The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Publishes "Their" Evidence of MH17 Fakery

Last week we published correspondence between Bellingcat and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in which we requested evidence to support their allegations of Bellingcat and others faking MH17 evidence. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has replied, and their full reply (translated from Russian) with their evidence of fakery is shown below, followed by Bellingcat’s response:

Dear Mr. Higgins,

Your persistence would find a better use if you did put some effort to performing your self-proclaimed Internet sleuth role. We, on our part, would like to note that the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation has already provided perfectly detailed and clear examples of your falsifications. While we completely agree with the points made by our colleagues, we would like to add a few more facts.

It is obvious for anyone that your priority is creating an impression among the public that Russian troops were present at an alleged launch site of the missile that hit the Malaysian plane on July 17, 2014 in the skies over Ukraine. However, you have failed to confirm this. As of today, no one has provided actual proof of Russian Armed Forces’ presence in Ukraine. This is simply impossible because there are no Russian troops there, and there never were. The social network data as well as different Internet posts that you use cannot, under any circumstances, be taken as actual proof of Russia’s involvement in the conflict in Ukraine.

Now let’s see the specific examples. It should be noted that your falsifications are the most visible in your tendency to pass edited images as originals that allegedly are keys to the truth.

Let’s, for instance, consider your report published on October 8 2015, where you claim to have summed up the open source investigation on MH17. In particular, you allegedly determine the origin of the Buk missile launcher that shot down the Malaysian plane, its movement and even its escort. All your conclusions are accompanied by photos. Well, you asked for facts proving falsification on your part. Let us point out several of them.

– Using this collage of photos and video screenshots showing Volvo low-loader cabins on pages 1 and 8 of your report, you are trying to prove this is the same vehicle that allegedly brought the missile launcher from Russia to Ukraine on July 17, 2014, and back to Russia on July 18. This is a fake. Even if we leave out the important point that the Internet does not allow to “precisely” determine the date and route of a vehicle’s movement, it is clear that the photos show different vehicles. The quality of the images is artificially reduced to obscure this, but it is clear that the first photo shows a spare tire while the others don’t (apparently the spare tire just disappears and then pops up again). Apart from that, the technical features of the cabins clearly show these are indeed different vehicles.

p1 MFA
p2 MFA

– Another example. You claim that while examining photos and videos of Buk missile launchers in Ukraine and Russia, you found out that a Buk missile launcher spotted in Russia in late June 2014 had features matching the one seen in the two photos of a Buk missile launcher in Donetsk. The Buk spotted in Russia was allegedly marked as “3×2”, the “x” meaning a poorly readable number on the vehicle’s side, which, according to your unsubstantiated opinion, is characteristic of side numbers of various vehicles transported from Russia to Ukraine. This is also a fake. In fact, the “3×2” side number tells us that the vehicle could belong to any anti-air missile brigade, Ukrainian notwithstanding. A side number “3×2” denotes: 3 – battalion, x – battery, 2 – the number of the launcher in a battery. Such three-digit numbering of military vehicles has been preserved back from the Soviet era and is used in almost all armies of the ex-USSR republics, including the Ukrainian army.


– Let us point out another fake of yours. You’ve repeatedly presented a “bombshell” photo of allegedly a smoke trail of a missile launch, hinting at a location near Snizhne. The photo in question shows a vertical smoke column. Any military expert would tell you that a Buk missile’s trail cannot be vertical. All laws of physics dictate it would appear at an angle. It is easy to find videos on the Internet showing missile launches at exercises. Your “bombshell photo” cannot possibly be related to a Buk missile launch.

Smoke MFA

– There is something else. To hammer in your point, in your report you show a missile and tell your readers it is a Buk missile, probably as a way to show off. But even this is a falsification: what we see is a Kub missile which has been retired and is not used by the Russian army.

Missile MFA

And that’s only from your October report.

One can also recall the report you authored in May 2015, called “Forensic Analysis of Satellite Images Released by the Russian Ministry of Defense at an International Press-Conference on July 21, 2014”. In that report you claimed that at least two of the six Russian MoD satellite images were falsified. In order to check their validity, you used “source analysis, metadata analysis and error level analysis” – a technique of N. Kravetz, a professor of Texas and California universities. On the same day, Mr. Kravetz himself dismissed your analysis on his Twitter, saying that this is an excellent example “how not to do analysis” and calling the report “reading tea leaves”. Imagery analysis expert and founder of IRISPIX photo archive J. Kriese lambasted the Bellingcat technique, calling it “unscientific”. Sorry, buy yet again, this is a falsification.

Just like your February 2016 opus, peppered with Russian military unit names and soldiers’ last names. The main culprits, you claim, are Vladimir Putin and Sergey Shoigu. The proof your present is dozens of photos taken from social networks showing some soldiers with blurry faces and military vehicles with poorly visible side numbers in unknown locations. This is ridiculous.

We could go on listing specific examples of your fakes. But we’d prefer to specifically address the following point. One of the main principles used by journalists and anyone related to the information space is being sure the material they use (which will be republished by all kinds of media) is verified. We are sure you know better than anyone how easily modern technology allows to create and disseminate any myth which would seem quite true at a first glance.

We hope you realize how important is the quality of information related to such tragic events. This is why we call on you to refrain in future from blatant falsifications and provide only verified, sound information – if nothing else, because the topic you work on is very sensitive and directly relates to people who have experienced a horrific loss of their loved ones.

If you want and intend to do serious investigation, we are ready to answer your questions and provide the information you require. However, if you will continue to adhere to your tactics of cherry-picking content, then we believe future correspondence makes no sense. We would prefer that you take the first option.

Kind regards,

Information and Press Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation.

Our response, sent to the Russian MFA in Russian, is shown below in full:

Dear Sir/Madam,

Thank you for your reply, as you have noted my persistence it will likely not surprise you I have a detailed response in return.

Do not worry about the effort I’m putting into my “self-proclaimed Internet sleuth role”, when it comes to the deaths of 298 people I think it’s important to establish the facts and evidence presented by all parties involved, and I’m delighted you’ve decided to share the details of the Russian MFA’s evidence with Bellingcat.

First I must begin with noting with disappointment you failed to clarify your apparent claim that the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) is using “all possible “fakes,” to create quasi-evidence to blame Russia”. If you could begin your next reply by clarifying that statement it would help put the issue to rest, and if you are making that accusations then, as per my previous email, it would be appreciated by myself and I’m sure many others if you could present your evidence of that.

As for the claim the “Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation has already provided perfectly detailed and clear examples of your falsifications” we’ve yet to find examples of the Ministry of Defence doing this. If you would perhaps humour us and provide links to those “perfectly detailed and clear examples of your falsifications” we would appreciate it.

For your initial statement about the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine, I think at this point it’s fair to say many people would disagree with your assessment of the situation. Some of the evidence gathered of Russian troops in Ukraine was published in the Atlantic Council report Hiding in Plain Sight, a Russian version of which can be read here. Further, we recommend you watch the multi award-winning VICE News documentary, Selfie Soldiers. We’ve also written about multiple additional examples since then, so if you wish to review that and respond to each case we’d be very interested in that. Maybe you could start with this case, where two serving Russian soldiers were captured in Ukraine after a tank battle.

Captured Soldiers MFA

For your next point you bring up the images of the Buk missile launcher being transported through separatist held territory on July 17th 2014. You first begin with “the important point that the Internet does not allow to “precisely” determine the date and route of a vehicle’s movement”. I would debate this claim, first of all we were able to find the precise location each image was recorded, something confirmed by journalists from a range of news organisations who visited the locations and confirmed they were correct.

Then, not only were journalists from a variety of organisations able to find witnesses who saw the Buk moving through those locations at the times we claimed, but we also found social media posts made by locals who reported sightings of a Buk in those locations at the time it was travelling through those locations.

Unless you believe there’s been a conspiracy involving multiple news organisations lying about their visits on the ground, efforts to create fake social media accounts with long posting histories and interactions with many other individuals on a range of topics, witnesses on the ground convinced to lie in a consistent manner, and multiple fake images created then it’s impossible to deny that Buk missile launcher was being transported through separatist held territory on the morning on July 17th until it reached separatist controlled Snizhne after midday.

As for your next point regarding the tire, I believe you may have made the same error as a number of conspiracy websites, where you’ve failed to realise the tire is not attached to the truck cabin, but the trailer, as shown here:

Tire 1 MFA

The tire can in fact be seen in these images, despite quality of the images, as can be seen in the below graphic:

Tire 2 MFA

If you wish for me to expand on this point I can do so at length in future responses.

Moving onto Buk 3×2, it appears you’ve misunderstood our findings on the number. We’re well aware both Ukrainian and Russian Buks share the 3 digit numbering system, having spent months examining Russian and Ukraine Buks as part of our research. In the case of the Buk we call Buk 3×2 we’ve identified a number of features, including the exact position of markings, burn marks, and damage to the rubber side skirt that are unique to the Buk filmed on July 17th and 18th in Ukraine, and the Buk in the convoy travelling through Russian between June 23rd and June 25th. Now, if you want to debate the likelihood of two different Buks having so many matching features we’re happy to discuss that with you, although we’d much prefer the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation discusses it with the Joint Investigation Team.

For the Snizhne smoke photograph, it’s rather dependent on where the camera is position in relation to the rocket launch, for example in this video we see a number of missile launchers, including one which appears to go directly upwards, because of the position of the camera in relation to the launch. In the case of the smoke photograph the camera was positioned underneath the path of the missile as it travelled from the launch site south of Snizhne towards MH17:

Photographer MFA

Regarding your next comment relating to the diagram of missiles, in the post we state:

“The most obvious visual difference between the 9M38M1 missile, and the newer 9M317 is the length of the fins, with the 9M38M1 have longer fins, as visible below.”

And then you have the image you included in your reply:

Missile MFA

I’m not sure how much clearer we could be that we were referring to the 9M38M1 and 9M317 missiles. The diagram is also clearly labelled with which missile is which, including 9M38M1 (second from top) and 9M317 (third from top), so I assumed both referring to the missiles by their specific designation and that designation being in the image would be enough for the average reader to make the connection.

As for the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation satellite images, while there may be disagreement about our use of ELA, it’s it quite clear that the images from the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation are wrongly dated. To keep it simple, I’ll provide one clear image that demonstrates this, showing a group of trees/bushes that had been clearly removed in July that somehow reappeared in the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation’s July 14th satellite imagery:

Sat image MFA

I’d be extremely interested in either you or the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation can explain how they suddenly reappeared in the middle of July if the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation is telling the truth about the dates of those images. Please do include your thoughts on the matter in your next reply.

Onto the February report. You criticise the report for containing images of “some soldiers with blurry faces”, but as we state in the report, very clearly, we blurred those images to protect the identities of the soldiers. Rest assured, in the longer version of the report we sent to the Dutch police investigating the downing of Flight MH17 we included fully uncensored images with clear faces and identity of every soldier in the report, plus plenty of unpublished information we kept just for the police.

As you can see from the above, I’m absolutely dedicated to serious investigation of the downing of flight MH17, and as you are “ready to answer your questions and provide the information” we require then I hope you can answer the questions I’ve raised above. If you require additional information to answer any of the questions, please feel free to contact me. For your reference, here’s the key questions we would like answers to in your next response:

  • Can you clarify your apparent claim that the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) is using “all possible “fakes,” to create quasi-evidence to blame Russia”?
  • Can you provide specific links to where the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation “has already provided perfectly detailed and clear examples of your falsifications”?
  • Can you or the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation explain the discrepancy between their July satellite image and all other satellite images from July of the same location?

I, and the Bellingcat team, look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely

Eliot Higgins

PS Your specific examples are a summarization of two blog posts from the LiveJournal “albert-lex.” In some cases, the phrasings in your letter to us are lifted almost verbatim from this blog. In any future responses regarding evidence in the downing of MH17, we would appreciate if you formulated your own responses, or cited the sources for your claims. As your ministry accurately said in its previous response, this topic is “very sensitive” and we would also call on you to refrain from, in your words, “blatant falsifications and provide only verified, sound information.”