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The Impossible Conspiracy Fueling Russia’s MH17 Defence

March 9, 2020

By Eliot Higgins

Ahead of the commencement of the MH17 trials in the Netherlands on March 9, 2020, various Russian government officials have made statements defending Russia against accusations that Russia provided the Buk missile launcher that shot down MH17 on July 17, 2014. Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Maria Zakharova complained of “planted news citing some mythical ‘irrefutable’ evidence, with witnesses’ details classified and links to sources that cannot be opened” and complained of a “media campaign” against Russia supposedly launched before the trial.

Other Russian officials have been more specific in their accusations. Referring to images of a Buk missile launcher in separatist held Ukraine and linked to the downing of MH17, Russia’s Ambassador to Australia, Dr. Alexey Pavlovsky, told Australia’s News9 that “Many of these pictures have been heavily tampered with. It seems that the Australian Federal Police as part of the investigation also had information to this effect but it somehow chose to withhold it from the public.”

Russia has repeatedly claimed images of the Buk in Ukraine were fake, with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stating in June 2019 that Russia had produced “precision expert analysis proving that the video clips supporting the JIT’s [Joint Investigation Teams] conclusions were fabricated” along with an earlier presentation by the Russian Ministry of Defence in September 2018, which claimed videos published online and used by the JIT to detail the route of the Buk through Ukraine were fabricated — seemingly plagiarising said claims from bloggers.

A map showing the locations of images geolocated by Bellingcat and others of a Buk missile launcher travelling through separatist controlled territory on July 17, 2014

While it might seem bizarre for any government to provide plagiarised conspiracy theories and online rumours as their evidence in issues as serious as MH17, Russia has a well established track record of doing so, both with MH17 and earlier incidents, such as the August 21, 2013 Sarin attacks in Damascus, wherein Russian officials, including Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, repeated claims made on conspiracy websites in their statements to the media.

Russia and its supporters rely heavily on these claims that the videos and photographs of the Buk in Eastern Ukraine were faked — so, for a moment let us take these claims at face value. What if these images really were faked?

First, the fakers created images along a route that allowed it to be tracked from Donetsk to Snizhne, close to the location that would later be described by both Bellingcat and the JIT as the launch site of the missile that shot down MH17. This, of course, is not impossible, especially if the claimed launch site is part of the conspiracy, but there’s much more than just several photographs and videos of the Buk.

Along with the images of the Buk, there were a number of social media posts made about the Buk travelling through various locations along the route. These posts were published prior to MH17 being shot down, and, often, shortly after the Buk had passed through the area. The timing of these social media posts was consistent with details established about the time the images were taken, such as the position of shadows, or else the time it would have taken the Buk to have travelled from one location to another. For example, the following post, made at 12:16 p.m. local time, describes the Buk travelling through Torez towards Snizhne, consistent with the timeline established using other sources:

So not only were images supposedly faked, but social media posts were also faked, and published prior to MH17 being shot down — the clear implication being that the videos and photographs were not hastily created after MH17 was shot down, but part of a preplanned effort to fake evidence to blame Russia for shooting down MH17.

These social media accounts had existed for quite some time, so they would have been created months, if not years, in advance. Does this mean the plan to fake the shooting down of MH17 had begun even before the conflict in Eastern Ukraine kicked off? This would have required extraordinary foresight, and is hopefully something the Russian Federation can explain at some point.

But it doesn’t end there, more organisations then would have become part of the conspiracy. In May 2016, Stratfor published satellite imagery provided by Digital Globe, showing the convoy transporting the Buk missile launcher at exactly 11:08 a.m., in a location very close to one of the videos showing the Buk convoy. This image is also now available for anyone to view on Google Earth, so following the logic that the images were faked, this means Stratfor, Digital Globe, and Google are all part of the conspiracy.

The media also would have had to get involved if a cover up took place. Before it was publicly known MH17 was shot down, a story was published by the Associated Press which included details of a Buk missile launcher arriving in Snizhne, the final location where the Buk missile launcher was filmed and photographed. If these images captured in Snizhne were fake, then it would stand to reason the AP reporter was part of the conspiracy, as he reported seeing this non-existent Buk before MH17 was shot down.

After MH17 was shot down, reporters on the ground in Ukraine went to the locations where the images of the Buk were geolocated to, and found witnesses who spoke to them confirming the Buk had passed through those areas at times consistent with the timeline established, using other sources. If Russia is correct and these images are fake, then either the reporters, working for multiple outlets, created fake witnesses, or the witnesses they spoke to were som how part of the conspiracy. Exactly how this was supposed to work is another question for the Russian Federation to answer.

Even some of the separatists must’ve gotten onboard with the conspiracy. Alexander Khodakovsky, commander of the pro-Russian Vostok Battalion, spoke to Reuters in July 2014, confirming that separatists had a Buk, stating:

“I knew that a BUK came from Luhansk. At the time I was told that a BUK from Luhansk was coming under the flag of the LNR [Luhansk People’s Republic]… That BUK I know about. I heard about it. I think they sent it back. Because I found out about it at exactly the moment that I found out that this tragedy had taken place. They probably sent it back in order to remove proof of its presence.”

In addition, multiple audio intercepts were published by the Joint Investigation Team and SBU (Ukrainian intelligence) between multiple individuals belonging to various separatist factions, the identities of which Bellingcat established, discussing the transportation of the Buk through the locations seen in in the videos and photographs. According to the Russian theory, this would mean all these audio recordings were faked, with details, both big and small, entirely consistent with all the other open source evidence gathered.

To believe that Russia’s claims about images of the Buk in Ukraine being faked are true, you would have to believe in a conspiracy, planned months, if not years, in advance, using fake social media posts posted online before MH17 was shot down; carefully crafted videos and photographs being created; fake satellite imagery distributed by Stratfor, Digital Globe, and Google, the involvement of multiple journalists and/or fake witnesses both prior to MH17 being shot down and afterwards; a separatist commander telling Reuters a Buk was transported through Luhansk on July 17, 2014; and multiple audio recordings faked to carefully support the fabricated imagery.

The absurdity of this scenario, and the total lack of real evidence to support it, reveals the vacuous nature of claims made by the Russian Federation about this evidence, and demonstrates, yet again, that Russia’s capacity for deceit in the case of MH17 seems only limited by the amount of conspiracy theories it can rustle up online. If this is the best the officials of the Russian Federation are able to muster when faced with a wealth of evidence detailing its involvement in the shooting down of MH17, then the prospect of the MH17 trial starting on March 9 must fill them with dread.

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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57 Comments

  1. Estonian without illusions about Vova P.

    Da, da, dobromolodcy! Eto vse vokrug duraki, a vy tolko “samyje umnyje”? Kstati, do MH17 tam na Donbasse postojanno separy paradno vykrikyvali svoij ovaciij ob podstrelennyh Ukrainskihh samoljotov, vertoljoitov! Azh den do MH17 tam odnu trasportirovku s nebo snjali! Vy eto kogo durakami chitajete? Idite ka vy n…!

    Reply
  2. Richard

    This will definitely pass!
    A wet plastic bag on its head
    Electric shock marks on its hands
    My Russia is behind bars
    But trust me
    It will pass!
    What black times we live in
    But in the distance I seem to see
    The forgotten light of living hope, so trust me
    This will definitely pass

    All of it will pass, everything passes sometime
    In a year, in a day, in an instant
    Yesterday’s dictator will lie alone in the morgue
    Now just a dead old man
    And the doors at Lefortovo will be cut from their hinges
    And Russia will rise from its slumber
    Like the battered and blown-up Malaysian airplane
    Spring will burst into your icy hut

    https://therussianreader.com/2020/03/01/pornofilmy-this-will-pass/

    Reply
  3. Jeroen

    All of it will pass, like thunderstorms in May

    But in the distance I seem to see
    The forgotten light of living hope, so trust me
    This will defenitely pass…

    Reply
    • bitter & sour

      I thought that apart from other amazing talents you have, you are also a poet, but this is just someone’s else lyrics. Slightly kitschy and pretentious 😉

      Reply
      • Jeroen

        Glad you like the punk rock of Pornofilmy.
        Can you advise other song text and poets you advice friends to listen to and read?
        Pussy riot?

        Reply
        • bitter&sour

          Pussy Riot are brave women, but as in the case of this alternative performer Piotr Pawlenski who nailed the scrotum to the Red Square and recently discredited a French politician with his mistress – their actions are loud, noisy but not necessarily very effective. In the long run, their actions are insignificant.

          Reply
          • Jeroen

            Writing and making novels, poetry, music, a political manifest is significant, important and of most value.

          • Servus

            This is an expected comment by an GRU operative M or Amused, and few others.

            In your view of the world there are only two real elements; recruitment and special operations.
            Rest, including all social expressions of dissatisfaction, than can not be attributed to enemies’ special operation are just noise. Hope noise will chase you away.

          • bitter&sour

            Re Minion
            What performance will you present to us against the regime in Russia? piercing intimate places under the Russian embassy in Vienna?

            PS as a co-author Have you thought about changing the name your interesting report “A birdie is flying towards you” and are you going to correct points 1 and 2 of this report 🙂 to edit it slightly?

          • Jeroen

            Placing 298 empty chairs in front of more Russian Embassies would be a good start for now.
            https://www.dw.com/en/mh17-relatives-hold-empty-chair-protest-in-front-of-russian-embassy/a-52683814

            Or putting 106 (94?) + 114 (118?) empty chairs on the Red Square because of those two bombings (probably also organised by FSB like in Ryazan) at Pechatniki and Kashirskoye in Moskva 6 and 13 September 1999?

            Or putting 17 (or 18?) empty chairs on the “Oktyabr” Square/Ulitsa Lenina in Volgodonsk because of the 16 September 1999 bombing in that town?

            “Assassination of Russia (Blowing up of Russia)” High Quality see why..
            https://youtu.be/9sx2YmSXDy8

            But one can start also with a single empty chair.
            Or take your chair and sit down for a while….
            But others must have much better idea’s, Russian people are very clever and inventive, what would be your proposal how best to influence politics in accordance with your needs and wishes as a Russian citizen?

          • Servus

            Decent people don’t make fun of obviously mentally sick people like your recent Russian export mr P .P.

          • bitter & sour

            I am slightly disappointed, I thought you would pick up this idea and and like a super cool, independent, anti-regime artist you will indulge yourself at least with Prince Albert 🙂 in public 🙂 without anesthesia.

            …but let’s get away from the topic of your private parts…

            What about small differences in the prosecution opening statement on the MH17 trial and the BC report, any comments?

          • Jeroen

            I see you are trying to move away from telling how Russian citizens should influence their own political future best…..

          • M

            Jeroen, Servus, Gerhard, Minion 😉
            You’re such a damn manipulative person, l don’t know if l should laugh or cry.
            You are using all manipulative techniques, esp lying by omission – you tells most of the truth, but leaves out a few key facts that therefore, completely obscures the truth; avoidance – by giving irrelevant, rambling, hazy responses; intimidation of your „enemies”. Shaming and bullying…..
            When someone writes a message that you don’t like you scream: go away, don`t write about, we don’t want you here it etc. And then if you feel like it, you write whatever comes to your mind.
            You are still avoiding MH17 topic, it’s not convenient for you. You persistently keep coming back to The Russian apartment bombings from 1999. Focus on the MH17 process 🙂 , or inventing the latter part about the Swiss adventures of GRUshniki.

            PS You know I’m not Russian, stop making up alternative biographies of BC readers. You associate everything with Russia or GRU – it can be cured, reach for help.

          • Jeroen

            For some reason it totaly worries you….do you have sleepless nights, it seems so?

            Be patient the MH17 trial has started. All important matters will be addressed.
            BC did open source.
            JIT did all sources.
            That is different.

          • Jeroen

            Why would somebody deny or hide being a Russian?
            There is nothing wrong being Russian.
            What is wrong is shooting down civilian passenger airplanes.
            Wrong is lying about doing so.
            Wrong is accusing others who did not do it.
            Wrong is starting a disinformation campagne.
            Wrong is asking the wrong questions to distract from responsability.
            Wrong is continuely trying to draw attention to minor less relevant details.

          • M

            RE Jeroen
            “There is nothing wrong being Russian.” Agreement 🙂 there is nothing wrong with being a Russian, Bulgarian or Polish – but for you every “enemy” is Russian 😉 🙂 Someone has a different point of view = Russian.

            “Wrong is asking the wrong questions to distract from responsability.
            There are no wrong questions – there are some you don’t like 🙂 simple.

            “Wrong is continuely trying to draw attention to minor less relevant details.” Ultimately, the court will decide (not you) if these are important or unimportant details – patience 😉

          • Jeroen

            Thank you for all your psychological reasoning, revealing your state of mind. So you like to play the ethnical card also, try to stirr up a bit.
            Verbally attack and accuse people you feel the need to oppose?
            I have no problems with other people, but I dislike most murderers.
            Like I said before here at BC most people in Russia are very fine people.
            Like Bulgarians, Poles and Ukrainians, you did not mention the later!

            “The JIT suspects Girkin, Dubinski, Pulatov and Ghartshenko of having played an important part in the deaths of 298 innocent civilians. Their plan, their cooperation and their actions led to the shooting down of flight MH17. They are suspected of crashing flight MH17 resulting in the death of all its occupants. And the murder of the 298 occupants of flight MH17.”

            Three are citizens of the RF, one is Ukrainian.

          • Servus

            Jeroen
            It looks that GRU Mashas supervisors understood that her mission is a lamentable failure; no information gathered but inadvertently a GRU back channel was created disclosing GRUs worries…
            So M , Amused (but why not GRU babushka?) is struggling to keep her lazy and pointless job.

          • bitter&sour

            Re Servus nom de guerre Moritz aka Jeroen and others

            Minion you behave like a spoiled kid who gets angry if someone don’t pay attention to him for 10 minutes. I can’t play with you for 24 hours a day.
            I have my life and full time job. I am not a rotten bourgeois capitalist who lives from the exploitation of others and interest on capital 😉 .

            but let’s get back to the merits
            these incorrect conclusions from chapter 1 and 2 of the “birdy is flying..” report:
            A – you deduced by yourself
            B – the secret service suggested to you

            Please don’t think, that I underestimate the report in its entirety,
            it contains good interesting threads. You have revealed some interesting connections 😉 these parts were probably written by others (e.g. Daniel R?)

    • Servus

      A new one !

      Its a Russian alternative fact no: 47 .

      But is it official , Russia admits to shooting down the flight mh17 ?

      And what was the Westetn plot to trick a gullible blue eye molodiec to push a button ? (Bottle of Stolnichnaya or white spirit?)

      Reply
    • Jeroen

      Da da da one big western plot, and because poor Russians were deceived they had to cyber attack Estonia in 2007, attack Georgia in 2008, attack Ukraine in 2014, try to destabilize Montenegro, Makedoniya and so on?

      Reply
  4. Michael Droy

    Sarin attacks huh.
    Every single CW attack in Syria has been proven by Bellingcat categorically.
    Only one has been proven by the OPCW. That one was pretty controversial as several OPCW whistleblowers have claimed that the technical report was ignored and a false report submitted instead.
    Either there were no CW attacks at all, or Bellingcat is a whole lot smarter than the OPCW.

    Reply
    • Servus

      Misha ,
      Nice you found a moment , these are busy times for you guys. Rouble collapses and its not easy to find your enemies’ dollars.
      Or do they pay you in potatoes and rotten appels?
      Friendly advice, don’t waste your time writing garbage in here, invest your kopecks in rolls of toilette paper, you will be able to resell these and make a profit in one or two weeks time.
      Nobody believes RF authorities and you will see a panic like never before.
      Russian population is in a bad health and Putin was massively closing hospitals.
      Hope Russians will show no pity and find responsible of the true social disaster and the large scale human tragedy in preparation.

      Reply
  5. Jeroen

    Russian separatists/Russian special forces/Russian troops/Russian state killers attacked transport aircraft over eastern Ukraine.

    5 killed, two are missing, 6 June 2014
    49 killed, 14 June 2014
    2 killed 2014 6 survived, 14 Juli 2014
    296 killed, two are still missing (presumed dead), 17 Juli 2014

    R.I.P.

    Reply
  6. fyodor mihailovitch

    For an honest person the attitude of Russia is hard to understand but they seem to have reached a state of mass hysteria similar to Stalin’s time . Lies upon lies upon lies upon lies….is there a way out for them and can Russia ever become a normal country ? I have very strong doubts….

    Reply
    • Servus

      True.. but there are some good signs as well, Russians turn away from state TV and get more and more information from independent youtube channels.
      Video of Miedviedev’s incredible wealth has been seen by tend of millions of viewers, other news and history channels have similar audiences…. even Peskov condemned the trend few months ago … so Kremlin sees it and males an effort to control the internet.
      Putin is no longer credible for more and more citizens of RF, how it translates in social terms remains to be seen, his latest oil price improvisation will certainly cost Russians few points in living standards… coronavirus could be theirs Tchernobyl….

      Reply
  7. Bart Hellwig

    A typical Maskirovka/Kompromat ploy. It is my contention that a thorough analysis of the Smolensk plane crash would result in multiple points of reference into Russian tactics with predictable patterns of behaviour. The initial reports were a sham with the intended purpose to frame the narrative and to discourage further investigations. A concerted effort, composed of international experts has been ongoing for a considerable period of time. Hardly any coverage has been provided to the revelations being produced by this government commission. Especially, shocking evidence surrounding autopsy results that have revealed gross violations with multiple remains of different individuals found in the sealed caskets. This is but only one illustration.

    Reply
  8. David Macilwain

    I can’t understand how you can put forward such a badly photoshopped picture as the one with the loader on the truck to a credible inquiry. Did you really think it wouldn’t pass at the time it was cobbled together, as the whole idea of a BUK coming from Russia was so preposterous? But now the wretched photo won’t go away, perhaps even with its metadata like the one Max uses in his article, photoed on June 30th.
    Do you ever think Eliot, about the hundreds of relatives who have lived with this pain for six years because of your dirty little conspiracy? One day they’ll come for you, and there will be no fake evidence to save you.

    Reply
    • Eliot Higgins

      You know the JIT has the video the Donetsk image was taken from, and, as per the trial, has used the phones of the individuals in the convoy to track its movements as it travelled through Ukraine, and used that (among other things) to verify the authenticity of the images?

      Reply
      • Rob

        I don’t think he knows any of that, Eliot.
        It looks like David did not even know the picture came from a video.

        For the total lack of facts in his comment, he sure compensates with an astounding arrogant set of accusations though.

        What a moron.

        Reply
      • bitter & sour

        At this pace the process will last until 2022 or 2023, everyone will forget what it was about

        Reply
        • Jeroen

          The Pan Am Flight 103 trial was held 2000-2001 with two appeals and one review lasting until 2009, in the Netherlands, though juridically the premise were Scottish during the trial.
          Remind the bomb that killed 243 passengers 16 crew and 11 Scotsmen and women on the ground went off aboard that Boeing N739PA “Clipper Maid of the Seas” December 21th 1988.
          Never forget.

          Reply

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