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Who to Trust, Google or the Russian MoD? A Guide to Verifying Google Earth Satellite Image Dates

June 5, 2015

By Aric Toler

Этот пост также доступен на русском языке в переводе @Mortis_Banned

Bellingcat recently published an in-depth investigation finding that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) fabricated and misrepresented their satellite photographs in a July 21, 2014 press conference, immediately following the July 17 downing of MH17. The most obvious and compelling evidence of this investigation was in the clear differences in the landscape between Russian MoD satellite images–supposedly taken in mid-July–and the publicly available images taken in the week before and after the downing of MH17. While Bellingcat provided a guide for accessing this imagery in Google Earth, a question that has arisen is in the accuracy of these dates on Google Earth. As described in this guide, the findings of Bellingcat regarding the July 21 Russian MoD satellite images will be reaffirmed, along with a walk-through for anyone to verify Google Earth imagery via free and precisely dated image previews on Digital Globe.

The Russian MoD satellite images under consideration show a Ukrainian base with Buk anti-aircraft systems at the coordinates of 48.098403, 37.754424, just north of Donetsk. While the Russian MoD claims that these photos are from mid-July, a comparison with Google Earth satellite photos dated in May, early July, and late July show that this cannot be true.

These comparisons of the field and vegetation patterns to the immediate west and east of the Ukrainian base are damning, in that they clearly show that the Russian MoD satellite photos were taken in June, and not July. However, a question that has arisen is how to verify the exact dates of the Google Earth satellite photos. This verification can be done through checking the previews of imagery from Digital Globe, which supplies Google Earth imagery at a higher resolution for Google Satellite. This simple guide demonstrates how easily this imagery can be checked by anyone using Google Earth.

Much of the confusion over the correct date of satellite photos is from how Google Earth handles the dating of their satellite imagery, where “strips” of images are overlaid over different captured days. The patchwork nature of the variant dated imagery is not visible unless you specifically turn it on with Google Earth, where it appears as such:


Each strip represents the most recent satellite image up to the date selected on Google Earth (in this case, it was April 26, 2015). We can determine the specific date of each strip by zooming in, which is the date determined in each Google Earth satellite snapshot in the Bellingcat report in the Russian MoD satellite photos. Instead of just relying on the Google Earth date, we can also check the publicly available image previews on Digital Earth to verify–without any doubt–the correct date of each satellite image.

From the Digital Globe’s ImageFinder page, we can input coordinates to find the historical satellite imagery for a site.


After selecting “Enter Coordinates,” you can enter the coordinates of the base just north of Donetsk: 48.098403, 37.754424. I selected a 2 square-kilometer radius, but you can do any parameters you would like.



After clicking “Continue,” something like this will show up, displaying the area that is selected by the selected parameters. Click “Search” to display all available imagery. Be prepared to wait a while–it can sometimes take a bit for a window to pop up after clicking “Search.”


A window will now pop up (check your ad blocking plug-ins and pop-up window settings!) showing all available imagery for the selected coordinates with your parameters. Click “Acquisition Date” (red box) to sort the available images by the date the images were taken.


From that, we get the following list of images taken in the past year with varying angles, cloud cover, image band type, and so on. Select “View” for your desired satellite image to find the free preview available for the image, so that we can verify that the Google Satellite image is the same as the Digital Globe image, thus verifying the capture date.


After clicking “View,” a window like this will come up, showing the satellite image along with its metadata. You want to re-size the image to “max available resolution,” and then save the image so that it is easier to examine the finer details. This particular image is for July 24, exactly a week after the shoot-down of MH17.


Be sure to save the image to examine it more closely.


Now, we can finally conduct a close comparison of the Digital Globe image and Google Earth satellite image to make sure they are the same, thus verifying the date of the Google Satellite image. The previews of the Digital Globe imagery will be a much lower resolution and quality than the Google Satellite version, but the key features that have changed since May and June will be visible.


Google Earth Satellite, July 24, 2014 (UTC)


Digital Globe, July 24, 2014, ID: 10300100333BC100

We can do the same thing for July 2, 2014:

ge_july2 globe_july2

And May 30, 2014:

ge_may30 globe_may30

Though you may need to squint your eyes a bit, it is undeniable that the Google Satellite images are these same as the Digital Globe images taken on the same day. Thus, we can put to rest any notions that the dates in the Bellingcat report in the Russian Ministry of Defense were incorrect or estimated.

Just to recap, take another look at red and yellow-boxed features of the vegetation and field in the the Russian Ministry of Defense’s satellite photo that was supposedly taken in mid-July, as compared with the (now double verified) dates of the Google Satellite images:

Russia MoD 2
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

Unless a patch of vegetation disappeared, reappeared, then disappeared again, the Russian Ministry of Defense falsely presented their satellite images. Their satellite images were taken in June, not on July, as they told the world while accusing Ukraine of shooting down MH17 just four days after the tragedy took place.

Aric Toler

Aric Toler started volunteering for Bellingcat in 2014 and has been on staff since 2015. He currently heads up Bellingcat's training efforts and its Eastern Europe/Eurasia research.

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  1. Philip Larkin

    I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
    Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
    In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
    Till then I see what’s really always there:
    Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
    Making all thought impossible but how
    And where and when I shall myself die.

  2. Jason

    Rather than lifting the fog of war, Google Earth is helping create the fog.

    Who do you trust, the American DoD (courtesy of Google Earth) or the Russian MoD?

    I mean, it’s not like the US has ever lied us into a war before.

    “Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be here somewhere.”
    [insert Google Earth image]

    “Nope, no weapons over there.”
    [insert Google Earth image]

    “Maybe under here.”
    [insert Google Earth image]

    • Odd Traf

      Google earth is correct in my hometown, that I can see with my own eyes.
      Anybody who can say diffrently?

  3. Jason

    The statement that “it is undeniable that the Google Satellite images are these same as the Digital Globe images taken on the same day” does not resolve any question concerning the accuracy of the images or dates presented in Bellingcat investigations.

    The obvious fact that digital images used in Bellingcat investigations are supplied by not just one, but two digital technology companies with easily identifiable close ties to the US Department of Defense and Central Intelligence Agency, is cause for great concern.

    The real questions for readers of this article are:
    Do you trust the American CIA and DoD (via Google Earth and Digital Globe)?
    Do you trust the Ukrainian SBU?
    Do you trust the Russian MoD?

    And the question for the world is:
    Why doesn’t US intelligence directly make public its satellite video?

    Why the “open source” shell game with Google Earth and Digital Globe?

    Conspiracy reality cannot be so easily dismissed as “conspiracy theory,” despite what certain commentators here would have you believe.

    Why is Eliot a co-author of a report by the Atlantic Council, an organization of intelligence and defense officials with four CIA Directors in its ranks?

    These are not questions for commenters to answer in “defense” of Bellingcat.
    These are questions for Eliot and Bellingcat to answer as “citizen journalists” on behalf of their own investigations.

    • boggled

      Jason, my dog was owned by the wife of a nephew of of the brother of someone that worked in the DoD which is part of the US Government which supervises the CIA , so please do not listen to anything I say because I have connections to the CIA.

      People have connections and networks because they must get approval or work in similar fields.
      Just because GE has government contracts and I own a GE Digital camera, does that make me a CIA operative?
      Just because someone works for a chicken farm and sells to KFC, do you think they are controlled by McD’s? Guilt by association or something?
      That is the statements your making.
      It is kind of a straw man’s argument because they could never give you an answer that would satisfy you, because you would bake up some other conspiracy connection.
      We are all connected in some ways, some more then others.
      A student works for an archaeologist as an intern, does that mean he is controlled by the Smithsonian because the Smithsonian does archaeological work?

      To answer your final question, maybe he is co author just on the merits of his work and the AC places a certain amount of value on the correctness of his evaluations without having all the data that they have and working only with open source.
      A kind of merging of open source and government evidence.
      And I remind you, because they are out of the loop and semi retired, the AC does not have all the evidence either most likely.
      Fare thee well

      • Jason

        Obviously the Atlantic Council places a very high value on the “correctness” of Eliot’s evaluation. They are very “correct” indeed.

    • Benjamin Birdsey

      >> Why doesn’t US intelligence directly make public its satellite video?

      I suppose you mean the “video” of the missile that hit the MH17?

      Because it is not a video. It is the recording of the IR emission from the exhaust of the rocket.

    • Jason

      The Dutch Safety Board Preliminary Report indicated that MH-17 was flying 1000 feet above the cloud ceiling.

      What happened to MH-17 was directly visible to satellite video.

      The Dutch Safety Board has not indicated that they received any inaccurate or conflicting information from Russia.

      • Not Mark

        Jason, you think that an aircraft flying at that altitude (10,000 meters) will be in focus for an optical sensor designed to image the ground? Additionally, I am not aware of any spacecraft taking moving video of objects. I am not sure if these things are even possible with optics based in space? I do not know though.

          • Not Mark

            That is a pretty neat video. I suppose you could take a video of events on the ground as long as your satellite was looking in the right place at the right time. I still haven’t seen anything to suggest a satellite would be able to image an aircraft flying at altitude?

          • Someone Else

            While I rather hate to give any sembalance of credibility to the noisy trolls here, for the record, TomNod’s been doing this kind of stuff for some time. For example, see where one of the images from their MH370 search shows one of the search-planes looking for the missing plane. So it’s possible.
            However, what is the problem with this sort of imaging is that these kinds of satellites are able to only image small swaths (as seen in this article itself) of the planet at time, and downlink even less of it. You can see at for example this satellite can image 96 x 110 km swath every 1.1 days – assuming they knew EXACTLY which 100x100km area to look at, of course.

    • Jason

      It strains credulity to suggest that Ukrainian airspace was not being continuously monitored after Poroshenko squawked about two air incursions (July 14 and 16) and everyone was trembling about a Russian invasion.

      If the US has no evidence, satellite or otherwise, then why have they repeatedly lied?

      Don’t wait for Bellingcat to “investigate” that question.

      • Not Mark

        Who is saying the US has no evidence? Once again, why are you putting the onus on the US? Where is all the russian data that was collected from the area? Where are the russian “satellite videos”, radar data, EW data, ELINT data, and so forth? And don’t even begin to tell me they don’t have any of this data. It would be imbecilic for their military to not be monitoring such events from right across the border. Indeed, you want the US, a country on the other side of the world, to bear the responsibility for proving russias guilt.

      • Jason

        The burden of evidence is on the accusers — the United States and NATO, along with their shiny new, marvellously compliant client regime in Kiev — who are long on accusations and empty of credible evidence thus far.

        In fact, the accusers — the United States and NATO, along with their shiny new, marvellously compliant client regime in Kiev — are reasonable suspects in the MH-17 case.

        Don’t wait for Bellingcat to “investigate” these accusers.

        Ain’t gonna happen.

        And I think we all are beginning to see why.

        • boggled

          Jason, your going to explode your head as you go round and round.
          Your right, they are reasonable suspects – INITIALLY.
          The investigators go where the evidence takes them.
          Ukraine has provided some open source data.
          Russia has provided some open source data to the public.
          No one provide this for public dissemination, but governments generally do.
          They are not going to provide however ALL the evidence they collected for public consumption, just the stuff that makes them look good or the other party look bad.
          There is a lot of finger pointing by both those parties.
          Bellingcat and others sifted through the open source available data and were able to come to some conclusions without ALL the data and evidence that JIT has.
          Just as Russia and Ukraine do not have to provide any public statement, the USA and other governments do not have to offer that to the public either.
          In their search for the truth, they offer what they can to the investigators and the investigators determine the validity and they complete the puzzle.

          Have you ever heard about something called Miranda Rights, and something known as the 5th amendment?
          The right to remain silent. Anything you say or do COULD be used against you in the court of law.
          It is kind of a Western philosophy, but it is basically that you as a suspect do not have to cooperate and supply any information to those who prosecute you.
          You do not have to make their job easier to put you behind bars.

          I explained a few other Western philosophies in another comment, so won’t repeat other then to remind you not all evidence comes out until trial.
          Also, that evidence is only heard by the court room.
          Also, certain parts can be determined by a judge to be limited to a very few of the court room in the name of national security.
          That is how it is done.
          That is why the USA does not provide for the public the evidence they have.

          Bellingcat attempts to collect evidence that is public available and sift through it and come to their own conclusions.
          If you have some evidence that is new and relevant that Ukraine is guilty, lay it on the table.
          But all I see from your comments is a blatant attempt to falsely slander Bellingcat, not to challenge them in any way at all.
          Bellingcat has gone where the evidence takes them.
          The evidence says that we can almost assume that it was most likely a BUK from Russia drove across Russian highways into Ukraine, set up in a farmer’s field, thought they were shooting down a military transport plane but hit an civilian passenger plane, destroyed it and murdered 300 people, and then drove back to the base it started from missing one missile.
          I am sorry you do not like that analysis, however you cannot change what the available open source data and evidence is unless something new is provided.
          Much of it was provided by the Russians themselves.

          If you have new or old evidence to provide that makes it worthwhile to pursue the hypothesis that Ukraine is guilty, then by all means throw it out there.
          So far, there has not been a whole lot of evidence to pursue that theory in public.
          They may have it at JIT, however though, it is not open sourced right now.
          Show me something other then the Kremlin manufactured witnesses and experts.
          Show me evidence of something that has not been debunked yet.

          They did an article to answer the question if Ukraine had BUKs.

          That is about all the evidence there is available of Ukraine being a suspect.

          IF you have something please share, I am sure the world would love to know.

          But really, you just make yourself look like a LieNews journalist trying to slander another journalist who put out an article that points out the crimes of the LieNews’ boss.
          You cannot dispute the crimes of your boss, therefore you attack the credibility of the other person who just reported facts.

          Fare thee well

    • Mad Dog

      Do you trust the American CIA and DoD (via Google Earth and Digital Globe)?

      That is a pretty interesting conclusion, but as yet there is no proof that it is factual. Just because there was some funding (not even the major or initial portion of funding) of the precursor of GE does not mean GE is a CIA shill manipulating photos willy nilly. You just accuse without putting up any evidence of manipulation. How does a logical series of photos lend itself to manipulation and where or how were they manipulated. Being suspicious is fine, even commendable, but there needs to be more than that. Bellingcat went through a long explanation regarding the RU manipulations, so why are none of the critics out there putting forth similar critics of the GE and comparative photos. Where is the rebuttal to the piece on the RU photos. Stay critical but stay away from conspiracy theory.

      • Jason

        German image forensics expert Jens Kriese indicates that the Bellingcat image analysis is specious.

        Eliot and Bellingcat Investigations are misleading in appearance, especially deceptively attractive or politically “correct”.

        The “long explanation” by Eliot and Bellingcat does not support its “correct” truth claims.

        Minimizing the facts and using “conspiracy theory” slurs are no rebuttal of the inconvenient realities that must be addressed by real, honest investigation.

        • Mad Dog

          Gee Jason, I love this: Eliot and Bellingcat Investigations are misleading in appearance, especially deceptively attractive or politically “correct”. followed by a link to a Der Speigel article. No real conclusions there, but it is interesting to note that the ‘expert’ interviewed in that article is a biologist, with an office that does photo interpretation…..maybe good, maybe bad. The article just seems a bit short on facts though, as he really doesn’t address the findings of bellingcat, just their methodology.

  4. Judd Around

    The area north of Donetsk with a military base, as shown in photos 2, 3 and 4 of the Ministry of Defense of Russia (July 22, 2014), was photographed sputnik Pan_MS1 July 17, 2014 (Catalog ID: 105041001104D000). This is the only picture of the Donbass region in July 17, 2014. Why this picture is never mentioned in the investigations in native resolution?

    • bellingcatadmin

      We’ve actually just ordered the 105041001104D000 image of the base, and will be publishing a report based on that.

    • Rob

      Pan_MS1 July 17, 2014 (Catalog ID: 105041001104D000) was not taken by sputnik.
      It was taken by GEO1.

    • Rob

      But if you could point out where we can find the “sputnik” catalogue, that would be very helpful in verifying the claims by the Russian Defense Ministry.

  5. Peter Hermann

    So the narrative by the RU ‘defenders’ is now: even if the DG pictures prove RU MoD manipulated the images, we won’t believe it because DG is paid by CIA? Bwahahaha…

  6. Jeroen

    So, well, if Russian Federal MoD knew that “GE=CIA” or CIA manipulated images, or whatever other conspiracy theory, why at all did Russian MoD use GE pictures to proof or (falsily) acuse of anything at all???

    Well ask then.
    They could have used there own produced satelite images?
    Why didn’t they?

    Or did they?
    A yes, because CIA infiltrated and broke into Russian MoD and manipulated and altered all images and presentations on MH17.
    Of course……

  7. Mad Dog

    Really, some of the criticism here is just laughable. GE and DG are both CIA shills? Okay, then whatever they did or however they manipulated the photos should be readily discernible, as noted in the long post about MoD manipulation of certain photos. So, why aren’t folks like Jason posting evidence to such effect. A blanket condemnation really holds no water without some evidence that there actually was manipulation going on. This can be readily verified if the manipulation does not match up with surrounding views, i.e. seasonal variations in foliage and activities such as farming. I haven’t seen that here, so it would seem that this criticism is just another set of smoke grenades set off to hide the truth.

  8. Andrew

    I want to make a comment related in a tangential way to what Jason speaks about.

    My city, Philadelphia, PA, a major US metropolitan area of nearly 7 million people, is currently covered by imagery on Google Earth from 2011 – four years ago. I was actually a paying customer of Google for the Pro edition until they made it free a few months back. I use its imagery for my work as an engineer. I would have loved to have more up to date images. and would gladly still be paying a hefty amount of money to have access to them. Its hard to believe no newer satelite imagery is available for my city when Google knows it has commercial customers interested in it. I have similar problems with getting newer images for other places I do work, like New York City.

    On the other hand, much of the Donbass region was recently updated over the past few months with nearly half a dozen new image dates for each location on Google Earth starting in June/July 2014 and running through September. I don’t think I am alone in saying I had barely heard about Donbass prior to February of 2014. I had certainly never looked at a Google image of it before May of 2014.

    What could posisbly have inspired Google to believe its customer base was dying for numerous updates of image in Donbass during the height of the recent war there, but not in the US?

    Why are all these images available for bellingcat to perform analyses on, but I can’t get newer images of the United States, what one would think would be what most of its customers are looking for?

    • Not Mark

      Digital Globe makes new images available for disaster relief and since the area is very much a disaster this may be the reason. Look around the world and you will see areas that haven’t been mapped recently that you would think should have been and areas that don’t seem important at all that are mapped all the time. There is seemingly no rhyme or reason to it.

  9. boggled

    Philip? (hears an echo)

    Not Mark, if I was to make a decision right now with what I know from both perspectives without all the classified evidence, my judgment is a Separatist spotter saw the plane flying through (and because of intelligence they gathered they knew a military transport was due sometime around then), relayed that info to headquarters, the headquarters told the Russian GRU BUK crew to scramble and get ready, they were not ready quick enough to get ALL the linkages made to various communications gear and radar, they had a plane come into range of the BUK, instead of waiting for the various confirmations of Friend or Foe etc., they pressed the button for manual fire, the Russian Buk did its job, they got a message pop up on the BUK launcher just after the launch that it was a civilian aircraft so they did not fire a second missile, and then hightailed it – as fast as they could get the BUK to go, probably had to stop and refuel somewhere or load it on a trailer or both – out of there back to their base in Russia under radio silence, they knew what they did and would only talk to Kremlin high command or representatives of the Kremlin directly.

    The spotter confirmed a bird down, and that is likely what caused the various separatists claims of a a Ukrainian transport plane being brought down in the first half hour before they could get people on the scene.
    The spotter could not specifically identify the plane, but he could see the descending wreckage and knew the missile did its job.

    That is what I feel happened and I come to that conclusion with what I know and I accept as reliable information.
    As you may have read in my other comments, I have not completely discounted some smoking gun that puts either Ukr or RF responsible, however the above scenario is the most likely in what I know without additional classified data.

    • Andrew


      Could you explain how a rebel spotter would see a plane at 33000 feet through the complete cloud cover over Donbass on July 17 as seen in the videos made of the crash?

      That scenario is about as unbelievable just because of that as the ridiculous witnesses claiming they saw an SU25 at 33000 feet (through the same clouds) shoot down MH17.

      • boggled

        The size of a SU25 and MH17 are completely different.
        MH17 is about the size of six SU25, if the dimensions I got are right and my math.
        MH17 would be able to be seen, as well as heard.
        IT was not complete cloud cover as you know.
        Who knows, maybe the spotter had some kind of vague radar scope that would spot the IR heat signature of the engines or a plane’s radar signature but not identifying it, besides actually being able to see it.
        Binoculars would make visual a lot easier especially if you knew the flight path and time the plane was supposed to fly overhead.
        Lots of technical ways how and some not so technical.
        Even a scanner might have giving some notification.
        The terrorists had the inside info on time and type of plane when a troop transport was supposed to be passing through.
        The Ukrainian military changed that flight plan and the terrorists didn’t get that passed along to them.
        The clouds were spotty and in some places it was heavy and in others it was blue skies from the Dnieper eastward.
        Just because it was overcast and most cloudy over Donetsk, it does not mean it was over Kyiv.
        They are like hours apart.
        The spotter would probably be in the 40 – 50 km distance at a minimum from the BUK launcher.
        Anyways, there are certain imagers that ‘see’ through clouds, not to mention he or she COULD have seen it with the naked eye very easily but not identified the plane.
        Even normal binoculars I have a hard time identifying the differences between 747 and 777.
        That is a few ways and how a spotter could have identified a plane on route to Separatist terrain.
        How exactly they did it, I am not sure, but I know where there is a will and a plan – which they had – there is a way.

        Wouldn’t it be strange if Graham Phillips was the spotter and he’s kept his big mouth shut all this time about it while he’s been making up lies about everything else?

        Fare thee well Andrew

  10. Георгий

    Матрица… как она работает

    В трагедии с Боингом рейса MH17 много необъяснимых фактов, но сейчас хочу поделиться лишь одним, но довольно показательным

    Картинка составлена из трех скринов с сайта
    Этот ресурс позволяет отслеживать полёт любых гражданских самолетов в реальном времени.

    Я лично сам делал эти скрины 18-го числа (которые слева) и сегодня справа внизу. Поэтому могу твердо утверждать, что этот американский ресурс топорно и нагло подтасовал данные задним числом. Если еще несколько дней назад все ежедневные маршруты (с марта по 16 июля) были проложены южнее, то сегодня все они изменены и сдвинуты севернее, чтобы точно совпадали с маршрутом в роковую дату 17-го июля

    Это явный подлог.

    • boggled

      According to flightaware, this is the actual flight path.
      Their current data regarding MH17 –

      Your first and last photo appear to be the expected flight path after a course correction over Poland, although it never made it to Malaysia.

      Your 2nd one appears to be BEFORE the actual flight, so is a proposed path before the course corrections, due to storms possibly and other issues, of the planned route.
      I am guessing you made this screenshot on July 16 2014.
      Or maybe your second and third photo have to do with the date when the plane flew July 16 2014, not the flight plane of July 17th?
      Kind of interesting It shows it arrived 49 weeks ago and it shows differences in proposed flight miles and actual flight miles.
      Another interesting part of their software, is the tracks and graphs.
      FOR THE DATE JULY 16 2014, they list a completed trip.
      Times distance and other facts for flight aficionados.
      So anyways, I think that is why you are confused in what you see.
      One is the flight path from the day July 16th (the last completed flight) and that might explain the changes.
      Interesting that the highest it flew on July 16 2014 was 37000 feet.
      I do not see forgery here, just your translation and analysis of the data is faulty.

      Fare thee well


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