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MH17 – Forensic Analysis of Satellite Images Released by the Russian Ministry of Defence

May 31, 2015

By Bellingcat Investigation Team

In this new report Bellingcat examines satellite images released by the Russian Ministry of Defence as part of the July 21st 2014 press conference on the downing of Flight MH17.

The Russian MoD stated at the press conference that the satellite photos show the activities of Ukraine’s air defences on the day that Flight MH17 was shot down. In particular, the position of two Ukrainian Buk missile launchers south of the village Zaroschinskoe were shown to be within firing range of MH17. The Bellingcat investigation has found the following –

– Satellite images presented by the Russian Ministry of Defence claiming to shown Ukrainian Buks linked to the downing of MH17 on July 14th and 17th are in fact older images from June 2014.
– The discrepancies visible in the Russian MoD satellite map imagery which shows they are incorrectly dated are visible in publicly available imagery on Google Earth.
– Error level analysis of the images also reveal the images have been edited.
– This includes a Buk missile launcher that was removed to make it appear the Buk missile launcher was active on July 17th, and imagery where Buk missile launchers were added to make it appear they were within attack range of Flight MH17.
An example of incorrectly dated imagery used by the Russian Ministry of Defence

An example of incorrectly dated imagery used by the Russian Ministry of Defence

Full versions of the report are available in Russian, German, and English. Images used in this report can be found here, and here without text..

With this new report all four major claims made at the Russian Ministry of Defence press conference have now been shown to be false:

– The flight path was not altered in the way claimed by the Russian Ministry of Defence. Data from the Dutch Safety Board’s preliminary report and other sources show Flight MH17 made no major course changes such as the one described in the Russian Ministry of Defence press conference.

– The Russian Ministry of Defence claimed the video of the Buk missile launcher presented by the Ukrainian Ministry of Interior was filmed in the Ukrainian government control town of Krasnoarmeisk. This has been proven to be untrue, with analysis of the video showing it was filmed in the separatists controlled city of Luhansk.

– Radar imagery was described as showing an aircraft close to Flight MH17 after it was shot down. Experts interviewed by various media organisations have stated this is almost certainly debris from Flight MH17 as it broke up over Eastern Ukraine.

– Satellite imagery shows Ukrainian Buk activity around July 17th. As this report shows, those claims are untrue, and were based on fabricated satellite imagery.

These claims, representing the majority of information publicly presented by the Russian government since the downing of Flight MH17, are a clear attempt by the Russian government to deceive the public, global community, and the families of the Flight MH17 victims, only days after Flight MH17 was shot down.

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    the constant re hashing of ‘evidence’ is tiring everyone…..just more lies by Russia to cover up the fact that it was their BUK supplied to the rebels that was responsible for the tragedy….pictures of BUK missiles and crash sense are irrelevant now……what is relevant is pinning the tail on the donkey….pinning this on Russia and making putin accountable as a war criminal

    no point trying to find the chain of terrorist or more likely the Russian trigger men who targeted the aircraft and took the decision to shoot it down….they were all killed by the FSB with in days of the crash to avoid the truth being let out by anyone but the highest level knowing it was a terrorist/Russian crime…..the highest level being putin…….criminal number one!

  2. Brendan

    If the dates of the Google Earth images can be verified, they would appear to prove a fake in the Russian MoD images although, frankly, the report doesn’t present the case very well.

    It would therefore be useful to get more details of the original images. Google does not take its own satellite photos for Google Earth but instead patches them together from images from various providers. That explains why some are in colour and some in black and white.

    Bellingcat, can you publish the full info on the original images, incuding time stamps?

  3. Andrew

    Not Mark:

    I thought it was stated on or shortly after June 29, when the Donetsk air defense base was captured and the rebels started posting pictures of the captured BUK on Twitter. I’m going from memory here.

    Of course the Russian MOD did something to the pictures. They clearly stated they purposefully degraded the resolution (to the point where it is clearly worse than what I can normally download off Google Earth Pro for my day job) and they obviously added text. I suspect in the orders made along the way in their creation of the presentation that it is possible that pictures ordered by higher-ups to be obtained showing the situation “before July 14” possibly got labeled as “July 14”, hence their “Before” pictures looking really “Before”. I prefer to attribute such errors to incompetence and stupidity instead of malice.

    As far as manipulating the “smoking gun” actual image with BUK’s deployed in the field I remain agnostic. First of all, I am not confident that the Google images haven’t been misdated given the plethora of them conveniently posted in the wake of the events of July and August of 2014 and the obvious pastiche job of creating a continuous cloud free image. I say this because there are places in the US where I need aerial images for my job as an engineer where Google can’t be bothered to update them for years on end (for example, much of my home city of Philadelphia has not been updated since 2011), but we are to believe that Google randomly and disinterestedly supplied us nearly half a dozen images on different dates in the summer of 2014 suddenly in the wake of the war in Donbass for much of that region, as if their paying customer base at the time (the Pro version now free of course, but back then we were paying quite a bit of money for high quality imagery) was demanding it. Second, I’ve posted a video on multiple websites (including here) from Ukrainian TV clearly showing Ukraine’s Armed Forces actively deploying BUK’s into the theater of operations on July 16, 2014 and no one wants to address this deployment, its purpose, or the location of the BUK’s on either side of the silly Rebel BUK/Ukrainian SU-25 dispute for the shootdown of MH17. For that reason, I will stick for now to believing the Russian Ministry of Defense presentation on the location of BUK’s on July 17 south of Donetsk and around Lugansk is correct, regardless of what is presented here, until someone can show me where the BUK’s in the video were located and convince me from that they were never located where the Russian MOD said.

    As to what happened on July 17, I personally believe it was either an accident by the Ukraine forces during exercises, like Siberian 1812, or it was a remote malicious firing by a 3rd force apart from the unit operators of either one of the Ukraine units or the rebel unit at Snizhne using the remote link-up features of the BUK TELAR’s to the remote comman centers and KUPOL radar. The story presented of a Russian BUK travelling all over the countryside uncovered from Kursk to Snizhne, making one shot after being informed by spotters of a plane coming (who somehow saw a high plane through overcast low cloud ceiling), and downing an airliner and then rushing back to Russia on another zigzagging course is preposterous on its face, as is the thought of a Ukrainian soldier or a rebel solider purposefully taking down an airliner. The sky over Donbass was full of civilian airliners travelling at over 30,000 ft. at 500+ mph on or near known civilian airways. No one inside a BUK unit would have mistaken one for a light military transport (wrong altitude and speed) or a SU-25 ground attack plane (wrong altitude and speed). It also seems a pretty remote possibility to me that a Malaysian plane was randomly shot down shortly after another Malaysian plane mysteriously disappeared.

    • Not Mark

      Andrew, I am not really sure that I can draw up an intelligent rebuttal to this comment but I will say you are entitled to draw your own conclusions after you interpret the evidence presented here and elsewhere. I appreciate the time and thought you put into this comment and you definitely bring up some valid points (e.g. possibly unreliable Google sat image dates). It is helpful to have well thought out and intelligent dissenting opinions on here to better spur on meaningful and constructive conversations. Take care.

      • Andrew

        Thank you Not Mark. That is one of the most kind comments I have ever received on the internet from someone who disagrees with me.

        I’m glad to know at least some people can draw different conclusions from evidence or make different speculations and still discuss ideas in a civil manner with each other and learn from each other.

        I have no axe to grind here. I’m not Russian or Ukrainian, but I am rather fond of both countries and their people. I wish they were not fighting among each other. Its very sad and I am sorry for the role my own country America has had in provoking civil war in Ukraine and Russian intervention in that war.

        • Paul

          The United States has done nothing to cause Civil War in Ukraine. That is all Russia, sorry bud, but supplying Ukraine with 5 billion over 20 years for the purposes of democracy and making comments are not supporting or instigating a coup or civil war.

          On the flip side, invading and annexing land does

          • Andrew


            President Obama flatly stated the US Government brokered the transition of power from the democratically elected government to the new non-elected government initially installed under Acting President Turchinov and Yatseniuk. We also had our Ambassador and an Undersecretary of State caught on surveillance naming the new government weeks before Presidnet Yanukovich lost power. Lastly, the entire scenario was laid out in a speech to the Rada in November 2013 one day before the start of the Euromaidan protests by a member of the Rada, naming the US as the instigating force via its Embassy.



            Your noting of $5 billion for purposes of democracy was spent on a country that was already a democracy and had undergone multiple peaceful transfers at the presidential, parliamentary, and local levels of power after free and fair multi-party elections and which had seen all political factions at different times with opportunities to direct the country and its regions. The US flatly forbids foreigners to spend money influencing our electoral process and especially foreign governments. Why is it okay for our government to do that in other countries?

          • Rob

            Andrew said “……. the democratically elected government to the new non-elected government initially installed under Acting President Turchinov and Yatseniuk. We also had our Ambassador and an Undersecretary of State caught on surveillance naming the new government weeks before Presidnet Yanukovich lost power.”

            Even disregarding all the spelling mistakes you made, you have GOT to be joking.


            Also interesting that most of these “separatists” fighting in Ukraine, against Ukraine are foreigners.

            Fighters from Chechnya, yelling “Allah u Akbar” on youtube videos, neo-nazis from Serbia , contract soldiers from Vladikavkaz and even Eastern Siberia, as well as Russian criminals avoiding Russian prisons. Not to mention the commanders, which are Russian FSB officers, as well as Russian military personnel on “vacation” or “volunteering”. Very few Ukrainians.

            And since these guys now have more Russian supplied armor than an average NATO country, does anyone know who pays for this entire “NovoRussia” project ?

            Is that the Russian tax payer ? Or the Russian Oil oligarchs ? Or Yanukovych, using the billions he stole from the Ukrainian people ?

  4. Jason

    Andrew Romein said, “The full report was written by a different member of our team (Bellingcat), Eliot wrote the summary on the website.” Sorry but this sort of response creates the appearance of dissembling, which is precisely what I am trying to help you minimize.

    Providing a more simple, straightforward and clear layperson’s non-technical explanation of the forensic analysis, for one example, better supports the Bellingcat assertion that the Russian MOD was trying to “deceive”.

    Since, as you have pointed out, Eliot specifically wrote that the Russian MOD was trying to “deceive”, then he should be the one to respond to questions.

    In order to sell this story to the public, it has to make sense to them. Technical jargon just increases their suspicion.

    Forgive the critique, which is meant to be constructive, but I think you’re losing a lot more people than you’re winning here.

    There’s a line between showing that someone is “lying” and just calling them a “liar”.
    All the pictures and arrows and technical terms do not convince people. I believe that a more simple approach may.

    • Not Mark

      Leaving this in a form of “technical jargon” allows people to take the “raw” data here and come to their own conclusion. Surely this is better than reading a summary that will be difficult to write without some kind of inherent bias?

  5. Bogus

    Der Rückzug, den SPON mit dem Kaffeesatz-Interview angetreten hat, wird die Printmedien vermutlich nicht erreichen. 99% der Zeitungsleser werden die Mär von der neuerlichen miesen Trickserei Putins glauben.

    Vorschlag für einen Leserbrief, zu verteilen an alle Zeitungsredaktionen, die den Bellingcat-Schmarrn ungeprüft übernommen haben und jetzt keine Gegendarstellung bzw. Neubewertung (z.B. a la SPON/Kaffeesatz-Interview) bringen:

    Inzwischen wurden erhebliche Zweifel an Methode und Ergebnis der Bilderanalyse des preisgekrönten “Expertenteams” um den Internetblogger Eliot Higgins laut. Zum einen sind die Zeitangaben der verwendeten Vergleichsbilder aus Google Earth bekanntermaßen nicht zuverlässig, zum anderen wurden bei der Verwendung der – im Internet übrigens für jedermann frei verfügbaren – Bildanalyse-Software erhebliche Fehler gemacht. Diese Einschätzung stammt nicht von irgend jemandem, sondern vom Entwickler dieser Software persönlich!
    Dass das Ergebnis einer von Hobby-Forensikern schlampig erstellten Analyse ungeprüft von sämtlichen Medien – nicht nur von ihrer Zeitung – übernommen wird, ist bedauernswert und Wasser auf die Mühlen derer, die immer wieder gerne eine “Lügenpresse” am Werk sehen. Bleibt zu hoffen, dass die auf zweifelhafter Basis vorschnell getroffenen Urteile über Putins angebliche Tricksereien den Streit mit Russland nicht weiter eskalieren lassen.

    • Just a A

      I would be that fast. The ELA results are not even necessary to prove, that the Russian MoD deliberate lied in the 21.07. presentation.

      And the SPON interview is really quite interesting. Two examples:
      * Claiming that the conclussions were made mainly based in the ELA, while the ELA was only on of the used techniques and is not even necessary for some conclussions.
      * Discussion of the “oil” spill but neglecting the removed trees.

  6. Shingo

    What a paththetic piece of propaganda. The so called experts who wrote this report clearly do not know the first thing about how jpeg compression algorithms work. . JPEG compresses a flat white surface with low error level and a rough multicolor part of a picture with a higher compression error level. Any photographer will telly you that. What’s more, opening a JPEG and saving it again as another JPEG also introduces additional artifacts.

  7. simply

    Dear Mr. Eliot Higgins,
    do you have any comments about Dr. Neal Krawetz (the founder of Fotoforensics) opinion of your ‘investigation?

    • Rob

      Dr, Neal Krawetz was just pissed that Bellingcat did not ask his “esteemed” opinion before using his SLA software.

      • Hector Reban

        Your damage control fails. And your ad hominem works against you.

        Krawetz specifically said the Bcat report was a guide who not to perform an ELA analysis.


        “Distances itself? Understatement. I had nothing to do with their faulty analysis.¨

  8. not not mark

    Yes Not Mark, give us more and more of your comments. Those are so thoughtful.

    • Not Mark

      Aw man! I am gonna get carpel tunnel if I make many more comments! My laptop keyboard isn’t very ergonomical. 😛


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