Country Risk

MH017 mostly likely downed by Russian-backed separatists

21 July 2014
Pro-Russian elements are suspected of downing a Malaysian Airlines on Thursday 17 July. Credit: PA

Key Points

  • There is growing evidence that Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists were responsible for the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 017 over Ukraine
  • A Buk (SA-11 'Gadfly') system captured by the separatists may have been responsible for the shootdown

A growing body of evidence points to Russian-backed separatists as being responsible for the shootdown of Malaysia Airlines (MH) flight 017 on 17 July. The aircraft was flying in airspace over the Russia-Ukraine border near the city of Donetsk when it appears to have been shot down by a Russian-made Buk (SA-11 'Gadfly') surface-to-air-missile (SAM) battery.

United States intelligence sources confirm that the aircraft was hit by a SAM, while former Soviet and Ukrainian air defence specialists in Kiev told IHS Jane’s that this missile was either from a Buk unit controlled by the Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine’s eastern regions or possibly from a battery located on the territory of Russia itself.

The Ukrainian military “has no Buk systems in this part of the country any longer”, said one former air defence forces officer. The Buk units that were based in this region were taken over by Russian-backed separatists on 29 June when they overran a Ukrainian military installation. The separatists posted photos of their new acquisitions on Russian social media on the same day, but deleted these internet postings on 17 July as soon as it was clear that the aircraft downed was a civilian airliner and not a military target.

The same former air defence officer also pointed out that the Ukrainian military has safeguards in place to prevent this kind of an accident from ever occurring. “There is a datalink from the civilian air traffic control system that monitors all commercial airline and civil aviation flights," he explained. "This input into the air defence command provides full coverage of all non-military flights, so it is nearly impossible for a Ukrainian armed forces unit to have brought down this airliner. It is almost certainly one of these rebel bands operating in the east of Ukraine, operating with Russian assistance and simply shooting at anything that passes over their heads.”

Ironically, OAO Concern PVO Almaz-Antei, the defence industrial conglomerate that produces the Buk SAM system, was one of the several Russian firms hit with a list of new US sanctions on the day before MH17 came down and was added to the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) list.

Other analysts pointed out that on the morning MH017 was shot down, a captured Buk system was seen in the town of Snezhnoe, which is approximately 15 miles southeast of the crash site. Later in the day, the same Buk battery was filmed heading to a known rebel position south of the city, which was about 20 miles southeast of the reported crash site.

The most plausible theory, said a NATO intelligence specialist, is that the separatists believed that they were shooting at another military target like the Antonov An-26 that was brought down earlier that week. “When they saw that they had instead shot down a Malaysian airliner they panicked, which accounts for their panicked deletions of all social media postings related to this incident,” said the NATO source.

Supporting this theory are radio conversations between Ukrainian separatists and Russian military intelligence (GRU) officers operating in Ukrainian territory that were recorded by the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) and released late on 17 July. In these conversations a scouting team from the separatists reports that it has visited the aircraft crash site and has some 'bad news' in that the aircraft is a civilian airliner and not a military aircraft. The officer the team is speaking with says the aircraft “was probably trying to drop spies [into Ukraine]” and “should not have been flying over a war zone”.

The NATO intelligence specialist pointed out that the recordings “show that the Russian ‘helpers’ realise that they now have an international incident on their hands – and they probably also gave the order for separatists to erase all evidence – including these internet postings". He added: "It will be interesting to see if we ever find this Buk battery again or if someone now tries to dump it into the river.”

The NATO analyst pointed out that this also explains reports that the aircraft’s flight recorders have not been left at the accident scene per international regulations and accepted practice, but instead may have been sent to Moscow “in order to doctor this evidence as well”.

Other evidence, he said, cannot be hidden, “such as the radar tracks of the battery and the talkback between the radar and the missile after it has launched. These and other electronic emissions are ‘electronic fingerprints’ that have been recorded and will not take long to analyse.

"There are also methods of reverse-trajectory computational analysis that can reproduce the flight path of the missile and will show the precise launch area," he said. "At this point there is almost nothing that is not clear or is open to interpretation.”

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