By Eric van de Beek
Malaysian flight MH17 was downed by a Buk missile delivered from Russia and fired from territory controlled by rebels in eastern Ukraine. This narrative was propagated from day one by the Ukrainian secret service SBU. Most people take it for a fact now. But the MH17 trial has just started. It's not even been established yet a Buk was fired; let alone a Russian Buk.
Was it really a Buk that hit MH17? A Russian Buk? As we've seen in Part I of this article series no radar or satellite data was presented in court showing a Buk or any other missile. Nor did any of the intercepted phone calls presented by the Dutch Public Prosecution Service convincingly demonstrate the involvement of the rebels in eastern Ukraine. Two anonymous witnesses, pre-selected by Ukrainian secret service SBU, have stated they saw the launch of the fatal missile, but they will not testify in court.
In the June 22 court session the lawyers of the defendant Oleg Pulatov declared that the experts are all of the same opinion: It's "highly unlikely" a crew of a Buk TELAR anti aircraft system would mistake a passenger plane such as MH17 for a military plane. The features of a passenger plane are very different, the lawyers argued - and a Buk TELAR has many built in safety locks to prevent the crew from wrongly identifying friendly objects for hostile targets.
The lawyers furthermore questioned the assumption of the Public Prosecution Service that the alleged Buk warhead had detonated before hitting MH17 after its proximity fuse had detected the plane. According to the lawyers that's what would happen with a fighter jet, but not with a target that cannot be missed, like a passenger plane. In such case a Buk missile would have moved in a straight line for a direct hit with the plane by using its impact fuse instead of its proximity fuse. This would probably lead to a different damage pattern than is seen on MH17.
Was MH17 hit by an air-to-air missile?
What physical evidence is there for a Russian Buk? "Only 30 percent of the wreckage was recovered," the defense kicked of their plea on June 22. Until today large parts of the wreckage stayed in the area, and some parts that were handed over to the Dutch Safety Board (DSB) and that were transported to Dutch air force base Gilze Rijen were even left out of the reconstruction of the Boeing. Those investigating the wreckage therefore must have felt limited in their capacity to draw sound conclusions.
The defense discussed a report by Mattijs Koeberg of the Netherlands Forensic Institute (NFI) that was not made public. In the report Koeberg doesn't exclude the possibility that there had been more explosions in the air and on the ground than one. He also found that the damage pattern of MH17 is compatible with R-33 and R-37 air-to-air missiles. According to the lawyers these types of missiles can be launched by a MIG 31 Foxhound, MIG 25 and Su-27. The Ukrainian Air Force has actively used Su-27 fighter jets during the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
The Public Prosecutor however excludes the possibility that MH17 was hit by a R-33 or R-37 missile. Both the Dutch Military and Intelligence Service MIVD and a soldier from the Ukrainian Air Force by the name of Bilov have declared the Ukrainian Armed Forces did not use these types of missiles in an operational sense in July 2014, the prosecution argues.
Was MH17 hit by another ground-to-air missile than a Buk?
From all surface to air (SAM) missile systems that are capable of bringing down a passenger plane at an altitude of 10 kilometres, MH17 could only have been hit by a Buk - the prosecution thinks. Why? At the June 9 court session prosecutor Thijs Berger presented ten other types of SAMs used by Ukraine and the Russian Federation. Although being able to hit targets at 10 kilometres none of these SAMs could have taken down MH17, Berger argued. Although the NFI had found that the damage pattern on the wreckage was compatible with both the 2K11 Krug (SA-4 Ganef) and S-300V (SA-23 Gladiator), the MIVD had subsequently ruled out the possibility that any of these two SAMs were involved in the downing of MH17, because none of them had been spotted in the area, according to the intelligence available to the MIVD - Berger explained.
It's not that the MIVD hadn't seen any SAM systems with a firing range of 10 kilometres. Apart from several Buk installations (see part III of this article series) the MIVD reported that a Ukrainian S-300PS (SA-10B Grumble) and a Russian S-300PM2 (SA-20B Gargoyle) had been spotted. But these could never have downed MH17, Berger argued. According to the NFI, the damage pattern of the wreckage is incompatible with both weapons.
Berger did not explain why the Dutch Public Prosecution thinks that, apart from the Buk system, the Ukrainian and Russian military have only ten other types of SAMs at their disposal that are capable of hitting a target at an altitude of 10 kilometres. According to the report of The Netherlands Aerospace Centre NLR there are much more of these operational within the Russian Federation and Ukraine, namely twenty. The lawyers of Pulatov didn't mention this discrepancy. But they rightfully criticized the report. They found that the NLR had not even bothered to look into the possibility MH17 was downed by another type of missile than a Buk. They a priori concluded only a SAM from the 9M38 Buk series could have hit MH17 because, as they wrote in their report, "only the 9M38 series missiles of the BUK surface-to-air missile family are equipped with a fragmentation warhead which contains unique butterfly-shaped particles found in the wreckage of flight MH17."
Butterflies aka bowties
Indeed butterfly-shaped particles (also known as i-beams or bowties) were found at the crash site - and no other warheads contain this kind of particles. But, of the 1,870 butterfly-shaped particles that are inside a 9N314M warhead of a 9M38 or 9M38M1 Buk missile, only one was found in the cockpit and one in the body of the pilot, the Dutch Safety Board (DSB) reported. Since the crash site was left unsupervised for months this lead to speculations the particle in the cockpit could have been planted.
As for the particle in the remains of the pilot: it cannot be excluded it was planted as well. Before being brought to The Netherlands for post mortem examinations, a team of international experts among which police officers from Interpol performed preliminary examinations in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv on the remains of the victims. Also: 37 bodies were kept in a mortuary in the rebels controlled city of Donetsk before being transported to Kharkiv.
A year after the crash the ultra-nationalist Ukrainian outlet censor.net published photos from the procedure in Kharkiv. One showed an X-ray photo of the body of a crew member, another the bowtie that had been retrieved from the captain’s body. It's still a mystery how the chief editor of censor.net Yuri Butusov received these photos.
There's no evidence that any of the above mentioned butterfly shaped particles was planted. But a third butterfly that was picked up from the crash site by Dutch journalist Jeroen Akkermans showed all the characteristics of being planted. It therefore was probably left unmentioned by the prosecution.
Moreover, the damage pattern on the wreckage did not seem to match with the damage caused by a 9N314M warhead either. Buk-manufacturer Almaz Antey showed in a field experiment how an airplane hit by such warhead looks like: clearly recognizable butterfly shaped entry holes all over. Judging from the DSB-report, the skin of the Malaysian Boeing did not contain any butterfly-shaped holes at all. Almaz Antey furthermore showed they retrieved quite a few recognizable butterfly shaped particles from the IL-86 cockpit they had used for their experiment.
And so, with only three butterfly-shaped particles found at the crash site on a total of 1,870 combined with the fact the skin of the plane did not clearly show the impact of butterfly-shaped particles, it's indeed rather strange NLR excluded the possibility MH17 was hit by another missile than a Buk equipped with a 9N314M warhead. In the NLR report not a single word was spent on the absence of butterfly-shaped impact holes in the wreckage.
Five years later, during the MH17 court session of June 8, 2020, the Public Prosecution Service addressed the mystery of the missing butterfly-particles. Some - if not most - particles had lost their original shape, prosecutor Thijs Berger claimed. This had been caused by the explosion of the warhead and subsequently by the perforation of the plane.
In the bodies of the cockpit crew a total of 29 particles had been found and 341 in the wreckage. Some of these particles must have been butterfly-shaped, Berger argued. But not all of them. Apart from butterflies a Buk 9N314M warhead contains square-shaped particles (tiles aka squares) and cubicle-shaped particles (rods aka fillers). Like with the butterflies some of the tiles and rods had lost their original shape. Since butterfly-shaped particles are bigger and heavier than their square and cubical shaped 'brothers and sisters' The Netherlands Forensic Institute (NFI) was able to establish that sixteen of the particles that had lost their original shape must have been butterflies.
Berger indirectly rejected the suggestion that the butterfly particle in the captain's body could have been planted. The NFI had found melted glass traces on steel fragments in the bodies of crew members with the elemental composition of the cockpit glass, he said, among which the butterfly-shaped particle.
Berger however gave no explanation for the absence of butterfly shaped holes in the hull of the MH17-wreckage. And until now the defence has not yet brought up this subject.
Coming up: Russian ghost Buk haunts MH17 court part III. About the question: Where's the missile that carried the warhead?