Three years after Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) was shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing the plane’s 298 passengers and crew members, a group of online sleuths is still pushing for answers.
On July 17, Bellingcat — an open source investigative unit that played a key role in researching MH17 — released a report summarizing all the evidence so far. The unit is also launching a campaign to identify two individuals who may have played a central role in the passenger jet’s downing.
While the report contains no previously unreported revealations, Bellingcat “really made an effort at making it accessible, easy to read, and an authoritative survey” of the complicated MH17 case, Aric Toler, one of the authors, told Hromadske.
The report comes a day after Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, whose country lost 38 citizens in the crash, announced that the perpetrators could be tried in absentia.
In 2015, the Dutch Safety Board concluded that MH17was shot down with a Russian-made missile over Ukrainian territory controlled by separatists from the unrecognized “Donetsk People’s Republic.” Despite these conclusions, Russia has pushed a series of alternate “theories” of the crash, and justice remains elusive for the victims’ families.
Hromadske received an advanced copy of the Bellingcat report and has outlined its contents.
Geolocating the Weapon
Bellingcat’s in-depth research into the MH17 case points clearly to Russian involvement in the airliner’s downing. Using satellite images, posts from social media users in eastern Ukraine, reporting from international journalists and other digital forensics, the investigative unit has traced the path of the case’s literal “smoking gun”: a Russian Buk 332 self-propelled, medium-range surface-to-air missile system.
19 July 2014, rescue forces carrying bodies of passengers at the MH17 Photo credit: EPA/ANASTASIA VLASOVA
According to the new report, Russia’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade moved vehicles — including the Buk 332 — to positions near the Russian border with Ukraine in late June 2014. Then, on July 17, the Buk 332 was recorded travelling in a convoy through the occupied Donetsk region by social media users and satellite images. The Buk was clearly loaded with four missiles.
Early in the afternoon, the missile system arrived at a field near the towns of Snizhne and Chervonyi Zhovten in Donetsk region. There, a missile was fired, leaving a trail of smoke in its wake. Initially, a blogger geolocated the missile trail to this field. The Dutch Safety Board forensic investigation and the Joint Investigation Team’s criminal investigation into MH17 both subsequently confirmed this location.
The Buk was next spotted travelling towards the separatist-occupied city of Luhansk on the morning of July 18, 2014, and was subsequently returned to Russia.
Watch More: MH17 — Locals On The Tragedy
In the immediate aftermath of MH17’s downing, Russian officials attempted to place the blame on the Ukrainian military. During a July 21, 2014 press conference, the Russian Ministry of Defense alleged that a Ukrainian fighter jet shot down MH17 and that a video of the Buk in rebel-held Luhansk after the shooting was actually filmed in territory under Kyiv’s control.
The Russian Defense Ministry also suggested that MH17 had changed its course shortly before being shot down and that satellite imagery showed that Ukrainian Buk missiles had been removed from their base and deployed in government-controlled territory.
Photo credit: ROBERT GHEMENT, EPA
Bellingcat’s report gathers evidence disproving these “theories.” The investigative unit concludes that all these claims are “demonstratively false, and in some cases included deliberately fabricated evidence from the Russian Ministry of Defense.”
Later, in June 2015, Almaz-Antei — the Russian arms company that manufactures Buk missile systems — presented its own “theories.” It claimed that the specific type of missile that downed MH17 had been discontinued in 1999 and all its remaining exemplars were passed to foreign clients. But, in the wake of that claim, internet users identified many photographs of the old models still in use in Russia.
The company also presented two alternate launch sites for the Buk that downed MH17. Both are near the village of Zaroshchenske in Donetsk. However, the town in question was not under Ukrainian control at the time of the missile launch, and satellite imagery and expert analysis suggest these claims are false. Additionally, in subsequent interviews with journalists, no resident of Zaroshchenske could recall a missile launch on July 17, 2014 — presumably a loud and noteworthy event in a town with only around 350 people.
Uncovering the Suspects
Bellingcat has also played a key role in identifying important suspects in the downing of MH17 and Russian soldiers involved in transporting the Buk. The investigative unit has even submitted information it did not publish to the Joint Investigation Team (JIT).
But Bellingcat’s biggest success was identifying a separatist fighter and officer known by the callsign “Khmury” (“gloomy” or “grumpy” in Russian).
On July 18, 2014, the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) released a series of tapped phone calls in which “Khmury” communicated with other “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) fighters. According to the SBU, “Khmury” was a Russian Main Intelligence Directorate officer named Sergei Nikolaevich Petrovsky. The intercepted calls also suggest that he is “one of the key figures in the procurement and transport of the Buk missile launcher that downed MH17,” Bellingcat writes in its report.
People carry a stretcher with a bodybag past the debris of a Boeing 777. Photo credit: EPA/ANASTASIA VLASOVA
Luckily for Bellingcat, hackers had broken into and published DPR “Defense Minister” Igor Girkin’s email inbox in May 2014. This provided key information that eventually helped the investigative unit to identify “Khmury” as Sergei Dubinsky earlier this year. A Russian veteran originally from Donetsk, Dubinsky served as head of intelligence for Girkin’s forces in 2014.
(Dubinsky later denied that he fired on MH17 or gave the command to fire.)
Now, Bellingcat is turning its efforts to identifying two other key suspects, who are sought by the Dutch-led criminal investigation of MH17. One is known as Orion (or sometimes Oreon); his first name and patronymic are Andrei Ivanovich, but his surname remains unknown. The other is called Delfin; his name and patronymic are Nikolai Fyodorovich.
“Orion and Delfin are important because it's a rare case when the JIT has specifically asked for information on individuals linked to the case,” Toler says.
Watch More: Uncovering MH17
“From the intercepted calls we know that they were instrumental in the acquiring and transport of the Buk on July 16-17,” he added. “But the fact that the JIT isn't sure about them, and we have intercepted calls for them, shows that they are especially slippery and hard to pin down.”
Bellingcat will attempt to identify “Orion” and “Delfin” the same way they identified “Khmury.” They are requesting that anyone with information or a potential lead on their identities tweet it with the hashtag #OrionDelfin or #ОрионДельфин.
// Written by Matthew Kupfer