MH17 – two years later, part 3.
This is the third part of the report Bellingcat “MH17 – The Open Source Investigation, Two Years Later”. First part you can see here: MH17 – two years later, the second part you can see here: MH17 – two years later, part 2. Also you can see the fourth part: MH17 – two years later, part 4.
This tear on the rubber side skirt can be identified in the exact same location on the Buk seen in Ukraine. Over the past two years, members of the Bellingcat investigation team have compared the features of Buk 332, seen both in Russia and Ukraine in the summer of 2014, with every other Buk photographed or filmed in 2013 and 2014 in Russia and Ukraine discovered by investigators. No other Buk has even half of the same details seen on this Buk, including the number, exact placement of the various white marks, the side skirt “fingerprint” profile, and other features. Russian Buk 332 of the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade is the same Buk photographed and filmed in eastern Ukraine on July 17 and 18, 2014.
Tracking the 53rd Brigade Convoy
The full power of open source information gathering can be seen in the reconstruction of the convoy of the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade from their base near Kursk to the RussiaUkraine border in June 2014.
This convoy, which included Buk 332, was photographed and filmed by ordinary Russian civilians who lived along this convoy’s route. Each of the images and videos were geolocated to the exact location where it was captured, providing an accurate representation of the convoy’s route.
It was possible to confirm which members and battalions of the 53rd Brigade were part of the convoy. Furthermore, Bellingcat’s research into the convoy identified the military transport battalions involved in the convoy, including the identities of individuals who could have driven the vehicle transporting Buk 332. The information published on Bellingcat, and additional unpublished information, has been provided to the Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team investigating the downing of MH17.
Members of the 53rd Brigade
The 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade was originally linked to Buk 332 by matching vehicles present in the June 23 – 25 convoy with vehicles visible in photographs taken by members of the 53rd Brigade at their base near Kursk. Bellingcat spent nearly one and a half years investigating the 53rd Brigade. With over 200 soldiers’ social media profiles identified, it has been possible to confirm the identity and roles of many members of the 53rd Brigade and their involvement in the June convoy that transported Buk 332 to the Russia-Ukraine border.
The 53rd Brigade is made up of three battalions: the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd. The 1st and 2nd Battalions were active in the summer of 2014, while the 3rd Battalion was used for training. The 2nd Battalion was responsible for the transport of Buk 332, which replaced the 2nd Battalion’s missile launcher numbered 222 in the convoy. The organizational structure of the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade is shown above.
Information regarding the commanders and soldiers of the 53rd Brigade can be found in Bellingcat’s February 2016 report, Potential Suspects and Witnesses from the 53rd AntiAircraft Missile Brigade. An uncensored version of this report, which reconstructed the leadership structure of the brigade and identified specific individuals who were most likely in command of Buk 332 and held decision-making power in sending a Buk into Ukraine, was provided to the Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team, the criminal investigation into the downing of MH17.
The Response from Russia
In the two years since the downing of MH17, a wide range of theories and claims about the circumstances surrounding the crash have been proposed by a range of sources. This section of the report will focus on those claims coming from Russia, focusing on the Russian government and the Russian government-owned Buk missile manufacturer Almaz-Antey. While there are many more claims from blogs, news sites, and conspiracy theorists, this report focuses on what can be considered official Russian government sources.
The Response from Russia
On July 21, 2014, the Russian Defence Ministry (MoD) gave a press conference in which they presented their evidence on MH17 regarding who may have been responsible for the attack. Their evidence uniformly pointed towards the Ukrainian government, but in the Russian argument, the methods by which the attack was conducted was not consistent. In its press conference, the Russian MoD made four primary claims:
- The video published by the Ukrainian Ministry of Interior showing a Buk in separatistcontrolled
Luhansk was in fact filmed in government-controlled Krasnoarmeysk
- MH17 changed its course significantly just before being shot down.
- Radar imagery shows an aircraft close to MH17 shortly after it was shot down.
- Satellite imagery shows Ukrainian Buk missile launchers missing from their base and
deployed dozens of kilometers away on July 17 in eastern Ukraine.
Since the July 21 press conference, it has been possible to establish that all four claims were
false, and, in some cases, the Russian Defence Ministry produced fabricated evidence to
support their claims
1. The Luhansk Video
In the Russian Defence Ministry’s July 21 press conference, they claimed that the video posted by the Ukrainian Ministry of Interior showing a Buk in Luhansk on July 18 had actually been filmed in a government-controlled city:
For example, media circulated a video supposedly showing a Buk system being moved from Ukraine to Russia. This is clearly a fabrication. This video was made in the town of Krasnoarmeisk, as evidenced by the billboard you see in the background, advertising a car dealership at 34 Dnepropetrovsk Street. Krasnoarmeisk has been controlled by the Ukrainian military since May 11.
However, it was possible to establish the true location the video was filmed using open source investigation techniques, which confirmed the billboard’s exact location in separatistcontrolled Luhansk. This location was visited by a Luhansk local who took photographs of the area which both helped confirm the location, and what was written on the billboard.
It is clear that not only was the location claimed by the Russian Defence Ministry incorrect, but the billboard’s text is very different from the text the Russian Defence Ministry claimed was on the billboard. The location was also confirmed as being in Luhansk by a number of news organisations and journalists who visited the location. Freelance journalist Billy Six not only visited the site, confirming the location, but also met the woman who claims to have filmed the Luhansk video.7
2. MH17’s Significant Change in Course
The Russian Defence Ministry presented the following image during the press conference, claiming that MH17 had significantly diverted from its course (see previous image.)
The Russian Defence Ministry stated that:
On the scheme you can see the international airway. The Boeing-777 was supposed to fly on this airway. Draw your attention to the fact that the aircraft followed inside the specified aircorridor to Donetsk, then it deviated from the route to north. Meanwhile the maximum distance from the left border of the air-corridor was 14 kilometers. Then we can see that the Boeing-777 turned back to the borders of the specified air-corridor. Nevertheless Malaysian aircrew didn’t succeed the maneuver. At 17.20 we entered the event of the aircraft rate reduction, at 17.23 the aircraft’s point blinked off on the radar. Why did the aircraft cross the border of the air-corridor? Was it the navigation mistake, or the aircrew followed the Dnepropetrovsk ground control orders? We will find the answers after “black boxes” and communication decoding.
Section 2.1 Dutch Safety Board report answered the questions that the Russian Defence Ministry asked, showing that MH17 had been on an entirely different course than that which was claimed by the Russian Defence Ministry and had not changed course in the way described in the Russian Defence Ministry’s imagery. Unlike other parts of the Dutch Safety Board report, the Russian government did not challenge the Dutch Safety Board’s claims regarding the flight path.
3. Russia’s Radar Data
The Russian Defence Ministry also presented radar data showing MH17 and claimed “Russian system of air control detected the Ukrainian Air Force aircraft, purposed Su-25, moving upwards toward to the Malaysian Boeing-777. The distance between aircrafts was 3-
5 kilometers.” Chief of Staff of the Air Force Lieutenant-General Igor Makushev was then invited to comment on the radar data:
At 17.20 P.M. at the distance of 51 kilometers from the Russian Federation state boundary and the azimuth of 300 degrees the aircraft started to lose its speed obstructively which is quite distinctively to be seen on the table of the aircraft characteristics. At 17.21 35 seconds P.M. with the aircraft speed of 200 km/h at the point of the Boeing crash there is a new mark of the aircraft to be seen. The aircraft was steadily monitored by radar stations of Ust-Donetsk and Butirinskoe during 4 minutes period. Air control officer having enquired the characteristics of newly appeared aircraft couldn’t possibly get them because it is in all likelihood that the aircraft had no secondary deduction system amounted on it, which is put typically for military aircraft. The early detection of this aircraft appeared to be quite impossible because the air situation control is usually performed by radars working in a standby mode which detection possibilities at the given distance are over 5000 m altitude. The detection of the aircraft turned out to be possible as the aircraft ascend it.
However, radar experts were interviewed by a number of news organizations who gave a different opinion, with Dutch NOS news asking four experts to give their opinions. Comments included, “it is really impossible for [it to be] a fighter,” “no aircraft was in the vicinity of flight MH17,″ “it seems likely that the signals are the wreckage of MH17,″ and “falling debris are the most likely explanation.” The BBC documentary The Conspiracy Files, Who Shot Down MH17? included the former air accident investigator David Gleave who stated, “I’ve seen a lot of radar data in my time as an investigator and when aircraft break up in midair some of the time they can continue to transmit radar data on the way down. They may well change direction, because they’ve lost the tail or something like that, so they don’t the stability to carry on in a straight line.” The Dutch Safety Board also stated had “explicitly ruled out…the presence of military aircraft in the immediate vicinity of flight MH17” and “within 30km of flight MH17 no (military) aircraft were present at the time of the crash.”
4. Russian Satellite Imagery
Russia also presented sets of satellite imagery showing three different locations, including two military bases and a field outside the town of Zaroshchenske. At one military base near Donetsk, the A-1428, it was claimed that images from July 14 and July 17 showed that a Buk missile launcher had moved from the base on July 17. Oleg Storchevoy, the deputy head of the Federal Air Transport Agency, which represented the Russian Federation during the Dutch Safety Board investigation into MH17, stated in a February 2016 statement that these images
“confirm, among other things, that there was movement and increased activity by Ukrainian Buk surface-to-air missile systems observed within the conflict area in Eastern Ukraine one day ahead of the tragedy.
However, comparisons of available Google Earth historical imagery of the same location on July 17 show a number of clear discrepancies. For example, large areas of vegetation visible in the July 14 Ministry of Defense images were absent from the July 17 Google Earth image.
Historical satellite imagery of the same location from July 2 and 21 of the same area on Google Earth confirms that the vegetation had been cleared weeks before July 17. Patches of wornaway grass visible in the Russian Defence Ministry imagery were also absent in the Google Earth July 17 imagery.
But, as with some of the other discrepancies between the images, the patches of missing grass were visible in earlier historical imagery on Google Earth, clearly showing the Russian Defence Ministry images were from weeks before MH17 was shot down.
An analysis from two analysts at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) provides additional evidence that the Russian Defence Ministry purposefully misdated the images, as they could not have possibly been taken at the time claimed.
In Spring 2016 Bellingcat contacted the Geospatial Technologies Project at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) with a request to independently review the satellite images provided by the Russian Defence Ministry on July 21 2014. AAAS tasked two analysts who each independently reviewed these images, and the AAAS responded to Bellingcat with details of their findings. The following is a summary of those findings.
AAAS were provided with Digital Globe images of the Ukrainian A1428 military base on June 7 2014 and July 17 2014. The AAAS analysts applied shadow analysis techniques to examine the Digital Globe and Russian Defence Ministry imagery of the A1428 military base, with the first step being to determine how accurately the solar azimuth and elevation could be derived from the features present in each image. Three points were identified that were visible in Russian Defence Ministry Imagery and the Digital Globe imagery, two poles on an archway, and a tall tree located southeast of the archway.
Image highlighting the object used to measure solar azimuth
The azimuth of shadows cast by each object were measured twice in respect to true north, the measurements were then averaged and converted into solar azimuth by subtracting 180 degrees. The figures were then compared to the solar azimuth reported by the image’s metadata, as well as results of the online solar position calculator provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Analysts used this analysis to evaluate whether the timeline suggested by the Russian Defence Ministry was plausible.
First examining the June 7 2014 and July 17 2014 Digital Globe images analysts found the solar azimuth in the metadata and NOAA solar azimuth were identical, with the mean solar azimuth deviating from between 0.20 and 1.85 degrees on the archway’s poles, and 3.15 to 4.80 on the tree. The great deviation was stated to be likely due to the trees irregular shape reducing the accuracy of the measurement.
The Russian Defence Ministry’s imagery was then examined. The Russian imagery did not contain metadata with solar azimuth information. The time stated on the imagery was converted to Zulu time, with the assumption the time was referring to Moscow Time, which is also the local time in Eastern Ukraine. Using the NOAA calculator, the expected solar azimuth was calculated, and the deviation calculated based on the shadows visible in the Russian Defence Ministry imagery.
The July 14 2014 Russian Defence Ministry image of the A1428 base was found to have a mean azimuth deviation of 15.91 and 11.41 on each pole, and 7.41 on the tree, while the July 17 2014 image, where only the tree is visible, had deviation of 9.76. This significant discrepancy would indicate that either the time on the image is incorrect, the date on the image is incorrect, or both the time and date are incorrect.
After publishing these images, it was discovered that the same satellite imagery had been published by the SBU in July 2014. The Russian Defence Ministry responded by claiming that the SBU was presenting falsified images. However, it is clear that the SBU images are genuine (although something with the RGB color channels inverted to BGR for an unknown reason), and that the Russian Defence Ministry presented and defended images that are purposefully dated incorrectly, and heavily edited.
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