MH17 - Potential Suspects and Witnesses from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade

The report can be downloaded here 


This report, MH17: Potential Suspects and Witnesses from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade, presents information regarding the Russian brigade that we believe provided, and possibly operated, the Buk-M1 missile launcher that downed Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. In this post, we will summarize the role of the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade and “Buk 3×2” in the downing of MH17 before providing a summary of the report. At the bottom of this post, an index is provided of Bellingcat’s previously published major research projects on the MH17 disaster.


From June 23 to 25, 2014, Russia’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade transported several Buk-M1 anti-aircraft missile systems to areas near the Russia-Ukraine border. Bellingcat has extensively covered this convoy of military vehicles over the past year and a half, including numerous reports on the 53rd Brigade’s most notable piece of cargo: Buk 3×2, the missile launcher that we believe downed MH17. You can trace the 53rd Brigade’s journey from its base in Kursk, Russia to near the Russia-Ukraine border on Storymap, through which you can watch the videos and photographs in which the convoy, including Buk 3×2, are captured.

There is no direct evidence indicating if it was Russian or separatist soldiers who operated Buk 3×2 when it was in Ukraine. However, considering the complexity of the Buk-M1 system, it is most likely that the Russian military did not transfer a Buk missile launcher to separatist commanders without some guidance or a Russian crew. In the likely case that the Buk 3×2 did come with a Russian crew, it is almost certain that they were from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade, which was deployed at the border throughout the summer of 2014.

Bellingcat has published numerous reports indicating our confidence that the Buk-M1 system that most likely downed MH17 was the Russian Buk 3×2. In the six available photographs and videos of the Buk-M1 missile launcher in Donetsk, Zuhres, Luhansk, Torez, and Snizhne on the day of and after the airliner’s downing, numerous features on the Buk match uncommon features found on Buk 3×2. Many of these features can be seen in this comparison between Buk 3×2 (in Russia, June 2014) and the Buk seen in Donetsk, Ukraine on the day of the tragedy:

There are numerous other features on Buk 3×2 that match the Buk seen in eastern Ukraine on July 17 and 18, 2014 that indicate that it is definitely a Russian Buk, and more specifically 3×2. These features include:

  • H-2200 mark on the left side (a load-bearing code used in railways, and extremely common on Russian equipment, with only a few examples of it seen on Ukrainian tanks and none on Buks)
  • Cross hair symbol (gravity mark) next to H-2200, meant for stabilizing while loading onto railways
  • Visible unit designation, with a likely “3”, an obscured middle digit, and fairly clear “2”
  • Distinct marks on hull and side-skirt
  • Side-skirt damage pattern
  • Distinct white mark on right side-skirt, visible in July 18 Luhansk video and a June 23 video in Alexeyevka, Russia (see comparison here). The same white mark is visible on the other side skirt below the H-2200 mark, as seen in the above comparison video.

Summary of Report

The report contains five sections, each covering a different aspect of the 53rd Brigade and its activities in the summer of 2014.

The first section, “The 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade,” describes the role of the brigade within the Russian military and its structure, including the unit designations of Buk-M1 systems within the brigade.

The second section, “Mobilization of the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade,” provides a detailed account of the deployment of the brigade throughout the summer of 2014. By studying the makeup of the convoy that transported Buk-M1 systems from Kursk, Russia to near the Russia-Ukraine border on June 23-25, we have established that the 2nd Battalion of the 53rd Brigade was responsible for the transport of Buk 3×2. The missile launcher designated Buk 3×2 replaced the 2nd Battalion’s missile launcher numbered 222, thus indicating that the officers and soldiers normally responsible for Buk 222 were the most likely candidates to operate its replacement, Buk 3×2. This second section also details another convoy in which equipment from the 1st Battalion was transported in the days following the MH17 disaster.

The third section, “Soldiers of the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade,” details the soldiers within the 53rd Brigade and the information provided by their public postings on social media. The soldiers of the 2nd Battalion provided a wealth of information, including photographs and written notes, describing their time on the Russia-Ukraine border in June and July, 2014. More extensive details are provided regarding the soldiers who were normally responsible for the Buk missile launcher numbered 222, which was replaced by Buk 3×2, which we believe downed MH17. Additional details are provided on soldiers of the 1st and 3rd Battalions in order to demonstrate that they likely had no involvement or knowledge regarding the transfer or operation of Buk 3×2 in Ukraine. The identities of all of these soldiers have been anonymized in this public version of the report, with their names changed and faces blurred, though an uncensored version with their true identities has been provided to the Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT).

The fourth section, “Cadets at the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade,” describes a summer cadet training program at the Kursk base of the 53rd Brigade. Information provided by these cadets gives us additional understanding of the structure and operations of the brigade, in addition to ruling out numerous officers from any involvement with the MH17 disaster. The identities of all cadets have been anonymized, like with the soldiers in the previous section.

The final and most important section, “Commanders of the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade,” provides extensive information regarding the leadership structure of the brigade and battalion that provided and possibly operated the likely murder weapon in the downing of MH17. We provide partially anonymized information regarding 14 officers of the 2nd Battalion of the 53rd Brigade, including the commanders of the Buk unit vehicles within the battalion. Sergey Borisovich Muchkaev, the commander of the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade, is closely detailed, along with his superiors, including Aleksey Zolotov of the Air Defense of the 20th Guards Army and Andrey Kokhanov of the Air Defense of the Western Military District. Ultimately, responsibility for the downing of MH17 from a weapon provided and possibly operated by the Russian military lies with the Ministry of Defense and the Supreme Commander of the Russian Armed Forces, President Vladimir Putin.

Previous Major MH17 Investigations