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Vladmir Babak and Reuters’ Missile Launch Witnesses – How Do They Fit With What We Know About MH17 So Far?

March 13, 2015

By Eliot Higgins

In the last few days there have been a pair of interesting stories relating to the downing of MH17 in Ukraine that have attempted to shed more light on what happened on July 17th. Vladmir Babak, part of the team that designed the SU-25 and a senior figure at the SU-25’s manufacturer and developer Sukhoi Attack Aircraft Concern stated in an interview that an SU-25 would be unable to safely fire its weapons at the same altitude as MH17, and that an air-to-air missile fired by an SU-25 would have not been able to cause MH17 to break up in the way it did. He also went on to add he believed MH17 had been shot down by a Buk missile.

Yesterday, Reuters published a report, From ‘Red October’ village, new evidence on downing of Malaysian plane over Ukraine, where witnesses near the town of Snizhne described the launch of a missile on July 17th that downed flight MH17. But how do these new reports fit with other information published about the downing of MH17?

As we’ve previously noted on Bellingcat, the various claims about an SU-25 being used to down flight MH17 have been inconsistent at best. Vladmir Babak’s statement adds a new dimension to these statements as it excludes certain scenarios and makes it clear certain claims that have been made are false. Due to the very short effective range of the cannon used by the SU-25 Babak’s claim would exclude scenarios such as the one proposed by the Russian Union of Engineers where an initial attack on the cockpit with cannon fire, disabling the black box recorder, was followed up by an attack with an air-to-air missile.

It was also interesting to note in Russia Today’s response to Babak’s claim none of the experts addressed Babak’s statement that the SU-25 could not fire its weapons at an altitude of 10km, instead referring to the SU-25’s ability to fly above that altitude, something Babak himself confirmed was briefly possible.

In the same Russia Today piece they spoke to Gordon Duff, who has previously made a series of bizarre claims, including Google Ideas being involved with the August 21st 2013 Sarin attacks in Damascus (more details here), who stated “you can’t fire a missile on a flat area in the middle of the day leaving a smoke trail into the air and having everyone not see it”.  Fortunately for Duff, Reuters was on the case.

Reuters spoke to a number of witnesses near the “Red October” area, which can be found south of Snizhne. What’s very interesting about this location is it was also mentioned in a audio recording of the chat programme Zello, which was claimed be local residents in the Snizhne area discussing the missile launch on July 17th

As detailed in Bellingcat’s earlier analysis of the various evidence of the Snizhne launch site, the “Red October” area is close to the site identified by a number of different sources, including the Zello witness. The below map shows the position of the Zello witness in the Red October area, as well as the position of a field believed to be the launch site and visited by the Daily Telegraph journalist Roland Oliphant. The lines marked in brown indicates the direction of a smoke column visible in photographs taken moments after the downing of flight MH17 (more details here).


It’s also worth noting the Buk missile launcher Bellingcat tracked travelling from Donetsk to Snizhne on July 17th unloaded from its transport vehicle in the town of Snizhne and was filmed heading south out of Snizhne only a couple of kilometres from the above launch site, heading in the direction of the launch site, only a few hours before MH17 was shot down. The new witnesses interviewed by Reuters adds to the information that points to this separatists controlled area as being the launch site of the missile that downed MH17, and, along with Vladmir Babak’s statements, further debunks claims an SU-25 was used to shoot down MH17.


Eliot Higgins

Eliot Higgins is the founder of Bellingcat and the Brown Moses Blog. Eliot focuses on the weapons used in the conflict in Syria, and open source investigation tools and techniques.

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  1. George

    A SU-25 could simply not have shot down a Boeing 777 flying at 10 km. For many reasons. Specifications of the aircraft and observed damage on the MH17 debris.

    One of the reasons is that the cannon of a SU-25 has a huge recoil force. When the gun is used the aircraft will experience a force backwards. The engines at 10km will produce not enough forward speed to keep the aircraft in the air.
    The SU-25 is designed for lowflying operation. Pilots are not trained to destroy a fast flying civil aircraft at 10km. R-60 missile is much too light for destroying a B777.

    It is remarkable Russia claims a SU-25 shot down MH17. A SU-27 or MiG29 would have been a far more likely scenario.
    My guess is that in the rush to explain what happened the Russian FSB made this crucial error. It proves the shot down was an accident and not planned.

    It is explained here

    • Rob

      George, I agree with most of what you say, except for this statement :

      “My guess is that in the rush to explain what happened the Russian FSB made this crucial error. It proves the shot down was an accident and not planned.”

      You can’t make that assumption based on your guess.
      For starters, the Russian FSB did not make this “mistake”. It was the Russian Defense Ministry who started the SU25 story in their July 21 press conference.

      Secondly, if MH17 was deliberately shot down, very few people would have known about it ; after all, you don’t want anyone to get second thoughts about shooting down an international airliner in broad daylight.

      But even if the Russian Defense Ministry was acting in a “rush” to comply with a command to cover things up, it is still quite shocking that they came up with an SU25. EVERY military commander knows the limitations of an SU25, and certainly the head of the Main Operations Directorate of the HQ of Russia’s military forces, Lieutenant-General Andrey Kartopolov.

      It seems more likely to me that SU25 was chosen to initiate another strawman argument discussion on top of the red herring that there was a fighter jet visible in their radar images (there was not), which, combined with the other 4 conspiracy theories they vented in that press conference would generate so much noise and mis-information and discussion items that even 8 months later the Russian media as well as you and me are still talking about it.

      And NOT talking about what really happened.

      • Rodney

        I don’t know why everybody says Russia said it was a SU25 at there press conference. Most interpretations translate it as “proposed SU25.”
        I am no expert on the Russian language. All I know is it is often very difficult to translate to English and maintain the original meaning.
        To me it is obvious a better translation would have been “possibly a SU25”.
        I don’t have the URL anymore but I recall that being corrected by Russian sources soon after. That explained it was impossible to determine using there Civilian Radars exactly what it was. All they could say was they had in effect picked up a fighter size aircraft on there Radar.

  2. Liane Theuer

    Look at the map. The missile could never fly over the heads of people from “Red October” area, as claimed by the witnesses !
    So who is right ? The Roland Oliphant launch site or the launch site of the Chervonyi Zhovten witnesses ? Both claims do not add up !

    • Alex

      If the Red October claims are now to be believed that means the much vaunted “smoke trail” picture is definitely fake as the smoke from that site would be out of camera shot in the first picture posted on the 17th.
      Also – From the Reuters article,
      “A former rebel from the separatist Vostok battalion, who for security reasons asked to be identified only by his first name, Igor, told Reuters that a BUK battery was in Chervonyi Zhovten on July 17, and he himself was not far from the village.
      Igor said the battery’s mission was to discourage Ukrainian Su-25 ground attack jets from attacking separatist targets in the area. A BUK missile had been launched against the Ukrainian jets half an hour before the Malaysia Airlines Boeing came down, forcing the Ukrainian pilots to pull out, he said.”

      Strange how nobody heard, saw or photographed that earlier Buk launch.

    • Matto

      Brezhnev was born in Ukraine, so why is he being called Russian?
      Some of the socalled “seperatists” where born in Ukraine, so why are they calling themsself Russians?

      • AnnaV

        Nobody calls Brezhnev Russian. The same for Khrushchev, Stalin, Beria, Ordzhonikidze. If for you everything that is to the East of Poland is Russia, well, it is quite disrespectful towards other nationalities.

        • Matto

          Brezhnev was born in Kamenskoe into a Russian worker’s family.
          So he is Russian.
          Khrushchev was born in the village of Kalinovka (Kusk Oblast).
          So he is Russian.
          But you didn’t answer the question why the socalled “seperatists” which where born in Ukraine, are calling themsself Russians…

          • AnnaV

            It is their business how they identify themselves. Both Khrushchev and Brezhnev identified themselves as Ukrainians

  3. Concerned Citizen

    The more likely location of mh17 missile launch site:
    Lat 47.972713°
    lon 38.770382°

    Just a few hundred meters east of your suspected location. Use google earth historical imagery from 7/31/2014 to clearly see the burn marks on the field.

    • bellingcatadmin

      I believe if you check the Digital Globe catalogue you can make out that field on July 16th and the same damage is present (there is a checkpoint on the road next to it as well). If you check the same image you can see the field to the west, our launch site, is untouched on July 16th.

      • Concerned Citizen

        Google Earth does not appear to have an DG image taken on july 16 (it just shows the last taken image for the area, 8/7/13), the dates that show up for that area:
        8/7/2013 – clear field
        7/31/2014 – burn marks
        8/14/2014 – burn marks appear to have been plowed, but only on the burned side of the field

        From what I can see, I’d say that this is the likely launch site.

        • Rob

          Why do you think that your launch site (600 meters east of the launch site proposed) is “more likely” ?

      • Rob

        Is there any chance that the July 16 images from the area from Digital Globe could be made public ?

  4. Will Toynbee

    Respected journalist Robert Parry raises some good questions in a new artucle.
    “In January, when I re-contacted the source who had been briefed by the U.S. analysts, the source said their thinking had not changed, except that they believed the missile may have been less sophisticated than a Buk, possibly an SA-6, and that the attack may have also involved a Ukrainian jetfighter firing on MH-17.”

    • Rob

      Will, did you notice that Perry is consistently arguing from authority ?
      Without providing who exactly his sources are, and even worse : without providing EVEN A SINGLE piece of evidence ?

        • Rob

          annoy-nymous, I consider any source that validates its findings with evidence “objective”. Open source journalists and fact-checkers like Bellingcat come to mind, and so does ukraine@war and InterpreterMag.

          If you do not agree, please point out exactly where either of these sites made statements that diverted from the factual evidence they presented.

          • annoynymous

            u gotta zoom out. there is no evidence everywhere regarding mh17. otherwise u could hear superpowers blaming. they have evidence but none comes out. for the rest: there are only opinions and people seeking evidence for their opinion by interpreting and using insufficient methods. and ur not seriously retaliating perry by pointing on khodorkovskis interpretermag…jesus

  5. MS

    Combining the more credible sources and facts I produced this alternative story – SU-25 shoot down

    1. The Ukrainian government accused Russian airplanes of having had shot down their airplanes. This was reported by the NYT the day before MH17 was shot down. /1/

    2. Therefore, on July 17, Ukraine deployed 3 BUK systems /2/ in the area and sent off 1 or 2 air-to-air missile equipped SU-25 jets. Such ammunition has not been used for a long time by these planes and their pilots, if ever /3/ (The pilot accused by whistleblower denied to have shot down MH17, but conceded to have said ‘wrong place … wrong time’ /3a/. That confession proves at least that the whistleblower was an insider at Dnepopetrovsk airport).

    3. One Su-25 was flying below approx. 1000m, below the radar horizont of Rostov radar. The pilot then either saw or detected the approaching MH17 airplane.

    4. The pilot immediately turned upwards. At around the maximum climbing rate of approx. 65m/s, it takes about 1-2 min to reach a height compatible with Russian data (claiming a distance of about 3-5 km, requiring a minimum height of 5-7km, MH17 above at 10 km) /2/.

    5. At 16:19 local time, the SU-25 was detected by Rostov radar. /2/.

    6. The pilot, due to the distance and likely untrained or unexperienced in such situations, either mistook MH17 for a Russian fighter or he already saw its colours, red, blue and white, which are also Russian national colours, and fired a missile.

    7. The Boeing 777 was an extraordinary large object and therefore easy to hit. But due to the about orthogonal trajectory, the heat seaking missiles could not see directly into the engines, the heat source was diffuse and moving at very high angular velocity in the missile’s coordinate system. According to the black box data, the explosion occured at 16:20. The missile exploded next to the cockpit, immediately destroying the power supply of the black boxes (Here I assume the British did not manipulate the readout of the blackbox, like the US did with the intercepted communication of KAL007 /3b/).

    8. People below on the ground heard the explosion and looked up to the sky as reported by BBC Russia /4/. According to figure 3 in the Dutch Safety Board report, there have been patches of blue sky at MH17’s last position and to the west /5/.

    9. The explosion did most of the damage to the cockpit section and created multiple holes. Cockpit windows were likely shattered as well creating large openings, and immediately huge wind forces started to tear on the cockpit.

    10. The rest of the airplane was still mostly intact and comparted from the cockpit by a wall with a steel door. That separation then collapsed, a 2nd decompression explosion occured /6/ and the cockpit section was cut off from the airplane’s body. BBC Russia witnesses heard or saw the second explosion /4/.

    11. The SU-25 then descended quickly and disappeared from Rostov radar. That move was noticed by BBC Russia witnesses. In this area closest to the shotdown and with partly blue sky, nobody reported a BUK missile contrail cloud /4/.

    12. When the SU-25 returned to Dnepopetrovsk airbase, the missing missile was noticed /3/.

    13. When MH17 was hit and came down, rebel fighters thought, they had shot down another Ukrainian airplane with their man-pads, and started talking about it.

    14.Some Ukrainian officials were immediately aware that the pilot had make a severe mistake. They immediately blamed rebel fighters, and produced ‘evidences’ distracting and pointing to another weapon, which might have been in rebel hands as well, a BUK missile.

    15. In their first evaluation of satellite pictures, US intelligence noticed the same 3 BUK systems as the Russians and perhaps a rebel held system as well, though perhaps not functional. Combining with other evidence, they singled out the most likely BUK to have shot down MH17, but on high resolution fotos it was staffed with soldiers in Ukrainian uniforms and appeared to be under Ukrainian control /7/ Use of the term ‘likely’ may indicate, that the US as well did not notice a BUK launch..

    16. Dutch investigators tried to rush to the scene but where held up in Kiev. While journalists and OSCE people were already working on the crash site, Dutch investigators were not allowed to go there, before a contract was negotiated giving Ukraine a right of veto of publication of results /8/, and another contract explicitly excluding research of blame or liability /9/.

    17. Meanwhile Kiev forces started attacking the crash site /10/ including an area travelled by Malaysian investigators /11/. Eventually, the Dutch, still locked in Kiev, gave up and flew home, and the initial cease fire was not restored.

    18. The Dutch PM, who had promised an independent and transparent investigation, did not reveal the secret contract made with Ukraine even after a request by Freedom of Information Act /12/.

    19. In an October 27 interview with Der Spiegel, JIT investigation leader Fred Westerbeke of the Dutch National Prosecutors’ Office said they had no “watertight evidence” in the case. Months after the investigation began, Westerbeke indicated that US and German intelligence officials had still not provided the investigation with satellite images backing up their claims to have definitive proof of Russian involvement in the crash /12/.
    It is unclear, if the Dutch requested further information at all, such as US high resolution fotos of the BUK systems, radar surveillance data or intercepted phone calls.


    List of airliners shot down in the past, some of them by air to air missiles, some not hitting the engine /13/.
    List of airliners with a decompression explosion /14/.




    • Alec Aardvark

      Nice preposition.

      Except for it being a near total fabrication, based on supposition, wishful thinking, outright untruths & disinformation.
      Please tell your handlers we don’t believe you.

      • MS

        The main aspect of this scenario was to be compatible with evidence and to show that a single R-60 missile could have brought down MH17 and trigger the breakup in the air.

        SU-25 designer Babak said the fighter jet could have successfully attacked the Boeing at an altitude of 3,000-4,000 meters, but not at the plane’s altitude of 10,500 meters. He added that air-to-air missiles would have only damaged the Boeing – not completely destroyed it while still in the air. I have presented an altitude of 5000-7000 m, but in case Russian air control did not detect the SU-25 but instead a disintegrating section the altitude could have been also within Babak’s range, below Russian detection capability. Top of clouds were at approx. 3000 m.

        I would try to explain the breakup with the second (according to some eyewitnesses much more) powerful decompression explosion. That sequence would explain why one passenger could put on an oxygen mask, but more importantly, why the prominent left front section fell down to the north-east in opposite direction to the pressure force of the first explosion.

        Even in the case of a BUK explosion, these 2 details may require a second, more powerful decompression explosion to explain. But with 2 explosions in the air, BUK launch witnesses on the ground reporting only 2 explosions (1 on the ground, 1 in the air) have a problem.

    • FlyingDutchman

      Latest news from Dutch broadcast organisation RTL, claims fragments of a buk missile were found in the airplane remains. I expect more development about this news very soon.

    • D7K

      If they can prove that the found fragments are from a warhead of a missile type never deployed in Ukraine, air is getting quite thin for VP.

  6. MS

    There is a significant error in this report:

    The pilot confirms having said “the sentence” which was quoted in Russian media.
    “What the Russian media says actually happened. But 6 days later, on July 23nd. We started with 3 fighter jets and only 1 came back. The other 2 aircraft were shot down. There I said this sentence, because I was so affected”

    The report claims this sentence was “it was a very bad day” (at 0:40 in video).

    This is untrue. The only two sentences reported by the Dnepepetrovsk whistleblower in Russian media where:

    “It was not the right plane”
    “The plane was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
    Original here:

    Confirming both or either of THESE sentences does not match with the other event a week later.


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