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 series no radar or satellite data was presented in court in which a Buk or other missile can be spotted. None of the intercepted calls that were played convincingly demonstrated the involvement of the rebels in eastern Ukraine, nor have eyewitnesses come forward to testify in court against the four accused. In Part II we reflected on the butterfly shaped particle that was found in the body of the captain and an identical particle in the wreckage. This would indicate a Buk 9N314M warhead, but since clearly recognizable butterfly shaped holes are absent in the skin of the plane the particles could have been planted.
Whenever particles are found from a Buk 9N314M warhead, there must have been a missile that carried the warhead. In its September 2016 press conference JIT discussed a venturi (exhaust) and a stabilizing fin that had been found at the crash site.
In its May 24, 2018 press conference the JIT showed both the venturi and a casing of a Buk missile engine. They asked the public to help them identify both missile parts. Did anyone recognize the handwriting of the person who had engraved the numbers? What did the numbers say? From which missile did the venturi and casing originate? And to which military unit had the missile been delivered?
An answer to the latter question came from the Russian Ministry of Defense. In a September 2018 press conference Nikolai Parshin, chief of the Missile and Artillery Directorate, declared the missile had been delivered in 1987 to a Ukrainian unit and that it never had been returned. To substantiate this claim he presented documents of the Soviet missile administration and subsequently sent these to the JIT. Ukraine reacted by saying no such missile was registered in their administration.
The lawyers of the defendant Pulatov therefore requested the court to interview a delegate from the Russian Ministry of Defense about the Russian missile administration. The judge rejected this request by saying that "the court does not see how interviewing this witness can contribute to answering the question of where a specific missile mentioned in those records was located in the year 2014". Apparently the judge was of the opinion that a missile delivered to a Ukrainian unit could have easily been returned to Russia.
The court however allowed the defense to interview members from the recovery mission who secured "a pipe and three shards" that are believed to be from a Buk missile (the 'pipe' being the casing of a Buk missile engine). The defense thinks they may have been planted, or that they could have been from a Ukrainian Buk that was launched before or after July 17, 2014. The parts were secured only in April 2015, after a witness had directed the recovery mission to the location where he had seen these components a few weeks before for the first time. The lawyers want to know why this witness hadn't seen them there before. Had this person not visited this location before? Or had the components suddenly popped up?
At the June 8, 2020 court session prosecutor Thijs Berger revealed that the forensic investigators had not been able to establish whether the parts presented at the press conferences of the JIT (venturi, casing, stabilizing fin and data cable) plus the above mentioned three shards originated from the missile that had downed MH17. These "non aircraft" objects could have arrived in the area before or after July 17, 2014. It was just a casual remark, made by Berger, and therefore probably left unnoticed by the press, but of great importance to the case. For five years in a row the aforementioned missile parts had been studied thoroughly and the media had presented them as essential forensic evidence. But now they turned out to be worthless.
Green metal lump stuck in cockpit window believed to be from a Buk missile.
The prosecution service however appeared to be pretty sure about an object found in the wreckage they think belonged to either a 9M38 or 9M38M1 Buk missile. It's a green metal lump as big as a golf ball, wedged in the frame of the second left-hand cockpit window. "Forensic experts concluded that it's very unlikely that it could have entered the frame of the cockpit window at any other time than during the emergence of the other damages and penetrations," Berger stressed during the June 26 court session. A forensic expert of the Australian Police (AFP) had concluded the object must have been the umbilical base plate of the rear section of a Buk missile. "It's a connecting piece joining the rocket to the Buk Telar," Berger explained.
In addition Berger said more material had been found in parts of the wreckage and in the bodies of the victims that originated from a Buk missile. He didn't say how many. At the June 26 court session he only gave two examples: a small part of stainless steel found in the body of the first officer of team B and another small part of stainless steel wedged in a piece of wing spar. He mentioned a study of the National Forensic Institute (NFI) that had concluded that it was "more likely" these parts and the green metal lump belonged to a sliding panel of a Buk missile than to any other object made out of stainless steel.
Evidence for Russian Buk?
On July 3 the court ordered the Public Prosecution Service to give Pulatov's lawyers the opportunity to visit the reconstruction of the MH17 at Dutch airbase Gilze-Rijen with an expert of their own choice. This expert will probably focus on at least three things:
First the expert will study the green metal lump. Could it really have been a sliding panel or umbilical base plate of the rear section of a Buk missile? And was it really as stuck in the cockpit window that it impossibly could have been planted?
Secondly he will inspect the impact holes in the skin of the plane, and see if any of these could have been caused by butterfly-shaped particles from a 9N314M warhead which contains around 1,870 butterfly-shaped particles.
Thirdly the expert will assess the fact that only two butterfly shaped particles were found in the MH17 wreckage. The expert might want to consult Almaz Antey. In an open letter to the chairman of the Dutch Safety Board (DSB) the deputy head of the Russia Federal Air Transport Agency Rosaviatsia wrote that Almaz Antey had learned from a field experiment with a Buk on a IL-86 cockpit that 96 percent of the fragments had kept their butterfly-shape after impact. According to the NFI sixteen particles that were collected at the MH17 crash site had originally been butterfly-shaped. Did the NFI correctly identify them as butterfly-shaped fragments from a Buk 9N314M warhead?
If the answer to the three questions above is 'no', then probably there was no Buk missile involved in the downing of MH17. And even if the answer were 'yes', the case is far from solved. Not every Buk equipped with a 9N314M warhead is a Russian Buk. The Ukrainian armed forces have a total of 96 9M38M1 Buk missiles at their disposal, the lawyers of Pulatov noted at the June 23 court session . Buk manufacturer Almaz Antey delivers this type of missile standard equipped with a 9N314M warhead.
According to the Dutch Military Intelligence and Security Service MIVD a total of twelve Buk installations were stationed in the wider area of the crash site; of which three Russian installations at the Russian side of the border - and nine Ukrainian at the Ukrainian side of the border. None of them were spotted at shooting range of MH17. The MIVD thinks it's "unlikely" one of the Ukrainian installations was moved into a position where it could have hit the Boeing. Strangely enough it does not make such assessment about the Russian installations. Nevertheless the closest installation in use was Ukrainian. It was last spotted at 98 km from the alleged launch location. The nearest operational Russian installation was at 106 km distance.
According to the prosecution the Ukrainian armed forces did not fire any Buk missiles during the conflict in eastern Ukraine until December 9, 2014.
This was the last part in a three part series about the evidence provided by the Dutch Public Prosecution Service for the theory MH17 was downed by a Buk installation delivered from the Russian Federation.
Acknowledgment to Hector Reban for his proofreading.