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MH17: Crime Scene Investigation - Part III

 By Eric van de Beek

MH17 was shot from this wheat field at the height of this tree, the prosecution thinks.
MH17 was shot from this wheat field at the height of this tree, the prosecution thinks.

 

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 and the court is still far from reaching a verdict.

 

Is the MH17 crime scene indeed the MH17 crime scene? Was the Malaysian Boeing downed from a piece of farmland near the village of Pervomaiskyi, south of the city of Snizhne? The prosecution stressed many alternative locations had been investigated by the Joint Investigation Team (JIT), including Zaroshschenske, as was suggested by subsequently the Russian Ministry of Defense and Buk manufacturer Almaz Antey. But it seems not from the same point of departure and with the same mind-set as they had approached "the main scenario". The JIT had focused on this scenario "from the very first day", prosecutor Berger said at the court session of June 9.

 

Alternative launch locations investigated by Joint Investigation Team (JIT).
Alternative launch locations investigated by Joint Investigation Team (JIT).

 

In part I of this article series we saw how the Ukrainian authorities had successfully managed to instantly direct everybody's attention to where they wanted it to be: a piece of farmland near the village of Pervomaiskyi, south of the city of Snizhne. Within only a few hours after the crash they started promoting the notorious photo of a smoke plume, of which they said it was a condensation trail of a Buk missile, and helped bloggers and journalists to find the exact location from where the photo had been taken. They simultaneously put intercepted phone calls online that suggested the rebels had downed the plane. As we've seen in another article published on Bonanza Media the prosecution regards none of the persons in the intercepts that were published on July 17 as a suspect. Nor did the prosecution present these particular intercepts as incriminating evidence.

 

36-kilomtres radius of last position

 

Launch site allegedly within a 36-kilomtres radius of the last position of flight MH17.
Launch site allegedly within a 36-kilomtres radius of the last position of flight MH17.

 

Flight MH17 was hit while it was flying at 33,000 feet at a constant airspeed of 293 knots at 13:20:02 (15.20:02 CET). That's when the flight data recorder abruptly stopped. At that time its position was 48.12715 N 38.52630538 E. It was "provisionally concluded that the launch site must have been within a 36-kilomtres radius of that position," so the prosecution stated at the court session of June 9. This calculation was based on the assumption that the maximum range of a Buk missile from the 9M38-series is 36 kilometres, they explained. Was it really? The prosecution referred to data provided by the Russian authorities, subsidiaries of Almaz Antey and the MIVD. The lawyers brought against this that a former commander of a Ukrainian Buk unit by the name of Tarankov, who had been interviewed by the JIT, had declared that a Buk missile from the 9M38-M1 series was able to eliminate objects at 45 kilometres distance. The lawyers requested the court to interview Tarankov. This request was granted, but the  interview has not taken place yet.

Was the territory within the 36-kilometres radius of the "point of impact" outside the control of the Ukrainian armed forces on 17 July 2014? "Almost completely," the prosecution said - and Almaz Antey's launch location Zaroshschenske certainly was, they suggested.  

 

Conflict zone July 14, 2014, as presented by prosecution. Green dot = crash site.
Conflict zone July 14, 2014, as presented by prosecution. Green dot = crash site.

Purple area = rebels' controlled, according to Ukraine and rebels.

Yellow area = rebels' controlled, according to rebels.

Red area = rebels' controlled, according to Ukraine.  

 

On June 9 the prosecution discussed the findings of three professional organizations that had tried to narrow the 36-kilometres radius area. The Dutch Aerospace Center (NLR) had calculated a launch area of 75 square kilometers southeast of MH17’s last position. The agricultural field near Pervomaiskyi falls within this area. The Belgian Royal Military Academy (RMA) had calculated a launch area that partially overlaps with that of the NLR.  The agricultural field near Pervomaiskyi falls outside the RMA area, the defense lawyers stressed on June 23. The prosecution did not contradict this conclusion.

The area around Zaroshchenske, as calculated by Almaz Antey, is well outside both area. 

 

In red: launch area according to RMA. In orange: launch area according to NLR.
In red: launch area according to RMA. In orange: launch area according to NLR.

 

Calculations about possible launch areas are very much dependent on assumptions made about the position of the warhead toward the Boeing at the moment it detonated. On their turn these assumptions are based on the damage pattern of the plane. Since the experts of NLR, RMA and Almaz-Antey had been given little damaged parts to study, it must have been very hard for them to make any calculations at all. "Only 30 percent of the wreckage was recovered," Pulatov's lawyers noted on June 22. Especially the fact "large parts of the cockpit section are missing", as research institute TNO put it, must have frustrated the experts. It is assumed the warhead detonated at the height of the cockpit. With essential parts of the cockpit missing, it seems no calculations can be made without a considerable margin of error.

 

Reconstruction MH17 contains only 30 % of wreckage. Still from video DSB.
Reconstruction MH17 contains only 30 % of wreckage. Still from video DSB.

 

In October 2015 a reconstruction of the Boeing was presented to the press at the Dutch air base Gilze-Rijen. It then not only showed 70 percent of the plane was missing; some parts that were available for the reconstruction had not been used for the reconstruction at all. These parts were put on display elsewhere in the hangar, among which three pieces of the cockpit roof that had been handed over earlier that year by TV-journalist Yana Yerlashova to the Dutch experts of DSB, via the administration of the village of Petropavlovka.

 

Smoke plume immune to the wind

 

Smoke plume photo was put on Twitter three hours after crash. Unenhanced, original photo.
Smoke plume photo was put on Twitter three hours after crash. Unenhanced, original photo.

 

As we've seen in part II of this article series the evidence provided by the prosecution that a Buk was fired from an agricultural field near Pervomaiskyi is far from conclusive. Moreover, the way the location was brought under the attention of the JIT and the media should ring alarm bells. From day one the Ukrainian authorities were actively involved in promoting the smoke plume photo and directing journalists to the location where the photo was taken. The lawyers of Pulatov have not yet questioned the authenticity and interpretation of the photo (or in fact "photos", because two photos were taken from the same phenomenon and from the same balcony), but they certainly will.

 

This photo of smoke plume is said to've been taken 7 seconds before second photo. Unenhanced, original photo.
This photo of smoke plume is said to've been taken 7 seconds before second photo. Unenhanced, original photo.

 

Judging from the research published by citizen journalists, who have put an incredible amount of work into the investigation of the plume photos, the amount of issues with these photos is enormous. For example, although the photos were said to be taken with an interval of seven seconds the shape of the plume looks exactly the same on both photos. It seems to be immune from wind shear effects. 

 

This comes even more visible when the photos are enhanced. It then shows there was in fact another plume, a black, grey one, that can be seen curling up into the white plume. Whereas the black smoke changes of shape in the seven seconds between the photos, the white smoke remains unchanged. 

 

Black smoke inside the white plume becomes visible when the contrast is increased.
Black smoke inside the white plume becomes visible when the contrast is increased.

 

It's still unknown what might have caused the black smoke inside the white plume. Some say it might have been from a diesel locomotive that drove past by. But there's simply no logical explanation for the fixed shape of the white plume.

 

Even if it is assumed the two plume photos aren't photoshopped or taken on another day, the prosecution has some explaining to do. They seem to have blindly trusted on the geolocation skills of Bellingcat and the anonymous blogger ukraine@war who directed journalists to the scorched field near Pervomaiskyi. The smoke plume does not seem to originate from this location at all. The plume was hovering over the field when the photographer took his pictures, but at that time the wind had already moved it from the east to the west. Citizen journalist and engineer Michel Kobs calculated the average wind speed and did some additional geolocating - and he arrived at the conclusion that the origin of the plume not only must be sought much more to the east of the field, but also at greater distance of the photographer. Kobs located the origin of the plume in a valley close to another agricultural field, that also looked unburnt on July 16th and burnt on July 20th.

 

For the best on the internet about the problems with the smoke plume photos, check out Hector Reban's blog post The trail that wasn´t a launch plume: a reconstruction and his report with the same title , in which he presents his own findings and those of forensic analyst Charles Wood and his fellow citizen journalists Michael Kobs and Max van der Werff.

 

Warplane scenario

 

Suppose in the end the prosecution would come up with conclusive evidence a Buk TELAR was present on July 17, 2014 at the designated crime scene near Pervomaiskyi. Would this incriminate the rebels and their alleged helpers from Russia? It would probably not. The Buk TELAR could have been present there, but not necessarily at the time MH17 passed by. 

 

But suppose it was proven a Buk was fired from that location at that very moment, what could have motivated a Buk TELAR crew to do so? The rebels and their alleged helpers from Russian gained nothing from the MH17 crash. It brought them nothing but trouble. And so the prosecution assumes the crew of the TELAR simply blundered. They mistook a MH17 for a war plane. The lawyers questioned this so called "error scenario". They argued the features of a passenger plane are very different from a military plane - and that a Buk TELAR has many built in safety locks to prevent the crew from wrongly identifying friendly objects for hostile targets. The defense therefore thinks Ukrainian fighter jets may have been present. They may have been shot at by he rebels using a Buk TELAR. The Buk missile possibly missed the jets and subsequently hit MH17. As I reported in one of my articles about the MH17 trial the court now seriously considers the possibility Ukrainian fighter jets were present at the time MH17 was shot down. 

 

Ukrainian Sukhoi Su-25 fighter jets were often spotted in eastern Ukraine during bombing missions.
Ukrainian Sukhoi Su-25 fighter jets were often spotted in eastern Ukraine during bombing missions.

 

Intercepted phone calls that were presented by the prosecution on June 26 substantiate the theory that the rebels were firing at Ukrainian fighter jets ("Sushkas") using a Buk TELAR. But apparently they thought it was one of those jets that downed MH17. "Sushka fucking hit the Boeing," former leader of the rebels' intelligence arm Sergey Dubinsky can be heard saying. "And ours fucking hit the Sushka with a Buk." 

These are only two alternative scenarios, both based on the premise the rebels fired a Buk from the agricultural piece of land near Pervomaiskyi. Another alternative scenario is imaginable based on this assumption: Maybe the rebels shot at the jets while someone from the Ukrainian side fired a Buk at MH17 from another location? As we've seen in the introduction of this article many Ukrainian Buk TELARs were stationed in the area. It cannot be excluded one of them moved quickly to a location at firing range of MH17, downed the plane and subsequently - with the same speed - retook its original position. 

Who knows what really happened? The truth may never be known. It's been six years now since the MH17 crash. With so many questions still surrounding the designated crime scene it may well be the prosecution has been looking in the wrong direction all along. Alternative locations offered to them were dismissed. Possibly too lightly. If the prosecution loses their case, they will get no chance to investigate them again. 

 

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Acknowledgment to Hector Reban for proof reading and to all citizen journalists mentioned in the article. Without their investigations I would never have been able to produce this article.

 

Also may thanks to those who donated to Bonanza Media. Without your financial support this and other articles would not have been published.  

 

In 2015 TV-journalist Yana Yerlashova (then RT; now Bonanza Media) visited the apartment of photographer Pavel Aleynikov. Parts of her 2015 report can be found in the video item How the BBC smeared Yana 

 

Write a comment

Comments: 1
  • #1

    Sam Bullard (Thursday, 01 October 2020 13:07)

    Thank you for writing this three part series. It is difficult to write with clarity about an obfuscated event.

    Although the court hasn’t reached a verdict, the judges consider the defendants guilty unless they can prove their innocence. The court functions more like a star chamber than a court of law where the accused are presumed innocent until their guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

    The alleged final flight data recorder position is questionable. It can’t be verified independently. Heavy debris fell nearly 4 km to the north-northwest of 48.12715N 38.52630538E, and the prevailing winds could not have caused that distribution. It doesn’t matter whether a Buk has a maximum range of 36 km or 45 km. No Buk was launched. And for what it may be worth, Dutch intelligence determined that the nearest functioning Buk system was in Ukraine’s hands at a position 65 km from the location where MH17’s controlled flight ended.

    As Eric van de Beek noted, the pathetic reconstruction included a fraction of the 30% of debris that was recovered. If the reconstruction was more complete then more people would see that the damage is not consistent with the damage that a Buk would inflict. They would see that studying pictures of a wind-defying smoke plume makes about as much sense as consulting an ouija board. They would see that arguing about who controlled what territory is pointless. They would see that is it fruitless to wonder if someone moved a Buk TELAR within range, fired, and then slipped away.

    Fighters were indeed in the area. If anyone shot at them then it would have been with small arms or MANPADs that can’t reach 33,000 feet. The fighters weren’t close enough to fire on MH17 effectively with autocannon. Their air-to-air missiles lacked the power to break up a Boeing 777 within the 10 second interval between radar sweeps from the Ust-Donetsk radar station.

    Rumors have circulated from the beginning that MH17 was shot down by accident. One version suggest a training accident by the Ukrainian army. Another suggests that the rebels attempted to shoot down a fighter. Yet another version is that MH17 was mistaken for Vladimir Putin’s plane. All such rumors are rubbish. The biggest miscarriage of justice won’t be the wrongful conviction of the accused. It will be the acceptance of a lie that the downing of MH17 was anything other than premeditated murder.