Stranger than fiction: the Russian missile that brought down MH17

Was flight MH17 shot down with a Russian Buk? Did Oleg Pulatov have anything to do with it? On March 7 Pulatov's Dutch lawyers will file their opening statement. The evidence for the "Russia-did-it" accusations of the Prosecution is all but conclusive.

Evidence that turned out not to be evidence: casing and venturi Buk missile, as presented by JIT

In The Netherlands, three Russians and a Ukrainian are on trial accused of murder without being suspected of having committed it themselves. They also had no motive for the murder in question. Their specific involvement in the death of the 298 occupants of flight MH17, which was shot down over eastern Ukraine on 17 July 2014, would have consisted of: demanding an anti-aircraft system with crew, specifying a suitable launch site for that system, as well as transporting and guarding it. The real killers are still at large. It is unclear who they are and why they launched the deadly missile. However, the Dutch prosecutor suspects the Russian army's 53rd anti-aircraft missile brigade in Kursk. A Buk-Telar of this brigade is supposed to have driven into rebels' territory on the trailer of a Volvo truck and shot down MH17 from a farm field south of Snizhne. However, the prosecution does not know who "pressed the button", why he did so and who commanded the Telar crew.

The official version of the MH17 story is stranger than fiction. What commander of an air defence brigade would order the use of a Buk-Telar in a war zone where over one hundred passenger planes a day are passing by? And then without the usual escort of a radar station and command post, which significantly increases the risk of accidents? Although the separatists knew that the Ukrainian secret service SBU was trying to eavesdrop on them and therefore used secure telephones, the Dutch Public Prosecutor does not doubt the authenticity of conversations presented by the SBU in which it can be heard that they announced the transport of the Telar and even discussed the location where it was to be installed. The Ukrainian air force could have easily stopped it, but it made no effort to do so? Within two hours after arrival the crew fired its first missile. They would have mistaken MH17 for an enemy target, so the Dutch prosecutor assumes.

In the public eye it is no question that MH17 was brought down with a Buk device imported from Russia. No wonder: over the last seven years this story was repeated over and over again through all media channels. Fact and insights that contradicted the official story of the Ukrainian, American and Dutch authorities did scarcely reach the newspaper columns and news bulletins. Unlike the mass media, however, the The Hague District Court cannot turn a blind eye to exculpatory evidence. The court will have to respond to it in any case.  On 7 March the lawyers of Oleg Pulatov, the only one of the four accused represented in court, will start the defence of their client and file their opening statement.

Is the evidence presented convincing? Seven loose pieces of a Buk missile found in the area by a Dutch recovery team and discussed at press conferences by the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) proved to be of zero value. At the court hearing on 8 June 2020, prosecutor Thijs Berger announced that forensic investigators could not establish that these parts came from the missile that brought down MH17. The missile parts, including an engine casing, venturi, stabiliser wing and data cable, may have landed near the disaster area before or after 17 July. However, the particles found in the aircraft and in the bodies of the cockpit crew could have come from a Buk missile. For example, a green lump of metal was found stuck in the left cockpit window frame. If it is determined to have come from a Buk missile, as the prosecution claims, then the murder weapon most likely was a Buk missile. Two butterfly-shaped particles would also point in that direction. One was found in the pilot's body and the other in the plane's insulation material. Note: The 9N314M warhead of a Buk missile contains 1870 of these 'butterflies'. The remaining particles would not have hit the plane, would have fallen out, or would have become so deformed that they were no longer recognizable as butterfly particles - according to the Prosecutor.

A butterfly particle found loose on a piece of wreckage by Dutch journalist Jeroen Akkermans has almost certainly been planted. Before Akkermans' arrival, the wreck was lying with the other side up. This can be seen in photos. It is not without reason that this particular particle was left unmentioned in the final report of the Dutch Safety Board (DSB). So, if the butterfly particle was indeed planted, who did it? In any case, this must have been a party that wanted to create the conviction that MH17 was shot down with a Buk missile. Apart from the butterfly particle found by Akkermans, the engine casing mentioned above could have been planted. It was only found nine months after the crash by members of the Dutch recovery team. An unknown person is said to have drawn the attention of the team to the object. Was it an agent of the Ukrainian secret service SBU? Pulatov's lawyers were not allowed to know. The Dutch Prosecution Service is not willing to reveal the identity of the finder.

Can the murder weapon be identified from the damage to the aircraft? When the DSB investigators started the recovery four months after the disaster, important parts of the wreckage had already disappeared or been damaged. In the end, only about thirty per cent of all wreckage was brought to The Netherlands. Of this thirty per cent, only a few pieces of wreckage have been used for the reconstruction of the Boeing at the Dutch airbase Gilze-Rijen, mainly the cockpit. The rest is stored in eighteen containers to which the lawyers of Pulatov were not granted access by the prosecution and the court.

The Russian Buk manufacturer Almaz-Antey points out that the butterfly impact holes in the aircraft's outer skin are missing. These should have been visible if the plane was hit with a Buk missile equipped with a 9N314M 'butterfly warhead', as alleged by the prosecution. Almaz-Antey conducted an experiment in 2015 and fired a Buk missile at the cockpit of an Ilyushin aircraft. It was clearly visible that the fuselage had been pierced by butterfly-shaped particles. The Russian experts therefore say they do not know which murder weapon was used. It could at best be a Buk missile with a warhead of an older type without butterfly parts.

Research by the Netherlands Institute for Forensics (NFI) has revealed

that some parts of the wreckage show traces of the explosive PETN. These do not exist in the warhead of Buk missiles. They only contain the explosives TNT and RDX. This is therefore strange, even though the NFI does not rule out the possibility that the PETN traces are from the warhead's fuse or booster.

If the court decides that MH17 was shot down with a Buk missile, this does not mean that the perpetrators were Russians. At least this cannot be deduced from the green lump and butterfly particles that the prosecution presented as evidence to identify the murder weapon. Ukrainian air defences possess the same types of Buk missiles and warheads as Russian air defences. It is also certain that there were several Ukrainian Buk installations positioned around the conflict area. The Dutch prosecutor's office has confirmed this, pointing to military intelligence of Dutch secret service MIVD. No Buk Telar from Russia was spotted by MIVD and its partner organisations.

So did Western intelligence overlook the supply of a Russian Buk? The prosecution believes they did. It points to photographs and videos of a Buk in rebel territory. This Buk is identical to one photographed in Russia. It is questionable whether the images are authentic, especially since they were promoted by the Ukrainian authorities and in most cases it is not clear who took them, nor does the prosecution have the original files. But even if it were established that they are authentic, they do not prove that MH17 was shot down by this installation. Some of the images appear to have been taken before July 17, and if so, that does not fit with the prosecution's narrative that assumes the fatal Buk was brought in from Russia on July 17. Even if it were established that there was a Russian Buk in rebel territory on July 17, this does not mean that it launched the fatal missile, because, as noted above, the Ukrainian anti-aircraft forces had Buk installations deployed around the conflict area anyway, of exactly the same type.

Was the deadly missile launched from an agricultural field near Pervomaiskyi, south of Snizhne, as the prosecution claims? It is undisputed that the immediate vicinity of this village was under separatist control. So if the deadly missile was fired there, it is clear who is responsible. The US government says it observed a missile launch about six kilometres south of Snizhne. However, that is not at the location of the agricultural field, which is about twelve kilometres south of the city. The The Hague court and the Dutch relatives of the victims have asked Washington for proof of their claim. But the US authorities have not provided it - no satellite images and no radar images. Moscow and Kiev have handed over primary radar images to the Dutch, but they show no missile.

So why was the agricultural field near Pervomaiskyi designated as the crime scene? The field came into the picture immediately after the Ukrainian authorities had started promoting a picture disseminated on Twitter showing a white plume which was said to be the contrail of the launch of a Buk missile. However, this photo and a second photo by the same photographer raise the question of how it is possible that the trail looks exactly the same in both photos. German engineer and MH17 blogger Michael Kobs has pointed out that the wind does not seem to affect the shape. It does not fan out. The origin of the 'Buk plume' would also have to be sought much further east than Pervomaiskyi. The wind, which came from the east, had already been acting on it for five minutes before the photographer - by his own admission - started taking pictures. It is also remarkable that not many more people photographed the white trail. The black smoke emanating from the crash site was photographed and filmed by dozens, probably more than a hundred people. Why not the alleged white Buk plume?

Satellite photos taken after the crash show traces of a caterpillar vehicle in the agricultural field, but what does that say in a war zone where armoured vehicles were driving up and down? There were also farmers with combine harvesters at work around 17 July, leaving caterpillar tracks. Two journalists, David Milller and Roland Oliphant, who visited the filed on 21 July witnessed one driving by, and even filmed it.

The satellite photos also show that the field had been on fire, but why would this have been caused by the launch of a Buk missile? Burnt fields can be seen in the wide surroundings. At that time there was heavy fighting going on.

The intercepted phone calls as presented by the SBU are crucial to the evidence in the case against the four suspects. "If the security service had not monitored and recorded the phones of the separatists, it would have become a mission impossible to solve this case," JIT investigation leader Gerrit Thiry stated in 2016. During last years' court proceedings and much to anyone's surprise it appeared that JIT had never conducted a technical investigation into the phone taps. Since they could have been tampered with, the court ordered the prosecution to rapidly correct this evident omission. Fourteen phone conversations attributed to Oleg Pulatov were sent to The Lithuanian Forensic Expertise Centre in Vilnius. The experts found no evidence of manipulation, but also concluded that the audio files submitted for examination were not the original files (!) The Lithuanian researchers also said that they did not know of any method to distinguish fake voices from real ones; they had no tools to detect voice cloning at their disposal.

Since the evidence put forward by the prosecution is far from conclusive, Oleg Pulatov's lawyers won't have a hard job defending him in court from 7 March until 1 April. The The Hague Court is expected to read the verdict on 22 September 2022, 17 November 2022 or 15 December 2022.

Eric van de Beek covers the MH17 criminal trial since March 2020. His book about the trial was published in January 2022: MH17, de onderste steen. An English language version is not available yet.  If you liked the article, please consider donating: