cast their expert eye on the following image which was shared online in November:
The above image, “authenticated” by the Russian Union of Engineers, showed a jet firing at flight MH17, and was broadcast on Russian Channel One as fresh evidence of an Ukrainian jet shooting down flight MH17. The claims made about the image soon were repeated on mainstream sites such as the Daily Mail Online, but unfortunately for the Russian Union of Engineers and Channel One the image was quickly debunked as being a composite of satellite map imagery and images of aircraft, and didn’t even appear to support the claims made by the Russian Union of Engineers own report. When questioned about their error the Russian Union of Engineers asked “how could we check it? It came to us from the internet”, and the presenter of the Channel One news show caught out by the faked image angrily demanded that bloggers criticising him “present your data, brutes!”
The Wrong Plane
On December 23rd Russian media outlets published reports of a new key witness in the MH17 case. This new anonymous witness claimed that on July 17th he was staying on the air base in the village of Aviatorskoe, near Dnepropetrovsk, and claims to have seen a SU-25 that had previously been loaded with air-to-air missiles returning to base and the pilot of the aircraft, stating that the pilot, Captain Vladislav Voloshin, was scared after landing, and talked about the “wrong plane”. Questioning the captain about the plane in question, Captain Voloshin replied “The plane was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The witness also made other statements:
Those missiles “air-to-air” are not part of the basic ammunition load. They are hung according to a special order. Usually, they tried not to rise into air such jets with such missiles. Because it is not allowed to transport such a missile along in the air.”
Knowing a little bit that pilot… (quite possible that the other two jets were shot down in front of him), and he had some scared reaction, inadequate. He might be frightened or as a revenge run the missiles into the Boeing. May be he just took it for some other combatant air jet.
The phrase he said after he was taken out of the jet: “The aircraft, it was not the one”. And in the evening there was a phrase, a question from a pilot for him, to the same Voloshin: “What about the aircraft?”. And he answered: “The aircraft got on a wrong time to a wrong place”.
The witness also provides his own theories on what happened in the sky, but it’s hard to think of these as anything more than speculation on the part of the witness. It’s interesting to note that this story does have some similarities with the stories presented during the day of the attack, with the Luhansk People’s Republic claiming an Ukrainian jet had shot down MH17 “after a ground attack aircraft was shot down by the militia of the Luhansk People’s Republic”. The question is then, if this was just a reaction to SU-25s being shot down, was it also just a coincidence the SU-25 in question had been unusually armed with air-to-air missiles on that day? If it wasn’t a reaction to other SU-25s being shot down, then what was the correct plane if MH17 was the wrong plane? If it was supposed to be a Russian spy plane as Andrei Purgin suggested on the day of the attack, wouldn’t it make more sense to assign the mission to one of the Ukrainian air force’s aircraft capable of flying at a high altitude, rather than an aircraft designed for attacking ground targets?
It’s also clear this scenario doesn’t match the claims made by the Russian Union of Engineers. According to the Russian Union of Engineers Captain Voloshin would have attacked MH17 with 30mm cannon fire, which would have been at a range where the aircraft would have been easily identifiable. Then, after the initial attack, Captain Voloshin would have then turned around to fire a missile at MH17. Given that Captain Voloshin would then fly back to base, shocked that he had shot down the “wrong plane”, it would seem he would have noticed it was the wrong plane before he turned around to fire a missile at it. It’s also worth noting the anonymous witness makes no claims about cannon fire being used to attack MH17.
Aside from all these claims made over the last several months being full of contradictions, errors, and outright falsehoods, there’s also the technical aspect of these claims that shouldn’t be overlooked. A number of experts have noted the damage to MH17, nearly entirely to the front of the aircraft, matches that of a larger fragmentation warhead as used by the Buk missile launcher, rather than the much smaller R-60 missile that the SU-25 would have used. In the recent piece by Correct!v on the downing of MH17 one expert states:
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.
Another expert is quoted as saying:
Only a rocket fired from the ground has the explosive power displayed in the destruction of MH17.
Another question to be asked is why a heat seeking R-60 missile would hit the flight deck of MH17, instead of the hottest part of the aircraft, the engines? Why, if the SU-25 was below MH17 as claimed by the anonymous witness in December, are there signs of entry damage from shrapnel on the roof of the flight deck?
The list of these questions goes on, and it seems that not only is the SU-25 narrative a fractured and contradictory mess, but requires the equipment used to act in such a way that it resembles a strike by a Buk missile rather than an attack by a SU-25. Given that these claims keep on coming it seems not unreasonable to ask that next time a claim is made about a SU-25 being used to shoot down MH17 that we are given something more than mystery witnesses, dubious theories, dodgy experts, and fake evidence.
By Eliot Higgins, who is is the founder of Bellingcat and the Brown Moses Blog. Eliot focuses on the weapons used in the conflict in Syria, and open source investigations tools and techniques.