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Origin of the Separatists’ Buk: A Bellingcat Investigation

November 8, 2014

By Bellingcat Investigation Team

Summary

This report analyses evidence from open sources, in particular social media, relating to the Buk missile launcher filmed and photographed in eastern Ukraine on July 17th that many have linked to the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

While other open source information is available on other aspects of the downing of MH17, the Bellingcat MH17 investigation team believes that this particular investigation provides solid information about the origin and movements of the Buk filmed and photographed on July 17th. The Bellingcat MH17 investigation team also believes that many of the unresolved questions about the downing of MH17 will be answered by the official investigation, and our investigation was made possible by the examination of open source material overlooked by other organisations.

The report is split into three sections. The first examines the open source evidence relating to the movements of the Buk in eastern Ukraine on July 17th, the second presents evidence that the Buk filmed and photographed on July 17th originated in Russia and was part of a convoy headed towards the Ukrainian border in late June, and the third looks at the activity of vehicles seen in the same convoy after July 17th.

It is the opinion of the Bellingcat MH17 investigation team that there is undeniable evidence that separatists in Ukraine were in control of a Buk missile launcher on July 17th and transported it from Donetsk to Snizhne on a transporter. The Buk missile launcher was unloaded in Snizhne approximately three hours before the downing of MH17 and was later filmed minus one missile driving through separatist-controlled Luhansk.

The Bellingcat MH17 investigation team also believes the same Buk was part of a convoy travelling from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade in Kursk to near the Ukrainian border as part of a training exercise between June 22nd and July 25th, with elements of the convoy separating from the main convoy at some point during that period, including the Buk missile launcher filmed in Ukraine on July 17th. There is strong evidence indicating that the Russian military provided separatists in eastern Ukraine with the Buk missile launcher filmed and photographed in eastern Ukraine on July 17th.

A PDF version of this report is available – Origin of the Separatists’ Buk A Bellingcat Investigation.

The report is now available in German here

The repoort is also now available in French here.

Explore a map showing the separatists’ Buk and June and July convoys in Russia here.

Section One: The July 17 Buk

In the aftermath of the downing of MH17, photographs and videos were posted on social media sites claiming to show a Buk missile launcher in areas close to the MH17 crash site. Using a variety of tools and techniques, the Bellingcat MH17 investigation team has been able to establish the exact location at which these images were recorded and the approximate time that many of the images were recorded. Based on this information, the investigation team has mapped the route of the Buk missile launcher through separatist-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine on July 17th.

 

Photograph from Paris Match of the Buk missile launcher in Donetsk, Ukraine, July 17, 2014.

Photograph from Paris Match of the Buk missile launcher in Donetsk, Ukraine, July 17, 2014.

Donetsk

On July 25th, the weekly magazine Paris Match published a photograph of a Buk missile launcher being transported on a low-loader truck through the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk. The location of the photograph was precisely located, showing an eastward direction of travel along the H21 motorway.

Inquiries by Storyful with Paris Match established that the photograph was taken at “about 11 am on the morning of July 17.” Shadows cast by the vehicle are consistent with this time of day. Paris Match also confirmed this was the best quality version of the image available. A Twitter post from 12:32PM (local time) on July 17 reports the sighting of a Buk at the intersection of Shakhtostroiteley Boulevard and Ilych Avenue heading east in the direction of Makiivka. This tweet supports the location and route provided by the Paris Match photograph. Using the phone number on the side of the low-loader truck, Paris Match contacted the owner of the company, who claimed the truck had been stolen by separatists and that the vehicle was unique in the region.

Screenshot from footage filmed in Zuhres, Ukraine, July 17, 2014.

Screenshot from footage filmed in Zuhres, Ukraine, July 17, 2014.

Zuhres and Shakhtarsk

On July 17th a video was uploaded to YouTube showing the Buk photographed in Donetsk travelling through the town of Zuhres, approximately 36 kilometers east along H21 from the location in the Paris Match image. Using information provided with the video, it was possible to find the exact location the video was filmed, the H21 motorway running through Zuhres, and to show the Buk missile launcher continued to travel east. It was also claimed in a now-deleted Tweet that the video was filmed at around 11:40am, although it has not been possible to verify that time with available information. A tweet posted at 12:41PM (Kyiv time) reports that three tanks and a Buk covered in netting passed by Shakhtarsk, a city that lies east of Zuhres and west of Torez, connected by the H21 motorway.

Photograph from Torez, Ukraine, July 17, 2014.

Photograph from Torez, Ukraine, July 17, 2014.

Torez

The above image was shared widely during the evening of July 17th. The Bellingcat MH17 investigation team has been unable to find any earlier example of the photograph being shared than a post made by a user of the Russian social media site VKontakte (VK) at 8:09pm (Kyiv time) on July 17th. The investigation team suspects that the image was originally posted in the “Overheard in Torez” VKontakte page, but has since been deleted. It was again possible to find the exact location the photograph was taken, and using shadows visible in the image it was estimated the time the photograph was taken was approximately 12:30pm.

This time is supported by posts made on Twitter and VKontakte from locals who reporting seeing a convoy of military vehicles moving eastward through Torez towards Snizhne during the early afternoon. Three tweets that describe the missile launcher and an accompanying convoy travelling through Torez were posted at 12:07pm, 12:15pm, and 12:26pm local time. Others on VKontakte report that the convoy included three tanks, with posts at 1:14PM and 2:14PM  that confirm the information was posted on Twitter before the downing of MH17.

Along with these eyewitness reports, journalists have since visited the city and received confirmation of the convoy sightings on July 17. Journalists from the Guardian and Buzzfeed visited Torez on July 22nd and interviewed locals who confirmed both the time and route the Buk missile launcher took through Torez on the way to Snizhne along the H21 motorway.

Photograph and screenshot from footage of the Buk missile launcher in Snizhne, Ukraine, July 17, 2014.

Photograph and screenshot from footage of the Buk missile launcher in Snizhne, Ukraine, July 17, 2014.

Snizhne

A photograph and video posted on Twitter and YouTube showed a Buk missile launcher in the town of Snizhne. Unlike previous images and video, the Buk was not shown on a low-loader truck, but moving under its own power. The location shown in the video was precisely located and showed the Buk heading south out of Snizhne. The photograph was also located to 13a Karapetyan Street, less than 1 kilometer northwest of the location on the video. Based on the shadows in the photograph, the photograph was taken at approximately 1:30PM.

The AP reported on August 25th that “On July 17, AP reporters in the town of Snizhne saw a tracked launcher with four SA-11 surface-to-air missiles parked on a street. The bulky missile system is also known as a Buk M-1. Three hours later, people six miles (10 kilometers) west of Snizhne heard loud noises and then saw the wreckage and bodies from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 fall from the sky.” Three hours prior to the time MH17 was downed was 1:20pm local time, supporting the time indicated by the shadows in the Snizhne photograph.

Screenshot from footage filmed in Luhansk, Ukraine, July 17, 2014.

Screenshot from footage filmed in Luhansk, Ukraine, July 17, 2014.

Luhansk

The final video was posted online by the Ukrainian Ministry of Interior on July 18. In this video, the Buk missile launcher is back on the low-loader truck, but is now missing at least one missile. The Russian Ministry of Defence claimed in a press conference on July 21 that this video was in fact filmed in Ukrainian government-controlled territory, stating that the “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 Krasnoarmeysk, as evidenced by the billboard you see in the background, advertising a car dealership at 34 Dnepropetrovsk Street. Krasnoarmeysk has been controlled by the Ukrainian military since May 11.”

Top, text on Luhansk billboard, as cited in the Russian Ministry of Defence press conference. Bottom, photograph of the same billboard taken by a Luhansk resident.

Top, text on Luhansk billboard, as cited in the Russian Ministry of Defence press conference.
Bottom, photograph of the same billboard taken by a Luhansk resident.

However, investigations by Bellingcat have shown this statement from the Russian Ministry of Defence to be untrue, and it has been possible to find the exact location in the separatist-held area of Luhansk where this video was filmed. While it is not possible to discern the exact time this video was filmed, there are three pieces of evidence that lend credence to the Ukrainian Ministry of Interior’s claim that the video was filmed on the early morning of July 18:

  • The video was filmed approximately 75 kilometers north of Snizhne.
  • At least one missile is missing from the set of four missiles that the Buk missile launcher is normally armed with. Additionally, the photograph of the Buk missile launcher in Torez shows four missiles, and local witnesses noted that the Buk missile launcher moving through Torez had four missiles.
  • The netting visible in the photograph from Torez is absent from the top of the missiles in Luhansk.

The Low-Loader Truck

Throughout the sequence of videos and photographs showing the Buk missile launcher in eastern Ukraine, it is clear the same low-loader truck is being used, and the vehicle has been described as unique by its owner. From the available evidence, it is clear that the separatists have used the same low-loader to move military vehicles on occasions after July 17.

Photograph from Makiivka, Ukraine, published August 6, 2014

Photograph from Makiivka, Ukraine, published August 6, 2014

On August 6th 2014, a photographed was shared online showing the low-loader truck carrying a military vehicle through the town of Makiivka, just east of Donetsk. While the board with the phone number painted onto it was removed, it is still a clear match to the same vehicle used on July 17.

Left, Google Earth satellite map imagery of the low-loader at vehicle rental site on July 24, 2014 Right, Google Earth satellite map imagery of the low-loader at same location on August 9, 2014

Left, Google Earth satellite map imagery of the low-loader at vehicle rental site on July 24, 2014
Right, Google Earth satellite map imagery of the low-loader at same location on August 9, 2014

By examining historical satellite map imagery of the vehicle rental site that the low-loader truck was taken from, it is possible to identify a red low-loader with a white cabin, only one of which is ever present at the site. By comparing satellite map imagery from July 24, 2014 and August 9, 2014, it is clear that the low-loader truck was moved during that period, which would fit with it being used elsewhere on August 6.

Left, photograph of the low-loader truck from August 26, 2014. Right, screenshot from footage of the same low-loader truck filmed by separatists on August 26.

Left, photograph of the low-loader truck from August 26, 2014.
Right, screenshot from footage of the same low-loader truck filmed by separatists on August 26.

On August 26, 2014 a photograph and video of an identical low-loader truck were posted online. The video featured a woman who had appeared in previous separatist-filmed videos, and it appears the low-loader truck was being used to transport a damaged vehicle.

Conclusion

Based on the available information, it appears clear to the Bellingcat MH17 investigation team that separatists transported a Buk missile system through their territory on July 17, and used the same low-loader truck used to transport the Buk missile system on July 17 on at least two occasions in August. The Buk missile system was unloaded in Snizhne and was then transported on the same low-loader truck to separatist-controlled Luhansk, now missing at least one missile.

Map of the six sightings of a Buk missile launcher on July 17 and 18 in separatist-controlled territories of eastern Ukraine.

Map of the six sightings of a Buk missile launcher on July 17 and 18 in separatist-controlled territories of eastern Ukraine.

Section Two: The June Convoy and “Buk 3×2”

In late June 2014, a convoy left the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade near Kursk, and travelled to the Ukrainian border, officially as part of a training exercise. Using a wide variety of open sources, it has been possible for the Bellingcat MH17 investigation team to collect evidence of the movements of the convoy, the purpose of the convoy, its links to the 53rd Brigade, and evidence that confirms that one of the Buk missile launchers in the convoy was the same Buk missile launcher filmed and photographed in Ukraine on July 17, 2014, travelling from Donetsk to Luhansk through separatist-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine.

The Convoy

Screenshots from various videos of the June convoy taken by local residents.

Screenshots from various videos of the June convoy taken by local residents.

The Bellingcat MH17 investigation team has collected 16 videos posted on social media sites including VKontakte, YouTube, Instagram, and Odnoklassniki that show the 53rd Brigade’s convoy moving from Kursk on June 23rd to Millerovo  on June 25th. The Bellingcat MH17 investigation team has also been able to identify the exact location at which each video was filmed and, by matching vehicles visible in different videos, to confirm that all these 16 videos show the same convoy.

It was also possible to find a local news report about the movement of the convoy, which included images of vehicles from the same convoy. According to the report locals who spoke to soldiers in the convoy, they were “being sent to the border with Ukraine to ‘strengthen border control.’”

It was also possible to link the convoy to the 53rd Brigade using social media posts by members of the 53rd Brigade. For example, this post by a member of the Brigade, Vasily Ilyin, on June 25, 2014 shows the numbered Buk units as well as the number plate of one of the transporters being used, which matches vehicles visible in the convoy videos. Images posted to the now-deleted profile of brigade member Ivan Krasnoproshin also show vehicles that are part of the convoy.

Photograph taken posted on the VKontakte profile of Vasily Ilyin on June 25, 2014.

Photograph taken posted on the VKontakte profile of Vasily Ilyin on June 25, 2014.

Left, number plate XP 8236 50 in the June convoy. Right, the same number plate in Vasily Ilyin’s June 25th photograph.

Left, number plate XP 8236 50 in the June convoy.
Right, the same number plate in Vasily Ilyin’s June 25th photograph.

Top, Buk 231 in the June convoy. Bottom, Buk 231 in Vasily Ilyin’s June 25th photograph.

Top, Buk 231 in the June convoy.
Bottom, Buk 231 in Vasily Ilyin’s June 25th photograph.

Left, a truck in the June convoy with number plate 0639 AH 50. Right, the same truck in a photograph posted online by Ivan Krasnoproshin.

Left, a truck in the June convoy with number plate 0639 AH 50.
Right, the same truck in a photograph posted online by Ivan Krasnoproshin.

Images posted to social media accounts of 53rd Brigade members show certificates issued by the unit detailing their promotion after a training exercise that took place between June 22nd and July 25th. These dates are significant as not only was the convoy seen heading towards the border on June 23rd, but, as Section 3 will detail, some vehicles returned to the base before July 19th.

Images of certificates posted by 53rd Brigade members on social media accounts.

Images of certificates posted by 53rd Brigade members on social media accounts.

Buk 3×2

The most important feature of this convoy is the presence of the same Buk missile launcher filmed on July 17th 2014 travelling through separatist territory and linked by some to the downing of MH17. The Bellingcat MH17 investigation team refers to this Buk as “Buk 3×2” as the middle number appears to have been worn off. It appears in 8 of the 16 videos showing the convoy travelling between June 23rd and June 25th, and the Bellingcat MH17 investigation team has been able to match features of the missile launcher in the convoy to those seen on the missile launcher filmed and photographed in Ukraine on July 17th. It is the opinion of the Bellingcat MH17 investigation team that because of these matches the vehicle seen in the convoy and travelling through separatists controlled territory on July 17th is the same vehicle.

A screenshot from footage of Buk 3x2 in Stary Oskol, Russia on June 23, 2014.

A screenshot from footage of Buk 3×2 in Stary Oskol, Russia on June 23, 2014.

The Paris Match photograph taken in Donetsk on July 17th has proven to be very valuable in confirming the origin and identity of the Buk missile launcher. There are two key elements that match, the white markings on the side of the vehicle, and damage to the side skirt above the tracks of the Buk.

Markings on Buk systems that were part of the June convoy.

Markings on Buk systems that were part of the June convoy.

The markings on the side of Buk 3×2 consist of the following:

  • Unit designation, typically 3 digits
  • Transportation-related markings, in this case a circle with a cross in the centre and the marking “H=2200”
  • A white mark visible on the side skirt
  • Another white mark on the opposite side of the vehicle.

As with other Russian vehicles appearing inside Ukraine under separatist control, attempts have been made to obscure the unit designation number. However, it is still possible to match the markings because these markings are not applied to Buk missile launchers in a consistent fashion. Because of this, each Buk has slightly different positions for the unit designation numbers and do not share the same additional markings, such as the transportation-related markings. When they do share additional markings, they are generally not in the exact same position. In addition to this, on “Buk 3×2” (with the middle number obscured) we have an additional white mark on the side skirt that appears to serve no purpose, and may be nothing more than an accidental splash of paint. It is also notable that some of these markings can be recognized in the photograph taken in Snizhne.

In the case of the Paris Match photograph, the top of the faded number is visible, although much of the unit designation number and the top of the “2” have been obscured. By skewing the Paris Match image, it is possible to flatten the image, which has allowed us to lay the Paris Match photograph over images of Buk 3×2 in the Russian convoy:

Overlaid comparison between Buk in Paris Match photo in Ukraine and Buk 3x2 in Russia.

Overlaid comparison between Buk in Paris Match photo in Ukraine and Buk 3×2 in Russia.

It’s clear from these images that the positions of the markings match. In addition, the Bellingcat MH17 investigation team has attempted the same type of comparison with other Buk missile launchers from both Ukraine and Russia. No other comparison made by the Bellingcat MH17 investigation team has come close to matching all the matching elements between the images of Buk 3×2 in Russia and the Paris Match Buk.

Fingerprints

In addition to comparing the markings on the vehicles, the Bellingcat MH17 investigation team was also able to establish a second feature on Buk missile launchers that varies between units: side skirt damage. The side skirt that runs above the tracks of the Buk systems is prone to damage, and this creates a unique pattern of damage we refer to as the “side skirt fingerprint.” Below, a Buk that is certainly the same in each photograph shows a high correlation in each side skirt profile.

Top, image dated November 29th 2013. Middle, image dated June 23rd 2014. Bottom, image dated June 23rd 2014.

Top, image dated November 29th 2013.
Middle, image dated June 23rd 2014.
Bottom, image dated June 23rd 2014.

The Bellingcat MH17 investigation team compared the side skirt fingerprints of a number of Buk missile systems in Ukraine and Russia in order to find possible matches to the Buk seen in the Paris Match photograph. In each of the following side skirt fingerprint images, the red line is for the Paris Match Buk.

19 20

Of these Buks, the side skirt profile with the highest correlation is Buk 3×2 filmed transported near Stary Oskol in June. Many of the other photographs are clearly not matches for the Paris Match Buk, including Buk 312 filmed in Ukraine. Below, another comparison of the side skirt profiles between the two photos shows a similarity that can be seen in both the isolated amplitudes and in the photographs:

Top: Buk 3x2 filmed in Stary Oskol, Russia in June Bottom: Buk filmed in Donetsk, Ukraine by Paris Match on July 17, 2014.

Top: Buk 3×2 filmed in Stary Oskol, Russia in June
Bottom: Buk filmed in Donetsk, Ukraine by Paris Match on July 17, 2014.

However, there is one discrepancy: on the right hand side of the comparison, there is a small but significant difference underneath the transportation-related markings, but this in fact further confirms that these two Buks are one in the same. Because the Paris Match photograph has been flattened, any damage to the side skirt that projects outwards would cause a distortion that would not be visible in any images taken directly side-on to the vehicle, such as the images used to compare the side skirt fingerprints. This means that if there is a difference, that type of damage to the side skirt would have to be visible to account for the difference, and if that damage was visible then it would be further confirmation that it was the same vehicle.

Left, the Paris Match photograph from Donetsk showing side skirt damage on Buk Middle, screenshot from footage in Stary Oskol showing side skirt damage on Buk 3x2 Right, screenshot from footage in Stary Oskol showing side skirt damage on Buk 3x2.

Left, the Paris Match photograph from Donetsk showing side skirt damage on Buk
Middle, screenshot from footage in Stary Oskol showing side skirt damage on Buk 3×2
Right, screenshot from footage in Stary Oskol showing side skirt damage on Buk 3×2.

This damage is in fact visible in two videos of Buk 3×2 filmed in Russia, one in Stary Oskol (2:02) showing the damage from behind, and another from Alexeyevka (0:50) showing the same damage from the opposite direction. The damage is in the same position as the discrepancy in the Buk fingerprint from the Paris Match photograph, and further confirms the Buk in the Paris Match photograph is the same vehicle travelling through Russia as part of the 53rd Brigade’s convoy towards the Ukrainian border in late June 2014.

Conclusion

In the opinion of the Bellingcat MH17 investigation team, the Buk missile launcher filmed and photographed travelling through separatist-held territory on July 17th is the same vehicle seen in the convoy travelling through Russia towards to the Ukrainian border in late June 2014.

Map showing the route of the June convoy from Kursk to Millerovo near the Ukrainian border. Each point designates a confirmed sighting of the convoy through videos uploaded on social media.

Map showing the route of the June convoy from Kursk to Millerovo near the Ukrainian border. Each point designates a confirmed sighting of the convoy through videos uploaded on social media.

Section Three: The July Convoy

Following the downing of MH17, videos were uploaded to various websites showing a military convoy travelling through Russia. The convoy consisted of a number of transport vehicles carrying covered units, as well as two uncovered Buk systems. The Bellingcat MH17 investigation team has been able to establish the route the convoy took and that the convoy originated from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade. In the July convoy, at least one vehicle in the July convoy was also in the June convoy. Additionally, at least one Buk missile loader seen in the June convoy was recorded on July 20th near separatist-controlled areas of the border, hundreds of kilometres away from the location it was recorded in as part of the June convoy.

The Convoy

The Bellingcat MH17 investigation team was able to identity 10 videos posted on July 19th and 20th, 2014 showing a military convoy consisting of multiple vehicles, including covered vehicles on transporters. It was possible to link vehicles in this convoy to the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade with the following image taken from the Fedeseyevka video on July 20th. This video shows a BT80 with the number 993.

Screenshot from the Fedeseyevka video.

Screenshot from the Fedeseyevka video.

The same vehicle appears in the photos on the VKontakte page of Sanya Reznikov, who, according to his profile, served in the 53rd Brigade from 2013 to sometime in 2014.

BT80 at the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade.

BT80 at the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade.

Other members of this Brigade also posted photographs of the same vehicle with identical markings.

Although many of the vehicles in the July convoy appear to have different number plates than those in the June convoy (when discernable), at least one vehicle seen in the June convoy was also part of the July convoy.

Left, screenshot from Stary Oskol, June 23rd. Right, screenshot from Fedoseyevka, July 19th. Both number plates are XP 0030 50.

Left, screenshot from Stary Oskol, June 23rd. Right, screenshot from Fedoseyevka, July 19th. Both number plates are XP 0030 50.

Based on the videos collected by the Bellingcat MH17 investigation team, it has also been possible to track the movements of the convoy seen on July 19th and 20th. Footage filmed in Fedoseyevka on July 19th appears to place the convoy at its earliest point in the route, travelling through the town of Stary Oskol, then to Alexeevka southeast of Stary Oskol, and the last sighting further southeast in the town of Olkhovatka on July 20th.

One video from July 20th was of particular interest to the Bellingcat MH17 investigation team. This  video was posted online from the town of Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, over 300km from the location of the other videos posted on July 20th This video shows a Buk missile loader being transported through the town. This same vehicle was seen as part of the June convoy heading to the Ukrainian border in June.

Top, the Buk missile loader in June. Bottom, the same vehicle on July 20th in Kamensk-Shakhtinsky.

Top, the Buk missile loader in June.
Bottom, the same vehicle on July 20th in Kamensk-Shakhtinsky.

The Bellingcat MH17 investigation team was able to establish the precise location the video was filmed, establishing that the vehicle was on the M21 motorway that runs eastwards from the Ukrainian border approximately 20km away. The vehicle was heading south, possibly towards the Russian border town of Donetsk (not to be confused with Donetsk in Ukraine). Donetsk has previously been identified as a crossing point for units from Russia into separatist-controlled territories in Ukraine.

Top, a screenshot from the July 20th video in Kamensk-Shakhtinsky. Bottom, the same location on Google Street View.

Top, a screenshot from the July 20th video in Kamensk-Shakhtinsky.
Bottom, the same location on Google Street View.

Two differences from the June recordings of the Buk are noticeable. First, the missiles are in different positions, and second, the missiles are covered in camouflage netting. While certainly not in any way conclusive, the Bellingcat MH17 investigation team notes that during their investigation, they have only seen netting used on one other vehicle: the Buk filmed inside Ukraine on July 17th.

Top, a screenshot from the July 20th video in Kamensk-Shakhtinsky. Bottom, the photograph of the Buk missile launcher seen in Torez on July 17th.

Top, a screenshot from the July 20th video in Kamensk-Shakhtinsky.
Bottom, the photograph of the Buk missile launcher seen in Torez on July 17th.

Conclusion

Based on the above information the Bellingcat MH17 investigation team concludes that at some point in late June vehicles that were part of the June 23rd convoy from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade separated. Some of these vehicles returned to the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade base in Kursk and joined the July 19th convoy from the base, while at least one other, a Buk missile loader, appears to have left the main convoy and towards the Ukrainian border, close to a separatist-held crossing. As yet, it has not been possible to establish when the June 23rd convoy returned to the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade base in Kursk, or how many units were in the convoy. However, it is clear that at least one Buk missile launcher (3×2) from the June 23rd convoy was inside separatist-controlled territory on July 17th, and 3 days later a video was uploaded showing that the Buk system loader unit was very close to the Ukrainian border. Considering the established time frames, logical routes, and photographic evidence, it is possible that this Buk missile launcher was part of the same June 23rd convoy as “Buk 3×2” and supported it. However, it has not been possible to establish that relationship between the two vehicles.

30
Top, a map showing the route of the July convoy from Stary Oskol to Olkhovatka. Each point designates a confirmed sighting of the convoy through videos uploaded on social media. Bottom, a Buk missile launcher in Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, south of Olkhovatka.

Top, a map showing the route of the July convoy from Stary Oskol to Olkhovatka. Each point designates a confirmed sighting of the convoy through videos uploaded on social media.
Bottom, a Buk missile launcher in Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, south of Olkhovatka.

Acknowledgements

The Bellingcat MH17 Investigation Team

Timmi Allen
Andrew Haggard
Eliot Higgins
Veli-Pekka Kivimaki
Iggy Ostanin
Aric Toler

This report was created collaboratively using Slack.com

Thanks to Mapbox for their help creating the maps used in this investigation

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98 Comments

  1. muchandr

    All of this is based on some kind assumption or outright fraud.

    You are comparing the vehicle 3×2 seen in Russia, to vehicles of the Kursk 53rd #312,#322 and #332. Shouldn’t you be comparing to the launcher claimed to have shot down the MH17 you have a shot of as seen in Torez, Ukraine, supposedly? But the similarity to that vehicle of any of the vehicles actually are of the 53rd or suspected to be of 53rd ain’t too great, as evident from your full report. Granted, the source material is junk.

    So you proceed with analyzing those dashcam videos that are easily analyzed. Lets suppose the 3×2 you found by some miracle is actually the 332 of the 53rd that got banged up somewhere. What does that prove? You are comparing two vehicles seen in Russia. Why? On what grounds?

    Here, I found some very crispy shots of Ukrainian #332 of the Luhansk 3rd battalion, 156th AA regiment again taken from right hand-side in Yasinovata in May. The board number is crisp and the rollers are all identical. So it is not at all like the Russian vehicles you are looking at. No relation. And? Shouldn’t you be looking at this one instead?

    https://vk.com/wall56303145_2403

    Remind me, why did you start looking at vehicles in Russia only, but not in Ukraine? This all rather highly self-referential, no?

    Forgive me, but nets / tents for any military vehicle are regulation procedure for transporting any military vehicle in Russia, as they were in Soviet Union. Ukrainians are simply slacking. Here is a video claiming “Russian fascists are hiding Buks which shot down that Malaysian Boeing” from Jul 19

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8apwBpnSic8

    Are they Buks at all? Possible it is, but there is not much else to see. You can go and geolocate it all you want. I can only tell that all the roadsigns and ads are in Russian, so they are in Russia somewhere already. ( Try the purple sign with arrow at 1:33, I cannot see it very well )

    Reply
    • Eliot Higgins

      Well for one thing the markings and damage on the Buk 332 you point to in Ukraine are completely different, we’re not just looking at the numbers, but the position of the numbers in comparison to other Buks. The only match for that, and multiple other identifying features, between the Buk in Ukraine on July 17th 2014 linked to the down on MH17 is Buk 332 of the 53rd Brigade in Russia.

      Reply
      • muchandr

        And why are you looking at the numbers? Don’t get me wrong, it is all very impressive, but how does even proving the 3×2 vehicle seen in June is the same as vehicle 332 seen as far back as 2010 prove anything about vehicles seen in Ukraine. All of those are in Russia1?! The suspect in Torez has no numbers, no white splotches and no detail you like to discuss so much. Too far away for the zoom level required. The only thing conceivably verifiable is the roller detail. Personally, I can’t tell, but somebody may be able to. Why are you not looking at that instead? I understand the source material is junk. Too bad.

        The pattern with only the second from the back roller replaced might be not as rare as you thought if it is some kind of driven roller experiencing higher loads. Casual examination produced another vehicle with odd roller in the position, TEL #133 known to have been blown up in Avdeevka where it was officially based.

        Moreover, the 3×2 Buk from page 14 in your report, as well as your video

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c4Pigqq8A74

        has all spoked wheels on the right and has no apparent connection with this Buk

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dO8cBm2kqps

        seen from another side I call left. (This is opposite to your convention, but the front of the vehicle is where radome is and they are normally towed back end forward) There is no visible number there. JIT 2018 report taking a 3×2 number taken from another side and applying to where no number is seen is principally dishonest. You don’t quite do that, but I’d like to point out that there is no connection of the 3×2 and the nameless Buk with funny roller filmed in Stariy Oskol. With Staruy Oskol actually close to Kursk, it is possible a vehicle formerly with 53rd so banged up it is going to junkyard. The number being chipped off or painted over a specific way on one side tell us nothing about another side, yes?

        So, you’ve got two vehicles of no particular number visible to connect first using nothing but possibly wheel detail. One from Torez, one from Stariy Oskol. Could it be that you are digging the 332 because there seems to be an alibi for Ukranian vehicle with that number, seen on Jul 16th on site out of range

        https://www.bellingcat.com/news/uk-and-europe/2016/03/09/8188/

        I’ve got hi-res pictures from Luhansk #332 and its got all spokeless wheels same side 3×2 got spoked. Interesting that the above material reaffirms the presence of 312 at Kramatorsk airfield. Elsewhere its presence there is confirmed by Bellingcat together with actual radar vehicle yet it is concluded that it innocent because it could not have been in Snizhne at the moment of MH17 crash and airfield was under government control. Excuse me? Kramatorsk airfield is well in range to have taken that shot. Why looking specifically for rebel-held territories? Isn’t the whole basis for Pervomaiskiy near Snizhny the sighting of a Buk in nearby Torez. Transported, not deployed. Having the radar vehicle tremendously improves the chances of a hit, especially with an old missile that requires guidance all the way to target from launcher’s radar. Which is restricted to 7 degrees? vertical angle on its own. Interesting to verify in any event.

        For what its worth, the spoked wheel design seem to come with M1-derived Buks and spokeless with newer M2s. Ukraine is not even supposed to have anything M2 given their development in 98 and entering service in Russia in 2008, but they obviously do, including Luhansk based 332 (all spokeless wheels) This makes me think the spoked wheel are no longer made and are generally being replaced with spokeless version in both countries. Even if an M1 was sighted in Kursk in 2010 it is unlikely to be there now. Russia has no original M1s in active service, only upgraded M1-2s which kept the spoked wheels it seems. I don’t know of any other way to tell by looking at the things, unfortunately.

        The story of taking a vehicle from operational brigade and giving it to Ukraine by driving all the way around is too weird. Were they trying to hide by doing that? Then tney’d be tents / nets. A lot more likely they’d take an old vehicle from storage and sent it to Ukraine using a train. If from Kursk, than via direct connection Kursk-Gorlivka. There was no border and still isn’t Operational vehicle of the 53rd pretty much means it came with a crew and than it also couldn’t have been an accident, because I don’t see them having broken IFF. Isn’t it too much to infer? Unless somebody really really wants to. Almost forgot, the JIT claim that Russians have an operational procedure of painting the board numbers over when deployed is made up.

        Given that that you have not restricted the board numbers at all, here is a video of what is left of 1st batallion of the same 156 AA from Jul 20th taken somewhere in “ATO area”

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5hyKBnFu90

        All the missiles are expended. What exactly were they shooting at, with rebels having no airforce? They likely could not field-reload, with at least 2 of their TEL loaders verifiably blown up in Avdeevka

        Reply
        • Eliot Higgins

          Again, we’re looking at multiple matches, and there’s only one Buk that has all those matches, the rest don’t come close.

          Reply
          • muchandr

            I am not convinced they are really the same Buk, as the fine studies of all the board numbers done on tentative right-hand side are not connected to unmarked vehicles filmed in Torez and Stariy Oskol from another side, tentative left-hand. This is an essential weakness of dashcam evidence, it invariably comes from one side or another at a time.

            I few minutes of digging produced an explanation how the roller pattern that is supposed to be unique is really a part of a small series. Still rare of course. That again

            http://www.ausairpower.net/PVO-SV/Buk-MB-MiroslavGyurosi-1S.jpg

            Same color scheme, unmarked because yet unassigned to specific regiment. Incidentally, the Belorussian manufacturer of the MB upgrade, “Agat” is very qualified and back in Soviet Union for responsible for command-and-control system operating at level higher than a single regiment/brigade of Buks

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyana-D4

            So, there is a whole bunch of interesting vehicles to look for that are not regulation M1 regiment issue.

            This is supposed to be an argument that no amount of dashcam / smartphone footage publicly available is a substitute for actual detective work on site, which seems strangely amiss in this case.

          • Eliot Higgins

            We examined other Buks in the same convoy, and the roller pattern was different, so it’s not something that’s consistent among the 53rd Brigade.

          • muchandr

            Of course it is not. You are looking at pictures spaced years apart sometimes. Given my interpretation of spokes being a decorative feature of M1 series rollers that got rationalized away with M2 series, vehicles acquired more spokeless rollers as the time passed, eventually producing samples like the Ukranian 332 that only had spokeless rollers despite Ukraine never receiving complete M2 systems.

            My main objection is that your evidence for two completely disjoint subsets, for vehicles observed from one side or another side. Lets look at the white smudge at sideskirts for a change. On side 13 of your report, you say

            “Thus, in this convoy, the white mark on both side skirts is a unique feature of Buk 3×2”

            Then you proceed with demonstrating this with two pictures highlighting the smudge with a cyan-colored box. At this point, most casual observers probably think you detected the same exact feature. But you did not. One of the picture comes from the more interesting vehicle seen in Stariy Oskol alone with no column of other vehicles around. It is painted on a different side from 3×2 one. Did you actually see any vehicle certainly having the white smudge at both sideskirts? You did not. Than you may also not draw any kind of identity with a vehicle seen elsewhere based on that feature seen on a different sideskirt nor conclude how rare this feature is or whether it is normally present at both sides.

            It just so happens that nobody bothered to walk around one of those vehicles with a camcorder in hand. It is entirely possible that white smudges are always painted on both sides, on any one side or a specific side being meaningful. It would certainly help if you tried to find out what the white smudge means. Personally, I just came up with two possible explanations for the large smudge as

            a) Somehow specific / indicative of units in storage. This would go a long way towards explaining the missing digits. You found a vehicle that was possibly previously in service with Kursk 53rd but likely no longer. Otherwise you need to explain this one being about the only vehicle in both Russia and Ukraine with improper paint job. Ain’t that a little too convenient a feature to track? The whole drab green paint scheme seems to be selected for ease of painting, rather than as a good camo. This is very different to armored vehicles actually expected to encounter enemy fire, BTW.

            b) An ad hoc fit verification mechanism for transporting the things using unprepared / civilian loaders. You may have noticed that the military loaders for those vehicles are exactly wide enough and probably have some sort of guiding aids. So, if somebody suspects that a sideskirt sticks out from a too narrow civilian loader, they drop a bunch of paint onto it and move past a plank verified vertical. If there is paint on the plank, the loaded Buk does stick out with one side. This very logical explanation invalidates your claim of there ever being such a smudge on both sides of the vehicle, as you only need to check the offending side if you know the width of your loader.

            So, you tell me if all of this is a honest mistake or deliberate misinformation? I figure the most easily verifiable or debunkable claim of M1 family TELAR being supposedly restricted to 7 degrees elevation over horizont max. Nothing but high-school level trig required. It represents the most honest opinion of Almaz-Antey if ever found in any literature prior to 2014.

            The 7 degree elevation angle is blown some 82 km away already, too far for the missiles involved

            https://www.triangle-calculator.com/?what=&q=b%3D10+A%3D90+B%3D7&submit=Solve

            A good distance of 26.6 km requires whole 22 degrees elevation, significantly blowing the official radar envelope for an M1 TELAR unaided by battalion-level radar

            https://www.triangle-calculator.com/?what=&q=b%3D10+A%3D90+B%3D22&submit=Solve

            To put it simply, it is useless on its own to target anything flying 10 km high! Requiring an explanation to what exactly painted the target than? An external radar vehicle that comes with M1s can paint up to 55 degree angle 160 km away. These have been sighted in company of TELARs in at least two locations in range for the shot

            a) Kramatorsk airfield, as confirmed by Bellingcat already

            b) 1st Battalion of 156th AA normally stationed in Avdiivka till attacked by separatists in an event of unknown but likely determinable timing costing them two of their TELs. Have been sighted towed through Lozovoye together with command and radar vehicles with all their missiles expended no later than 20tieth. What exactly were they shooting at? I already sent you a video of that.

            The Russian M1-2 upgrade did zilch to fix such limited elevation. M2’s that Kursk 53rd supposedly has now are entirely different beasts, with some sources giving -5..85 degree as accessible elevation. These would need an external radar only for extended range and than it can be the same small radar as any TELAR but hoisted on a mast 21 m heigh (new vehicle classified as TAR) No M2s with their distinctive flat slab for radome were ever sighted in Ukraine.

            The only way a single TELAR with original M1 radome would be capable of doing it
            if it was an upgrade. Ukraine is pimping M1 upgrades of no specific part number but unknown to have gotten any export customers. Interesting is a Belorussian upgrade called Buk-MB which does keep the original radome yet is as recent as 2005. Its exact capabilities are unknown, but I already sent you couple of distinct pictures where they are seen in usual drab green, but with no board numbers and with characteristic second roller from tentative front spokeless and others spoked, just like the vehicle seen in Stariy Oskol and possibly in Torez. Even if it is all the same vehicle, it is indicative of second set of rollers somehow experiencing most wear and being replaced first during factory overhauls. The vehicle also interchanges the usual convention of radome pointing forward, so maybe it is not too important which way the turret points. For the purposes of discussing Buk-MB, front end is where the lot of small hatches are than. Most interestingly, the system comes with a new battalion-level radar, which is a Ukrainian development called 80K6M. Here it is mounted on oversized Belorussian MKZT truck in finest Soviet tradition Here it is as sold to Aserbaijan in 2005

            http://trident-ua.info/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/160602_1_80K6M.jpg

            Here a whole bunch of them packed up to go on conventional KraZ chassis of Ukraine’s own make

            https://g.io.ua/img_aa/large/2682/12/26821276.jpg

            And finally the device offered for export by Ukroboronexport. You can see that it has a tremendous steel beam sticking out center high likely complicating integration with conventional truck chassis. I figure they did not hesitate to simply saw it off for KraZ homebrew version
            .
            http://progress.gov.ua/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/5460_p_14_img_0001.jpg

            I looked up the spec. Same 55 degrees as old Snow Dome it was? but at 200 km for an object flying 10 km high or 40 km for 100 km height. The later ping to low earth orbit violates the definition of triangular hypotenuse being the longest side of any right triangle, requiring me to interchange height with distance to object for triangular calculator, producing an oddly familiarish figure of 23.5 degrees

            https://www.triangle-calculator.com/?what=&q=b%3D40+A%3D90+a%3D100&submit=Solve

            More conventional shots of 160 or 200 km at 10 km height produce very small elevations of 2 to 3 degrees. Upper limit for any line-of-sight radar is of course 375 km. This is how far the real horizont is looking from a plane flying in 10 km height – 375 km, or ballistic elevation approching 0 degrees off horizont. The results

            a) Ukrainians might have arbitrary number of battalion level radars compatible with their Buks as unconspicuous as an a KraZ truck with longer trailer. Those got to be the most common trucks in Ukraine, commercial and military alike. I am not aware of this setup being sold to any export customer, yet the manufacturer had at least 5 for a promo shot

            b) These have a bug / feature that quite possibly does not make any sense for an older Buk launcher or command vehicle. An object in 100 km height (which incidentally counts as borderline space) cannot be just 40 km away even when it is overhead. Duh. Its a limitation obviously imposed by radar’s power source. It is interesting to find out how the older radars handled that. Was there a cutoff for objects flying too high or did the crew require training. Plugging in 23.5 elevation at 10 km produces distance 25 km away

            https://www.triangle-calculator.com/?what=&q=b%3D10+A%3D90+B%3D23.5&submit=Solve

            Other than that, the new radar is rather similar to old one, only a bit more powerful giving 200 instead of 160 km max detection range at lower height and elevations, still restricted to 55 degree total.

            You are welcome to give some other interpretation of target higher than it is far, but I figure it is sufficient grounds for a lowly TELAR to mistake something like a weather balloon flying way high for a plane. That depends on prioritizing targets by elevation angle. I think this is a given, with elevation being the most time-critical (because of such a small accessible range) and simultaneously most reliable as instantaneous measurement (because targets at the same bearing and elevation angle would naturally subtend each other by actual distance regardless of height. See also plentiful discussions at Bellingcat and elsewhere where it is possible to mistake a Boeing flying at 10 km for An-26 flying at 6 km

            Trig to the resque! Here is a condition for 22 degree elevation. The target is in 16 km distance instead of 26 than

            https://www.triangle-calculator.com/?what=&q=b%3D6+A%3D90+B%3D22&submit=Solve

            Note that most people came to the conclusion that it ain’t because of the much higher forward speed of the Boeing. That maybe so, but is it an instantaneous measurement or requires several measurements over time to make sense? It only is instantaneous if the radar does a relativistic Doppler trick. Does it? Again I see a fairly trivial amount of detective work and / or thinking that does not involve dashcam vids for a change.

          • muchandr

            This research of late makes me look at the old Soledar videos with new eyes. 20 sec into this cutout

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IfIxCW3mDn0

            the vehicle seen some 20 sec in as not particularly distinct truck with trailer is indeed a variation of

            Commanding-staff vehicle (KShM) of the brigade (vehicle MP02 with a trailer CP4) on Ural-375? or older KraZ chassis (cannot tell, the two used to build nearly identical vehicles) of

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyana-D4

            fame originally designed and built by “Agat” in Minsk. Essentially it means that the third battalion got the regiment command vehicle with them instead of their own. Can patch trough to any of up to 4 battalions under its command, as in its command vehicle or radar directly. Can also in theory patch trough an older USSR A-50 AWACS plane (of which Ukraine should have none left) Can also connect further upstream to higher level systems called Luch ( Beam ) or Pyramid, which do not appear any different than this one except with both parts (ie also the trailer containing nothing but a generator) mounted on a substantial BAZ truck.

            Should this vehicle also be present at Kramatorsk airfield, did it easily remotely control the 101, 201 and 301 should they be in range, which is likely substantial given that the intercom required a generator of its own. 301 radar is seen in both this outtake and subsequently at Kramatorsk airfield. There is also a hypothetical battalion-level radar #4 allowed in the D4 architecture (likely stands for 4 divisions, possibly realized in some Russian brigades but not Ukrainian regiments)

            I found a single report in Russian where Ukrainians claimed to have a native replacement for Ksh (command-staff) vehicles of their own. It is from as late as 2017 and is unclear on to what extent this applies to AA ones

            http://opk.com.ua/%D0%B2-%D1%83%D0%BA%D1%80%D0%B0%D0%B8%D0%BD%D0%B5-%D0%B2%D0%BF%D0%B5%D1%80%D0%B2%D1%8B%D0%B5-%D1%81%D0%BE%D0%B7%D0%B4%D0%B0%D0%BD%D1%8B-%D0%BE%D1%82%D0%B5%D1%87%D0%B5%D1%81%D1%82%D0%B2%D0%B5%D0%BD/

            All this stuff allows for entirely wacky scenarios like Russian AWACS hacking the Ukrainian regimental command. From Polyana and higher they are supposed to be progressively automated systems. Officially, Finns wrote off their M1 citing limitations is their communications crypto. Maybe it is not entirely contrived for a change?

            Here is the Ukroboronexport catalogue of radars they are eager to sell to Dutch associates of yours.

            http://progress.gov.ua/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Radary-yz-katalog-progress-2016-2017.pdf

            The ones on page 3-4 are certainly compatible with Buks. Since the catalogue is for 2016-2017 the question is whether they had any back in 2014. Lets take a step back from the promo shot

            https://io.ua/26821276

            Dated Nov 2013, so they had at least that many. Interpretation of a target that is 100 km high but only 40 km away is still bugging me. Is it a bug or a feature?

      • muchandr

        Some more great food for thought. It seems that single roller in second position from one end spokeless, others spoked is somewhat of a standard configuration on Buk-MB deep modernization for M1 done by Belarus. Here a couple of unrelated pictures

        http://www.ausairpower.net/PVO-SV/Buk-MB-MiroslavGyurosi-1S.jpg
        http://www.army-guide.com/images/buk-mb_djfhskj2.jpg

        Officially sold to Algeria, Azerbaijan and India not Russia or Ukraine. Would be the correct roller compared to Stariy Oskol one if they also didn’t change the canonical direction of back vs front. Maybe it does not matter all that much which way the turret points?

        IMHO, the roller argument is your strongest so far. It is at least applicable to the Buk without numbers seen in Torez, Donezk and Stariy Oskol filmed from the same side.

        There is however sorely missing connection to 3×2 and 332 of the 53rd from 2010. All of those vehicles were filmed from another side. I don’t see the point of going through such great length in proving those are the same. Because your prime suspect has the numbers painted over? You can only expect it is the same on the other side. And no, it is not a standard operation procedure for the Russian military.

        Of course, the 53rd would be in no position to deny anything, because they ought to not have their old M1s anymore. Those they likely sent in for modernization to M1-2 standard. That is this repairs / numbers repainted using different font in 2012. Given that the process is not instantaneous, they likely got entirely different replacement vehicles. I’ve seen claims that they got M2s, which likely have all spokeless rollers but also entirely different radome – a flat slab instead of a complicatedly shaped bucked (9K317 TELAR) It is also possible they were receiving M1-2 previously serving elsewhere or somehow MBs with funny rollers. One thing is certain, it make no sense to look at cosmetic damage specific of their 2010 vehicle.

        JIT claim of there being some 50 vehicles in 53rd’s column they tracked from Kursk to Millerovo? yet all but one of them being with 2nd Batallion is dubious, as there are only 34 indexed vehicles in entire brigade / regiment o’ 3 Buk battalions.

        The Buk from Torez / Donezk red loader is a strong suspect but is an insufficient reason to discard all the other Buks missing missiles, even if they belonged to the government. They had a severe paranoia they are being invaded by Russia, otherwise there was no reason whatsoever to deploy those things against the insurgency with no Airforce. Russian bombers did not materialize. What were they shooting at? As you may well know, it is not the first time Ukraine downed a civilian flight for no particular reason.

        Reply
  2. Yura Timoshenko

    It is a bit odd that heavy military machinery is transported southbound across Russia in a daylight without being masked, with all unit markings, for a clandestine rebel support…. Knowing that today people take pictures and videos of anything slightly beyond usual around them. We are civilians and understand it, but military people don’t?

    Reply

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