The missile rose from a field near the village named Red October (Chervonyi Zhovten) in eastern Ukraine. In less than a minute it found its target at 33,000 feet. The warhead was a fragmentation bomb, triggered by a proximity fuse. It exploded as the missile was to the left and a little above the Boeing 777. A supersonic wave of shrapnel tore through the cockpit, eviscerating the pilots. The entire forward part of the fuselage was ripped away.
And so, on July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 became the scene of a hideous mass murder: 283 passengers and 15 crew died. The headless airplane lurched violently and exploded into a ball of fire as the gas tanks ignited. In the placid pastoral land below bodies fell into fields of crops and into the houses of villages.
And three years on, Russia still denies that one of its missile batteries brought down the airplane. The fitness of Russia as a partner in any civilized dialog, as claimed by Donald Trump, can be challenged on many grounds. The continuing refusal of the Kremlin to accept responsibility for this atrocity, backed up by blatantly forged records and interference with investigators should be enough, on its own, to be conclusive. This was unpardonable.
Proof of the deed is now as incontrovertible as it could be. Forensic evidence from the crash site cited in detail by Dutch investigators (the flight departed from Amsterdam and that required the Dutch to lead the investigation) published in September 2016 described beyond doubt the impact of a Russian Buk-M1 anti-aircraft missile.
The more elusive part of the story, from the start, was where was the missile battery when it was activated and who ordered the strike?
The first part of that question has pretty much now been nailed for all time by a new report from the British-based open-source investigator Bellingcat.
Bellingcat retraces from multiple sources and eyewitness accounts the journey of a Russian-based missile launcher through the countryside in eastern Donetsk, territory held by the Russian-supported Ukrainian separatists. Bellingcat identifies the exact launcher unit as Buk 332.
The Buk-M1 is a self-propelled and completely autonomous vehicle with four missiles and its own acquisition and targeting radar. Buk 332 was part of the arsenal of Russia’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade. It left Kursk, in Russia, on June 23.
Until the launcher nears a launch location it is carried on a truck, in this case Buk 332, covered in camouflage netting, was placed on a red low-loader hauled by a Volvo truck, accompanied by three civilian support vehicles.
On the morning of June 17 the convoy was spotted on various highways and rural roads weaving its way through Donetsk until it came to a town named Snizhne. There the caterpillar-tracked launcher was removed from the low-loader. Several residents of the town recorded shots of it moving out into the country looking like a top-heavy tank and by then on its own. With the help of satellite imagery, Bellingcat established the final launch site as the corner of a field near Red October.
Two eye-witness videos, one shot from north of the launch site and one from the south, show a trail of smoke as the missile soared up into the blue where Flight MH17 was cruising in an international air lane at 33,000 feet. The Dutch investigators verified the authenticity of the videos.
Of course, commercial flights should not have been operating over what was clearly a war zone. Only days before, two Ukrainian military aircraft were shot down by anti-aircraft missiles fired by separatists. On June 17 Ukrainian air traffic controllers had banned commercial flights below 32,000 feet. Tellingly, nearby Russian air space was suddenly restricted to flights above 53,000 feet, which eliminated all commercial airplanes.
Some airlines had already diverted their flights away from Ukrainian air space, but not Malaysia Airlines or airlines from 32 other nations that had flights passing over Ukraine on that day.
Pinning down responsibility for who directed the missile to be fired involves far more elusive evidence. Bellingcat fingers a Russian whom it names as Sergey “Khmury” Dubinsky, who worked as the head of intelligence for the breakaway Ukrainians. According to Bellingcat it was he who provided on-the-ground guidance on how and where to deploy Buk 332 on the day.
The barrage of false records and videos put out by the Kremlin was almost as ferocious and intense as the shrapnel from the Buk warhead. At its most absurd it included what purported to be a satellite image of a Ukrainian fighter shooting down the Boeing 777 with an air-to-air missile. Analysis of the images revealed that they were so out of scale with what would have been seen from the height of any satellite that the 777 was the equivalent of a mile long.
As I reported within a few days of the tragedy, because the remains of the airplane fell into an area that could not be secured and kept “sanitary” for a traditional air crash investigation the wreckage was open not only to thieving and evidence tampering but to instant social media coverage.
As a result, to an extent not seen before, the story of Malaysia Airlines MH17 has been investigated in detail with the help not just of the professional Dutch investigators but open source sites like Bellingcat who are not subject to the political neutrality expected of the official bodies.
This, of course, comes at a price, the vulnerability of small private and self-funded outfits like Bellingcat to retaliation. And, sure enough, Bellingcat has been subjected to attacks by Russian hackers. In fact, the Kremlin apparatus used here, with its own arsenal of fake evidence and its surrogates pumping out fake news worthy of Breitbart, was prologue for what they had in store for us. Whether taking out an airliner or deliberately seeking to sabotage an American election campaign Vladimir Putin has no scruples, none at all.