Placing MH17 disaster in context, ahead of Dutch report

On JULY 17, 2014 Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 crashed in Eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. A preliminary report by the Dutch Safety Board released on September 9, 2014 based on examination of the debris, covering a large area controlled by Russian-backed militants, concluded that an external force brought down the civilian airliner, stating the aircraft “broke up in the air probably as the result of structural damage caused by a large number of high-energy objects that penetrated the aircraft from outside.”

Russia denied any involvement, despite ever growing evidence to the contrary. Russian officials held press conferences and began to offer a stream of alternative explanations and conspiracy theories, some crazier than others.


Alexander Borodai and other leaders of, self-proclaimed
Russian PR man Alexander Borodai and other leaders of self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” at the MH17 Crash Site, July 17, 2014

At the same time, Russia-led “separatists” made it very difficult for independent investigators to gather evidence. In fact, much of the evidence, including victims’ remains, remained on the ground for months. Locals are still finding debris from the crash.

More than a year later, official reports are starting to be made public. The Dutch Safety Board has conducted a 15-month multinational investigation which is set to release its report tomorrow October 13. The Dutch Safety Board will also display its reconstruction of the airplane for the first time at the Gilze-Rijen air base. Relatives of the passengers are bracing themselves, but the report is likely to give only partial answers as it will not deal with assigning blame or culpability.

A second criminal investigation by the Dutch prosecutor’s office is due to be released in 2016 which is charged with assessing responsibility for the tragedy.

Though we have to wait for this criminal investigation to be completed, there is a lot we already know about who likely shot down MH17. But to understand how such a disaster could have happened in the first place, it’s important to look at what was happening in the region at the time.

The shooting down of MH17 didn’t occur in a vacuum. Rather it belongs squarely within the context of Russia’s recent campaign to discredit, demoralize and defeat militarily Ukraine’s new pro-Western government which came to power after the pro-democracy Euromaidan Revolution succeeded in ousting massively corrupt pro-Kremlin Yanukovych. In fact, one could say, it was a tragedy waiting to happen, given that Russia was visibly ramping up its military involvement in regions it claimed to be controlled by local separatist insurgents.

Here’s a brief outline of the major events in the months and days preceding the MH17 disaster:

  • February 2014: Ukraine pro-democracy (Euromaidan) protests succeeded in ousting Russia-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych, who flees to Russia.
  • February 2014: Russia begins intensive propaganda war to discredit new government and its supporters as “neo-Nazi coup supported by CIA.”
  • March 2014: Russia sends massive forces to Crimea, who take over the Parliament and declare Crimea wants to leave Ukraine and reunite with Russia. A Referendum is hastily called. Native Crimean Tatars boycot the referendum.
  • March 2014:  The Russian Duma officially annexes Crimea.
  • April 2014: Russian special forces GRU arrive in Ukrainian border city of Donetsk, take over the Police Station, then the TV stations, the only source of news for most locals. “Separatists” declare People’s Republic of Donetsk and People’s Republic of Luhansk.
  • April 2014: Ukraine’s interim government announces military effort, dubbed ATO (Anti-Terrorist Operation) to defend Ukrainian territory from Russian-backed “separatists.”
  • June-July 2014: Ukraine ATO succeeds in heading back Russia-backed forces. Russia escalates with new military strategy backed with new sophisticated anti-aircraft weaponry: Russia would deny airspace to Ukrainian jets, restricting it to using only ground troops. Numerous military convoys are seen crossing the border into Ukraine during this time. At least a dozen Ukrainian military planes are shot down by militants.
  • Days before July 17: Several Ukrainian aircraft are shot down in the ATO, separatist-controlled East Ukraine. A Ukrainian Sukhoi Su-25 jet is shot down by an air-to-air missile on evening of July 16. Pro-Russian rebels claim they downed a second Su-25 the same day; Ukraine officials say it was hit by a ground-launched missile. On July 14, a Ukrainian military transport is hit by a missile.
  • July 17: MH17 shot down over occupied eastern Ukraine. Intercepted conversations reveal discussions of a downed plane; militants’ social media praises the hit, thinking it was another Ukrainian military plane.

What occurred on the day of the the crash, July 17, has been carefully analyzed by Bellingcat, an independent open-source investigative website. On October 8, 2015 Bellingcat published its MH17 dossier, based on mass open-source data collected from witnesses posting photos and videos to social media, some just hours before the disaster. One photo even shows a vapor trail left by the missile. Bellingcat was able to trace the movement of a BUK missile launch system newly brought in from Russia to separatist-controlled territory in Ukraine, where it was seen being transported to the launch site on the very day MH17 was shot down. Bellingcat concludes MH17 was shot down by this BUK. All of Bellingcat’s evidence has been confirmed by geolocation and eyewitness reports.

51Bellingcat’s Timeline for July 17, 2014

  • 10:45 am: Departed Donetsk eastbound along H21
  • 11:00 am – 12:00 pm: Passed Zuhres and Shakhtersk en route to Torez along H21
  • 12:00 pm – 12:45 pm: Entered and then passed through Torez (eastbound)
  • 1:00 pm: Entered Snizhne
  • 1:30 pm – 2:30 pm: Buk was unloaded from the Volvo low-loader truck in Snizhne; left the city (southbound)
  • 4:20 pm: MH17 shot down

Bellingcat concludes: “On July 17, 2014 a Buk missile launcher, originating from the 53rd Brigade near Kursk, Russia, travelled from Donetsk to Snizhne. It was then unloaded and drove under its own power to a field south of Snizhne, where at approximately 4:20 pm it launched a surface-to-air missile that hit Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 as it flew over Ukraine. On the morning of July 18, the Buk missile launcher was driven from Luhansk, Ukraine, across the border to Russia.”

Russian authorities through the Ministry of Defense and other official organs have put forth their own versions of the tragedy, claiming either (1) Ukrainian military jet shot down the Boeing, or (2) a Ukrainian missile was launched from Ukrainian-held territory. The Kremlin has attempted not only to avert blame but it has also sought to subvert the overwhelming evidence pointing to its own involvement. Analyzing each claim, Bellingcat has systematically refuted all of Russia’s attempts. In fact, Bellingcat not only established Russia’s claims to be false, but in some cases it has proven that Russia’s Ministry of Defense provided fabricated satellite images to support its erroneous accusations.

“Alternative scenarios presented by the Russian Ministry of Defense and Almaz-Antey are at best deeply flawed, and at worst show a deliberate attempt to mislead using fabricated evidence.”

You can read Euromaidan Press for a detailed summary of the evidence here.

It’s interesting to note the similarities between Russia’s official denials in involvement in the MH17 disaster and what we now recognize as familiar patterns of Kremlin tactical information warfare. Blame your enemies, confuse the public, deny, lie and fabricate evidence, slur critics. Here, the Kremlin has hit several birds with the same missile, as it were. In blaming Ukraine, the Kremlin not only blames someone else for its criminal involvement, it has managed to use a horrific tragedy as another convenient opportunity to further malign its recent enemy, Ukraine.

Russia has temporarily succeeded in “changing the subject” from Ukraine and MH17 by undertaking military intervention in Syria. But tomorrow, when the Dutch Report is published, the focus will return to Russia’s behavior in Ukraine. Not surprisingly, Russian media propaganda, which has been taking a break from pounding Ukraine, is already maligning the Report before it even comes out. Russian media has also been attempting to discredit Bellingcat and its ingenious founder Eliot Higgins, calling him an “unqualified clerk.”

Seems that “clerk” has uncovered the truth, despite all of Russia’s efforts, including the now infamous Russian veto of a UN Security Council resolution calling for an international tribunal to investigate MH17. And the truth evidently still stings, even behind the fortress walls of the Kremlin.

A version of this article appears at


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