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Tracking the Vehicle that Transported the MH17 Buk

June 30, 2015

By Nathan Patin

Thanks to the generous donations of our supporters last month, Bellingcat was able to purchase 25 square kilometers of satellite imagery from Digital Globe. Our latest report used this imagery to definitively demonstrate that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) falsely dated satellite photos it presented to the international community in the days after the MH17 tragedy last year in order to implicate Ukraine. Now, we will use the same Digital Globe imagery to show that the low-loader that hauled the Buk linked with the downing of MH17 was in fact absent from its vehicle yard when it was photographed by Paris Match on the morning of 17 July 2014.

On 25 July 2014, eight days after MH17 was shot down by a Buk missile system over eastern Ukraine, the French weekly Paris Match published a photograph of a red and white low-loader transporting a Buk through the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk.

Paris Match

Subsequent geolocation confirmed that the low-loader hauling the Buk was headed east on the H21 highway. Inquiries by Storyful established that the photograph was taken at “about 11 a.m. on the morning of July 17”; shadows cast by the vehicle are consistent with this time of day. Paris Match also confirmed that this was the best quality version of the image available.

Using the phone number on the side of the low-loader, Paris Match contacted the owner of the vehicle rental company, who claimed that the low-loader had been stolen by separatists who had occupied his warehouses since 8 July and that the vehicle was unique in the region. The phone number was also used to track down the exact location of the company, which is located in Donetsk.

Historical Google Earth imagery shows that the low-loader can be seen in the vehicle yard facing north on 2 July 2014, while on 21 July 2014, it has clearly moved and can be seen facing east.

2 July 2014 vs 21 July 2014

The new Digital Globe imagery Bellingcat has purchased shows that at 11:08 a.m. (local time) on 17 July 2014, the low-loader was not present in the vehicle yard, as would be expected if Paris Match photographed the low-loader heading out of Donetsk on H21 around 11 a.m. Here is the new imagery compared with the most proximate Google Earth imagery available (taken 2 July):

17 July 2014 (DG imagery) vs 2 July 2014

The low-loader’s absence from the vehicle yard at this time is consistent with the timeline of events in the hours before the downing of MH17, as documented in various social media postings, which have been verified by Bellingcat and others.

After being spotted heading east on the H21 highway by Paris Match photographers around 11 a.m., the low-loader was subsequently filmed roughly 36 kilometers farther east on H21 in the town of Zuhres, reportedly at 11:40 a.m.

Zuhres

The low-loader was then photographed roughly 25 kilometers east of Zuhres in Torez, at approximately 12:30 p.m., this time with camouflage netting over the Buk.

Torez

While a photograph and a video posted to YouTube showed the Buk driving under its own power in the town of Snizhne at approximately 1:30 p.m., the low-loader was once again seen hauling the Buk through separatist-controlled Luhansk, reportedly on the morning of 18 July, in a video posted by the Ukrainian Ministry of Interior. Indeed, the Buk can be seen missing one of its 9M38M1 missiles.

Luhansk

To recap, a Buk being transported by a low-loader was seen headed east on H21 out of Donetsk around 11 a.m. on 17 July 2014, hours before MH17 was shot down. It was then filmed on H21 east of Donetsk in the town of Zuhres at approximately 11:40 a.m. At 12:30 p.m. on the same day, the low-loader was seen hauling the Buk through Torez. The following morning, the Buk, minus one missile, was seen being hauled by the low-loader through Luhansk.

With these sightings, it is possible to surmise the most likely route taken by the low-loader. A portion of this route can be seen in the full Digital Globe preview imagery from which the crowdfunded portion was purchased.

Buk route

This full Donetsk image from Digital Globe – which, after purchasing the imagery, we know was taken at 11:08 a.m. – extends roughly one-third of the way to the town of Zuhres. Based on the time of the Donetsk satellite image and the time the Buk was seen in Zuhres (11:40 a.m.), we judged that there was a reasonable possibility that the Buk and low-loader would be visible in the satellite imagery. In order to find out, we crowdfunded the purchase of another sliver of the Digital Globe imagery, this time showing the route depicted above. Unfortunately, the low-loader could not be seen in this image. (We, therefore, will not seek funding for the additional $1,500 required to publish the image.) There are two plausible reasons as to why this may be. First, while the imagery is by and large clear for large stretches of the route, there are not insignificant sections of road that are obscured by either cloud cover or the tree line. Second, the assumption that the Buk would be visible was based upon a number of unknown factors that may have affected the low-loader’s travel time, including the speed of the low-loader, the heaviness of the traffic, and whether any stops were made.

On 30 March 2015, the Joint Investigation Team investigating the cause of the downing of MH17 released a video calling for witnesses in eastern Ukraine to come forward with information regarding the transport of a Buk anti-aircraft system through eastern Ukraine. The JIT video also featured three previously unpublished intercepted phone calls in which separatists discuss a Volvo low-loader truck hauling a Buk from Snizhne to Russian territory shortly after the MH17 shootdown. Two of these calls take place between 8 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. on 18 July 2014, the morning after the downing of MH17 and a few hours after the Buk and Volvo low-loader truck were filmed in Luhansk headed east. The individuals in these two calls can be heard discussing, among other things, the whereabouts of the low-loader (or “lowboy”), which was apparently transported into Russia.

JIT lowboy

While the low-loader was taken to Russia on 18 July, it returned to eastern Ukraine shortly thereafter and could be seen being used by separatists to transport military equipment. In a photograph shared on 6 August 2014, the low-loader can be seen transporting a BMP infantry fighting vehicle through the streets of Makiivka, just east of Donetsk.

Makiivka

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

Separatist and low-loader

Once again, historical Google Earth satellite imagery shows the low-loader in the yard on 9 August, while on 3 September it has since clearly moved.

9 August 2014 vs 3 September 2014

The PDF version of this piece is available in English and Russian.

 

Nathan Patin

Nathan Patin is a Washington, D.C.-based independent researcher and private investigator at the Mintz Group, an international corporate investigations firm. He focuses on open-source investigation tools and techniques, cybercrime, and the Middle East. He has been a member of the Bellingcat Investigation Team since 2015, and he was a guest presenter at Bellingcat's 2018 Washington D.C. workshop.

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146 Comments

  1. Christoph

    Both links in the last line point to the RU version of the PDF. I found the EN version by leaving out the _RU .

    Reply
  2. Andrew

    I guess it is too much to ask that the high res image be made available to the public to look and see if the truck and trailer is somewhere else other than where it is “supposed” to be.

    After all, a third plausible reason it is not seen would be that there is misinformation out there about the time of the photos, the route of the truck, or that some or all of the photos themselves are actually fake or from a different day and the truck was actually on another task than carrying a BUK on the morning on July 17.

    A fourth plausible reason would be that the truck and its convoy is already further to the east on the next photo tile containing Zhures (and also the alleged Ukrainian BUK emplacement at Hruzko-Zoryanske. I don’t suppose you will be trying to obtain that photo or the next one which contains Zaroshchenske?

    Reply
    • igor

      Forget it Andrew.

      All the “evidence” presented by the SBU are fakes. Sightings in Donestk, Zuhres, Torez, Snizhne,Lugansk are either photoshop or from unrelated date.
      Regarding the Paris Match photo,no one knows who is the photographer, the author can not even prove when the photo was taken (where are the original files ?) and now Bellingcat themselves debunked their own theorie with the. satellite image that shows no buk where it should be.

      “Unfortunately, the low-loader could not be seen in this image”

      https://twitter.com/bellingcat/status/611523407415480320
      “Unfortunately it looks like the Buk and truck in Donetsk had already moved out of satellite range, though we’re triple checking the images”

      Reply
        • Anton

          That is normal russian info game now – make a fake conversation between seemingly random people, who pretend to argue about something irrelevant. The point is to seed a doubt in reader’s mind or to steer reader’s train of thought to desirable path(most likely full of unproven “facts”, to fuel “great conspiracy” ideas).

          Reply
        • Antidyatel

          1) Optics would be a good reason to doubt. Back of BUK and truck cabin are in focus. Center of the BUK is defocused.
          2) Paris Match Photos RE to consequitive frames from dashcam video . Why not to post the whole video?
          3) Paris Match journalist obviously lied about the origin of the photo
          Few more are there

          Reply
          • Mad Dog

            Yeah, those are swell reasons anti…Hmmm, how about optics working in such ways that the center of interest is in focus while the periphery is not, especially in a dash cam. As for the whole dashcam video, I always thought Paris Match was a newspaper/magazine without video. As they noted, that was the best of several images they were able to pull off the video. And what makes you so sure the journalist lied about the origin of the photo. Of course if the vid came from within the separatist area, the person providing the vid would be more than a little afraid of being caught and done away with, so please give us more details about this “lie”.

          • Antidyatel

            To Mad dog. Can you send me a link to a dash camera that has a lens capable to keep in focus closest and furthest objects and keep the middle distance object out of focus. Very peculiar camera. Particularly when the middle distance would be the most critical for the camera intended purpose.
            Paris Match claimed was “The team of Paris Match had just photographed such a missile launcher on the edge of Donetsk, on the road to Snizhne the morning of Thursday, July 17”.

            Why did they use the words team and photographed, if it was a dashboard camera? If they had a team of journalists, why not to use their own cameras and photograph BUK from front or other angles. There were no armed rebels around, seems to be. They could just stop and talk to the driver while do more photos. Aren’t they journalists? Why such lack of curiosity? Occam’s Razor tells us that those photos were not taken by them but we’re sent by Ukr source. And they don’t have the whole video.
            So Mad Dog, you are just misinformed or just deliberately distracting. Paris Match lied, and there is no doubt about it. Reasons for their lie can be debated but not the lie itself

          • Mad Dog

            Basically we don’t know how this was taken. With my poor French I looked at the old article. Looks like it was taken from the back seat in between the driver and a passenger, maybe using a sports setting for rapid fire shots.There are a variety of reasons why the photo may not be up to professional standards, especially if one comes upon a stopped object and a photo is taken from a moving object. Note that the wiper arm is also out of focus and also that there is quite a bit of windshield reflection in the way on the edge. Could this be Photoshopped? Probably pretty difficult to do well in the short time between the shot and the publication. Perhaps one should ask Alfred de Montesquiou about it for more detail.
            As for stopping and asking the driver or someone about it, that sounds a bit odd to me. Would you stop and inquire about a military vehicle, especially one suspected of being involved in a shoot down? Would you seriously? Looking at the surrounding area, anyone stopping to take photos would be seen almost immediately, not something you would want to do in a place with a lot of guns in the hands of a variety of groups. Not sure this is all a pack of lies.

          • Antidyatel

            Did you just implied that the photo was taken after MH17 was shot down?
            “Would you stop and inquire about a military vehicle, especially one suspected of being involved in a shoot down?” ;))
            You are ruining the fairytale magic of Bellingcat that already has poor timing issue in their claims

        • dd

          Lol, why would you bother? those people replying are paid by kremlin, forget it. they have like 20000 people spamming sites like this. You got a detailed report, which is self censoring at times, quite open about its sources and methodology and youd think the default version would be to discuss the findings. however the default version is some amazing amount of reasonable sceptics. yeah right. you are talking to russian propoganda machine, so just ignore the comment section.

          speaking of, belingcat need to do an analysis of commentary patterns to their reports.

          Reply
  3. Antidyatel

    Why Bellingcat is so disinterested to get photos from supposed locations of the launch? Both Ukranian and Russian versions?

    Reply
  4. David Jones

    It seems that none of the July 17/18 sighting have actually been confirmed. The “storyful” link doesn’t seem to “establish” much really.
    Maybe this whole theory is wrong??

    Reply
  5. David Jones

    Can anyone explain how we can know that any of the photographs of the buk were actually taken on July 17? Thank you

    Reply
  6. Ramsay Bolton

    is it true that the providers of the Buk in Torez and smoke trail photos are both members of the Ukrainian military?

    Reply
  7. Ramsay Bolton

    Another question.

    If the vehicle yard where the low loader was based was commandeered by separatists, why was the yard owner still answering the phone and able to speak freely?

    Reply
  8. Jim Dobbin

    Has Bellingcat been able to have a single one of these images independently verified for authenticity of date? I don’t do conspiracies too greatly but without any verification by real experts these photos, when craftily gelled together, create nothing more than a conspiracy theory.

    Anyone with an interest in photography that I’ve shown that Paris Match picture to have all screamed ‘fake’ at it. I think it’s quite easy to reach such a conclusion given how out of focus parts of the image appear and the cloud of misinformation surrounding it. Why won’t Paris Match release the video?

    Reply
    • photographer

      Looks to me like a regular pic taken by a camera meant to focus on a point about 4 meters away from the camera. Any “out-of-focus” areas in trees could be wind moving the leaves and a slow shutter speed. The truck and vehicles around it appear to be more in focus because the delta speed between them and the camera is small. Tell me YOUR analysis since you have an INTEREST in photography.

      Reply
      • Jim Dobbin

        I don’t believe I said I had an interest in photography at all. And interesting you decided to completely ignore the crucial point of verification of the photos that Bellingcat chooses to use. If we don’t have the originals and we can’t vouch for the authenticity of same then how can they be passed of as authentic? Why does Paris Match refuse to release the video and instead only publish stills? Stills which, rather coincidentally, make the most important piece of evidence, the Buk, extremely difficult to make out & verify. Isn’t that just a tad bit odd don’t you think?

        If I were trying to prove a point and decided to use stills from a video I would ensure those stills were clear enough to prove my point. But I would also share the video for all to see. It’s strange to me that blurred photos are released and the video kept secret. Do you not agree?

        Reply
  9. Hector Reban

    @Bellingcat team, I have some questions to ask you about this report.

    1. Have you looked for the complete Vostok convoy or for just the unique truck with lowloader on the two slivers of the 7/17 11:08 EEST DG SAT?

    2. Have you found the Vostok convoy on one of these two slivers?

    3. What is the earliest time of departing you have considered calculating the truck with BUK could have been moved out of range?

    When the truck left the site right after the freelance photographer of Paris Match spotted it at 11:00 EEST, it had only 8 minutes to drive of the SAT range depicting a third of the road to Zuhres (=12 kilometers).

    This means the truck would have to drive at least at 90 km/h. Isn´t that a bit fast for such a heavy transport vehicle? Besides, when spotted in the Zuhres pic it drove only at about 30 km/h.

    Reply
  10. Sean Lamb

    If I was planning a false flag operation I would probably prepare the ground by, say having photos available of a transporter with a very large phone number on the side – the phone number of someone sympathetic to Kiev.

    Transporters with very large phone numbers on the side that answer questions to eager journalists falls into the category of evidence which is too convenient – which should ring alarm bells with anyone GENUINELY concerned about the deaths approx 200 civilians

    Reply
    • Jim Dobbin

      In my opinion Bellingcat’s work on MH17 is nothing more than a lot of ifs, ands, buts, maybes, possibles & could be’s. We must bear in mind that these images they use to build their case have not been independently verified for authenticity. We must also bear in mind the majority of these images have been supplied by the Ukranian secret service with lots of conflicting reporting from the UA authorities.

      It is 101 in any investigation to have the evidence independently verified. I mean it’s basic common sense. But the Bellingcat investigation has simply taken the SBU at face value and trusted their information and passed this on as fact.

      Reply
      • EvanLarkspur

        Um, bellingcat quite deliberately does not use “only” information released by any one source, but cross-references hundreds of different sources of information that are all available to the public to build a body of evidence. And they clearly cite all the sources so others can verify. God only knows what the heck YOU are talking about.

        Reply
      • boggled

        Jim, you obviously miss your calling as someone with some intelligence.
        Bellingcat’s investigation is going on OUTSIDE of the OFFICIAL investigation.
        The official investigative group are jumping through all those bells and whistles and hoops, be sure of that.
        Bellingcat’s investigation is INDEPENDENT of the official one, but they can offer some new insight to the official one with supplementary info they collect, and then the official one verifies it.
        Bellingcat’s investigation is providing the public with a version, that I believe is very close to the truth, but we will not know the results of the FULL investigation for some time to come.
        Pretty much we are all guessing how the official investigation is going and Bellingcat’s crew are doing their due diligence in verifying, providing their sources so you yourself can verify, and doing a lot of the hard work the official investigators are doing in their collection and analysis.

        The official one has a lot more money and people working on it and they have classified information that we as the public have no access to.

        Bellingcat has not used false dates on satellite images like the Russian MoD did.
        They did not say there was an SU25 on radar, when there wasn’t.
        They did not Photoshop satellite images.
        They are just trying to sift through all the data they can collect and try to be helpful.
        And provide the hows, whys, and evidence to others.
        We are all waiting for the official investigation to release info and declare a suspect and the most likely thing that happened.
        But until that comes out, honestly, we do not have the classified info that would show the culprit.
        Bellingcat and others are trying to dot the I’s and cross the T’s and make all the connections they can with available data.
        And JUST with that data, Bellingcat has set a pretty grime picture of who, how, and why, and that is why Uncle Vova is scared.
        With the classified data, I can imagine it will only be along the lines of the rest of the evidence.
        The Kremlin and their terrorist stooges are to blame.
        In my opinion, you need to learn a lot more about official investigations and supplementary independent investigations.

        Come back after 2 more years of forensics investigations and a course in private eye training and then make your comment, Bellingcat has done a lot and they even provided plenty of information for how you can see how they got to their beliefs.
        As I see it now, in my opinion, you lack a license to drive your keyboard.

        Fare thee well

        Reply
        • Phil Grant

          “Come back after 2 more years of forensics investigations and a course in private eye training and then make your comment.”

          Considering the whole Bellingcat team, together, hasn’t the qualifications or professional background to carry out any sort of “forensic investigation” nor have any of them taken a single course in “private eye training” – does this also mean they should “come back after 2 more years”? Or maybe your advice is only for those that question why Bellingcat have used SBU images as the main component of building their case without seeking authenticity of that evidence?

          Reply
      • Phil Grant

        Jim I agree with you on 2 points you raise regarding Paris Match picture and image authenticity. I have made a post on it below. I also note that Bellingcat hasn’t tried to authenticate a single Ukranian claim or piece of evidence. Are you aware of any time they have?

        Reply
        • boggled

          Phil, maybe you should go through all their articles YOURSELF, it is really easy, just type MH17 up in the search box and you can find all the information you want about their methods of scrutinizing ALL open source evidence that is available.
          That is kind of why they discuss their investigative methods.

          Just because a NASA scientist doesn’t say they have not verified there are red rocks on Mars by bringing one home, it does not mean that Mars is not full of Red Rocks.

          There are many ways to verify different data that someone presents and ways to disprove certain things like paid eyewitness’ of the downing of MH17 that say there were SU25’s travelling overhead that day.

          Like I said above, they are not a fully funded investigative group with a open wallet to chase down EVERY avenue of evidence.
          I am sure many articles got wrote then thrown in the trash bin because people wanted to get down to the meat of the issue.
          Did Ukraine have BUKs?
          Were they deployed in the area?
          Could they have hit MH17 and caused that damage?
          What is the evidence and can you verify any of it with open source data.

          Same goes to Russia and its terrorists they recruit and send into Ukraine.

          Bellingcat does not have access to classified data or the data that was collected off the net then systematically removed for various reason to protect the OFFICIAL investigation.
          So they do their due diligence with what they can find and collect.
          If they do not have possession of the originals, they cannot provide you with their verification.
          They have asked the JIT unit if evidence verification is going on.
          So far the unit has not found fault with Ukrainian communication intercepts that were handed over, their images, or videos.
          So if the official investigation says that, Bellingcat can assume that means most all the evidence that puts the Kremlin on the back heel can be accepted without doing a lot of tedious and additional research.
          That doesn’t mean they have NOT done any independent verification by themselves.
          They have, and if you read through their articles you would see that instead of making a baseless claim because you lack the time or willingness to go through Bellingcat’s articles.

          To your first comment, so you have the COMPLETE CV of the Bellingcat roster so you can make those claims?
          Really?
          So how can you state what you believe is their experience in investigation?

          That comment is baseless and slander because you have not presented any information for independent verification.
          Kind of the pot calling the kettle black isn’t it?

          Just because your insipidly lazy to go through all the articles and read for yourself, and it was not in this article, you cannot simply state they do no image verification on the evidence that places additional guilt on the Kremlin.

          Fare thee well

          Reply
    • boggled

      Sean, and evidence reported with false dates on their satellite images and a SU25 that was not ever there from a country that has control of enough nukes to throw the Earth out of orbit shouldn’t raise alarm bells?

      I will take your mistake of the actual count of innocent people murdered, which is 300, as a typo.
      You wouldn’t make that mistake intentionally since it has been in the news for a long time and everyone knows the count, so it must be a typo and not some TROLLop who is making a comment just to fill his or her quota with no concern of the actual count.
      Oh yeah, you didn’t come back and correct yourself, which if someone was concerned about this terrible act of murder they would not make that mistake and not correct it, I had to point it out for you, so it wasn’t a typo, you must be something else.
      Just calling it like I see it.
      Maybe your human and made a mistake, but it seems doubtful.

      Fare thee well

      Reply

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