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Investigators Conclude Flight MH-17 Shot Down By Missile Brought Into Ukraine From Russia

Malaysia Air Flight 17 Crash Scene

An investigation into the 2014 downing of Malaysia Air Flight 17 over Ukraine has determined that the passenger jet was brought down by a missile brought into eastern Ukraine by Russia as part of its support for pro-Russian rebels:

A Dutch-led investigation has concluded that the powerful surface-to-air missile system used to shoot down a Malaysia Airlines plane over Ukraine two years ago, killing all 298 on board, was trucked in from Russia at the request of Russian-backed separatists and returned to Russia the same night.

The report largely confirmed the Russian government’s already widely documented role not only in the deployment of the missile system — called a Buk, or SA-11 — but also in the subsequent cover-up, which continues to this day.

The report, by a team of prosecutors from the Netherlands, Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and Ukraine, was significant for applying standards of evidence admissible in court while still building a case directly implicating Russia, and it is likely to open a long diplomatic and legal struggle.

With meticulous detail, working with cellphone records, social media, witness accounts and other evidence, the prosecutors traced Russia’s role in deploying the missile system into Ukraine and its attempts to cover its tracks afterward. The inquiry did not name individual culprits and stopped short of saying that Russian soldiers were involved.

Announcing their findings at a news conference in Nieuwegein, in the Netherlands, the investigators were clear, however, that they planned to identify suspects and to determine who they think gave the orders and what their intentions were, in preparation for bringing criminal indictments.

The evidence presented in the report strongly implicated the Russian authorities in a broad sense. The inquiry was the most detailed investigation to date of the attack on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, a Boeing 777 flying to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, from Amsterdam. It is unlikely that anyone not connected with the Russian military would have been able to deploy an SA-11 missile launcher from Russia into a neighboring country.

(…)

The report brought to light intriguing new evidence of the missile launcher’s route from Russia to Ukraine and back to Russia, if not identifying precisely who ordered that journey.

Investigators suggested that a cooperating witness was a rebel soldier who had guarded the missile convoy on its quick return to Russia after the launch.

They published new photographs of the launcher, perched on its flatbed trailer, being towed around eastern Ukraine by a white Volvo truck that had been commandeered from a heavy-equipment rental company in Donetsk.

The investigators said they had found a missile nose cone and fin by sifting through thousands of pieces of debris from the crash scene, listened to about 150,000 intercepted telephone calls and examined half a million photographs.

One of the eeriest pieces of evidence emerged last year and was highlighted again on Wednesday. The pilots had no chance of saving the plane, and were perhaps the first to die, because the missile exploded yards from the cockpit. But one carried to earth in his body a pivotal clue: a butterfly-shaped piece of shrapnel, a trace from a type of warhead installed in Buk missiles in Russia’s arsenal, but not Ukraine’s. Both countries possess Buk missiles, but the model types are distinct.

It would have been a hard piece of evidence to fake. Plastered onto the shrapnel shard, investigators said, were microscopic traces of glass of the type used by Boeing on its airliner cockpits, indicating clearly that it had passed through the plane’s windshield before lodging in the pilot’s body.

In support of its conclusions, the Court provides a timeline:

First, in intercepted telephone conversations from the evening before the attack, separatists in eastern Ukraine were heard requesting the Buk missile system in order to defend themselves from Ukrainian airstrikes. Later, according to the intercepted conversations, they were told they would receive the weapons system that night.

Second, the investigators found that a convoy of trucks brought the missile system, along with a large military vehicle that is used to launch the missiles, from the Russian border to the spot from which the missile was launched. The team said it had used intercepted phone calls, social media posts and witnesses’ testimony to piece together the route that the convoy took. It stopped in Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, where several witnesses saw the trucks, including a white one carrying the missile-launching vehicle.

Third, the inquiry identified a patch of farmland where the missile was launched, about eight miles southeast from where the plane crashed.

Finally, the investigators pieced together what they said was the path the missile system took on its way back to the Russian border. They said they had spoken to a separatist who confirmed part of the return route.

In many respects, of course, this report is merely confirming and providing much more substantial evidence for a conclusion that has seemed rather obvious since authorities began investigating the fate of Flight 17 two years ago. The circumstances under which it disappeared from radar, combined with the ongoing fighting in the area and the fact that pro-Russian rebels had been using increasingly advanced equipment to target Ukrainian aircraft, and the fact that there were no military jets of any kind in the area made it more likely than not that it was a ground-fired missile that brought the plane down and that this missile came from somewhere in the territory controlled by the rebels in the eastern part of the country. Indeed,  the theory that it was a Russian missile that brought the plane down has been at the top of the list for investigators. For example, within hours after the crash  U.S. intelligence sources had concluded that the plane had been taken down by a surface-to-air missile. Two weeks later, it was reported that an initial investigation of the crash site and the recovered debris indicated  evidence consistent with a missile strike. Since Ukrainians did not have any surface to air missiles in the area where the plane went down, the obvious conclusion was that the plane had been downed by a Russian missile fired either by the rebels or by Russians themselves. The Russians, of course, vehemently denied this and also denied that they had given the rebels any access at all to surface-to-air missile technology. Additionally, the Russian people saw regarding the downing of MH17 was quite different from what was being reported elsewhere in the world.  It’s not surprising, then, that the Russians are already pushing back on this report quite heavily: Finally, last October investigators reported that preliminary evidence made it more likely than not that the plane was taken down by a missile. Now, we appear to have as conclusive evidence as possible where that missile came from. Of course, what happens next is an entirely different question.

To be fair, it seems likely that the downing of Flight 17 was an accident rather than a deliberate act. For weeks prior to the event, pro-Russian rebels had been targeting Ukrainian military aircraft and, in some cases, succeeded in shooting them down with weapons far less advanced than the missile system brought into the fight just prior to the downing of Flight 17. More likely than not, it’s likely that the operators of the missile system were not well-trained enough to be able to differentiate between a radar signal from a military aircraft and a radar signal from a civilian airliner and that the missile was fired in the belief it was being targeted toward a military aircraft. I suppose its possible that the rebels could have been deliberately targeting a civilian craft, but it seems unlikely simply because there would be nothing for them to gain from such as attack, and a lot to potentially lose if they were caught targeting such a plane. The fact that it may have been a mistake doesn’t reduce their culpability of course, but it does help explain why this may have happened.

The Russians are likely to deny these conclusions and to attack the investigation as having been biased against them. Additionally, given the reality of media censorship inside Russia it’s unlikely that the Russian people will learn anything about this unless they happen to have access to foreign news sources. We can also forget about the Russians cooperating in handing over the pro-Russian rebels who were likely involved in this attack, not to mention the members of the Russian Army or intelligence services who likely provided technical assistance in the operation of the missile system. At the same time, the West would seem to have few real options in acting at this point. There will likely be a call to increase sanctions against Russia because of this, but ever since the seizure of Crimea nearly three years ago now the Russians have shown that they are little bothered by the sanctions that have been imposed. Additionally, given the fact that several European nations remain dependent on Russia for fuel supplies such as natural gas, it’s unlikely that there would be much agreement for the kind of crippling sanctions that might actually have an impact on Russian behavior. Instead, Russia is likely to get away with this notwithstanding the overwhelming evidence in support of their culpability.

 

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. barbintheboonies says:

    This makes no sense to me. Why in any logical world would killing innocent people do any good. It took so long to even find them, and no explanation. It is happening so frequently, people bombings,shootings is there ever going to be a safe place to go?

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  2. Tony W says:

    It’s not hard to see why Trump so admires Putin’s leadership. /s

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  3. Stormy Dragon says:

    @barbintheboonies:

    The Ukrainian rebels, not having much training, likely thought the plane was a Ukrainian military cargo plane (IIRC, they had shot down several others in the weeks leading up to this incident) rather than a civilian passenger jet.

    Which is why you shouldn’t give missiles to untrained rebels.

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  4. gVOR08 says:

    @barbintheboonies:

    It is happening so frequently, people bombings,shootings is there ever going to be a safe place to go?

    Yes. Here and now. We and the rest of the advanced world are the safest people who have ever lived.

    I’m frequently reminded of hearing a lady on a talk show after 9/11. She said the terrorists were ruining her life. She drove to work through a river tunnel and every time she entered the tunnel she was panicked that the terrorists would blow up the tunnel. I wanted to somehow reach through the radio, shake her, and say, “Lady, it ain’t the terrorists that are ruining your life!” Dear kill more people in the US than terrorists.

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  5. Liberal Capitalist says:

    How do you know for sure? .. You don’t know.

    Maybe it was…

    It could be Russia but it could also be China.

    It could be lots of other people.

    It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.

    You just can’t blame Russia.

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  6. barbintheboonies says:

    @gVOR08: It has not stopped me from going anywhere, but it is happening more every day.

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  7. michael reynolds says:

    @gVOR08:

    Comparisons between deer and terrorists are cute but irrelevant. Are deer going to place a dirty bomb in Washington DC? Are they going to release botulin toxin in the New York subway system? Are they going to shoot up your shopping mall? No. Deer are a manageable phenomenon with no chance whatsoever of becoming a major problem. If the deer get uppity we’ve got a whole bunch of NRA members just itching for a chance to shoot something other than their wives and children.

    People are designed to worry about future events. It’s one of the reasons we run this planet and gazelles don’t. Gazelles fear that one lion, right there. We fear things that haven’t happened yet. Like tsunamis, forest fires, floods, diseases, wars, etc… We anticipate, we don’t just react. Humans think, “You know, the game is kinda sparse, guess it’s time to cross the Bering Strait and become Native Americans so we can eat next year.”

    Anticipation of future threats is natural and a very useful adaptation for homo sapiens. Doesn’t excuse overreacting like a hysterical nincompoop, but in the early days of a new threat this kind of overreaction has a logical foundation.

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  8. Mister Bluster says:

    Dear kill more people in the US than terrorists.

    DEER
    -Deer–vehicle collisions lead to about 200 human deaths and $1.1 billion in property damage every year.*
    or
    DEAR
    -Of the 2340 deaths at the hands of intimate partners in America in 2007, female victims made up 70%.

    *This does not include the countless deer hunters who were shot dead in deer season.

    And we must not forget the dearest of all Robert Dear!

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  9. gVOR08 says:

    @Mister Bluster: You got me.

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  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Deer are ISIS is a manageable phenomenon with no chance whatsoever of becoming a major problem.

    FTFY Michael. Seriously, the list of things you are more likely to die from than a terrorist is as long as your arm, single spaced in 8 pt type, including lightening strikes, bee stings, falling off your chair, eating shellfish, to your friendly neighborhood Wyatt Earp. I will worry about ISIS when they get a fleet of nuclear subs. You, living in a major metropolitan area and flying a lot, have a little more reason to worry but not much.

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  11. gVOR08 says:

    @michael reynolds: Yes, people are hard wired for fear. Conservatives seem more prone to fear. Perhaps because they tend to have enlarged amygdalas . The actor Colin Firth funded some of the research on this, brain scans on politicians. The net effect is that it’s easy for Trump to paint the US as some post apocalyptic hellhole with threats everywhere, especially to conservatives. Where possible, the rest of us should push back against this distorted view of the world.

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  12. NW-Steve says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Anticipation of future threats is natural and a very useful adaptation for homo sapiens. Doesn’t excuse overreacting like a hysterical nincompoop, but in the early days of a new threat this kind of overreaction has a logical foundation.

    The current Republican response to global warming puts that analysis of homo sapiens into some question …

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  13. Tyrell says:

    Interesting that this is actually in the news. On 60 Minutes Sunday night there was an eye opening report by David Martin: the New Cold War. He talks about Putin’s philosophy about the use of nuclear weapons. Martin goes up close to a B 52 being armed with nuclear practice missiles. A retired Air Force general talks about Putin and his actions.
    CBS also goes on board a real nuclear armed sub. (“Deadliest Engine of Destruction”, and “Nuclear War No Longer Unthinkable”). Watch these reports on CBS. Informative, timely, and thoughtful. The network did good, professional work on this. All the while other news channels are talking about inane gossip, electoral maps with 223 possible scenarios, and sniffling.

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  14. anjin-san says:

    @Tyrell:

    Stay fearful my friend, stay fearful…

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  15. Slugger says:

    A lot of bad stuff is unintended. There is a least one nuclear bomb that got dropped on North Carolina. As far as shootdowns of civilian aircraft, this can also happen inadvertently even with a professional military; google Iran Airline flight 655.
    Cars can crash, cell phones can blow up in your pocket, and guns go off at bad times. Risk reduction requires opportunity reduction.

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  16. Joe says:

    @michael reynolds: But we fear things out of proportion to their likelihood. As a consequence we spend an inordinate amount of time and energy avoiding tiny risks (shoe bombers) and way too little time addressing obvious and addressable risks (heart disease), let along obvious and politically expensive risks (climate change). If we are so damn good at risk assessment, why is there a market for Hot Pockets? If we are so good at risk assessment, why is D.Trump anywhere near any arm of government?

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  17. michael reynolds says:

    @Joe:

    We fear things out-of-proportion when we don’t have a way to judge the relative danger. We don’t live in fear of deer because we know for a fact that they lack the technological skill to make a nuclear weapon. We don’t know that about terrorists.

    In fact, I’ll just pick on your shoe bomb example. There has been only one shoe bomb and it didn’t work. Nothing to worry about! Yay!

    Until one does work and 200 people fall 30,000 feet to their deaths. But hey, that’s just one plane, no need to react with security measures. Right?

    And then planes 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 go down from shoe bombs. Now are you worried? I am. Because at that point there’s a massive fall-off in air travel which has financial, diplomatic, cultural and political repercussions around the world, and has the effect of isolating people geographically. Civilization takes a small step back, because you didn’t want to take your shoes off.

    Because we take our shoes off at airports that potential threat goes away. The same way that locking my front door, or buying a car with airbags, or making sure stairs have railings mitigate potential threats – threats that might be unlikely, but if they happened, could be devastating. Here one must apply some judgment – it’s smart to have airbags, overkill to drive an Abrams tank down the 101.

    It’s a mistake to assess threats retrospectively – how many shoe bombs killed how many people. Threat assessment must necessarily be forward looking and a bit imaginative: how freaked out will society be if 8 shoe bombs go off and drop 8 airliners? And it is a waste of mental energy trying to convince people that they should not be afraid of folks who have murdered large numbers of citizens and have assured us they’d like to kill still more. It’s a waste of energy, not because Average Joe is a moron, but because he’s right. He’s right to dismiss any comparison between human and non-human threats. Deer do not escalate, humans do. And he’s right to reject reassurance that begins with references to the past. Things never do happen until they do.

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  18. gVOR08 says:

    @michael reynolds:

    It’s a waste of energy, not because Average Joe is a moron, but because he’s right.

    The DHS, TSA, NSA, FBI, CIA, MOUSE need to worry about shoe bombs; because it might happen to somebody and it’s their job. Average Joe should not, because it isn’t going to happen to him. That people aren’t very good at estimating risk is no reason to not present the facts. Especially now, when Trump is playing on unrealistic fears.

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  19. Tony W says:

    @gVOR08: This is an important point. As an individual citizen I have just about zero power to stop a shoe bombing or dirty bomb attack. I need to worry about things I have some control over. Like those dear deer in my back yard. I see them plotting.

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  20. michael reynolds says:

    @gVOR08:

    You do not have facts. What exactly are the odds of a terrorist shooting up your mall tomorrow? You have no idea. You think you can extract the odds by looking at past events, which is self-evident nonsense when dealing with a human-caused phenomenon. You have literally no idea what the odds are of a plane being bombed tomorrow. None. Zero.

    That being said, people need to be reasonable and realistic. And they need to demonstrate at least a tiny bit of courage. But I don’t believe we get to that point by treating people like children and handing them transparently irrelevant “facts” like the dangers posed by deer.

    I yield to no one in my contempt for the intelligence of the average person, but if you feed them pap they stop believing you. They know that 1) There are entire organizations with thousands of members all desperate to find a way to kill a lot of Americans. 2) They know that these organizations have succeeded in the past. 3) They know that there are US citizens similarly determined to kill Americans. 4) And they have succeeded in the past.

    They know there’s a risk. If you keep insisting there isn’t, people stop listening to you, and they start to wonder if the risk isn’t far greater than it is.

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  21. Dazedandconfused says:

    Doug,

    They may have been well trained enough and may have been shooting at the MIGs which were in the area. That system has downed an airliner while shooting at a target drone before.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siberia_Airlines_Flight_1812

    The missile reports “lock” to the operator but what it is locked on to exactly is a bit of a mystery to the operator? Not as crazy as it sounds. It was designed for war and it is assumed that SAMs will not be fired when there are “friendlies” near by. Wouldn’t be the least bit shocked to find that it has software which, should it’s lock be disrupted when aloft, finds something else to lock on to and hit.

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  22. HarvardLaw92 says:

    Off topic, but the Alabama SCotJ suspended Roy Moore for the rest of his term. No salary, no authority to tender any legal decisions. Since he’ll age out of eligibility to run again before this term ends in 2018, we’re finally rid of him.

    Good riddance …

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  23. barbintheboonies says:

    I do not get it. Why is this story not all over the news, instead of the newest stupid thing Trump tweeted. It`s shameful.

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  24. C. Clavin says:

    I think it is amazing that Republicans, and Trump in particular, love Putin.
    He, and they, should be made to own this.

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  25. gVOR08 says:

    @barbintheboonies: It is far away. And it is old news in that it is confirmation of a known story. IIRC it was reported as a Buk missile fired from Ukrainian rebel territory within a day or two of the incident. That said, yes, it should be reported more. It is significant news, there’s what @C. Clavin: said, and there’d be a better chance of it getting past Russia’s controlled press to the Russian people.

    The war in Ukraine goes on, and you have to search the MSM to find any news of it.

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  26. Dazedandconfused says:

    That the media is only concerned with their own ratings is one thing…but that what they are showing is what gets ratings may be the real problem. Are they chasing a small demographic or is this who we really are? What would Pogo say??

    This is just further confirmation of old news, btw. It was reported right off the bat that it came from a rebel held area and they had already knocked down a few Uke planes, and substantiated by all serious examinations so far . The Ukes had been keeping their new expensive air-to air fighters out of there because of the reb’s SAMs for some time before too, sending almost exclusively their older and much cheaper ground attack Frogfoots.

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