On July 17 2014, Malaysian Airways flight MH17, a Boeing 777 loaded with almost 300 passengers and crew was on a routine flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was struck by a surface-to-air missile over eastern Ukraine. Everyone aboard was killed.
Heavy fighting between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed separatists around the crash site, lack of satellite imagery and little initial concrete evidence helped create a maelstrom of half-baked theories that took months to dispel. And almost two years on and with a criminal investigation still ongoing, no one has been charged or tried for the incident.
On Tuesday, however, a group of open-source investigative journalists released their own report that largely assigned responsibility for the attack to a Russian military unit and its chain of command–extending all the way to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The report, published on the site Bellingcat, tracks the movement of Russia’s 53rd anti-aircraft missile brigade and its three battalions during the summer of 2014. Using social media posts, open-source imagery and various other reporting, Bellingcat’s team managed to trace the movement of a specific Buk surface-to-air missile system–of the type that shot down MH17–to the border of Russia and Ukraine. While previous Bellingcat reports also identified the Buk system, this most recent iteration manages to point to many of the soldiers allegedly involved and the officers that, Bellingcat believes, authorized the movement of the Buk and bear responsibility for the eventual shoot down of MH17, even if the Buk was fired by separatists.
“Although it is likely that the head officials of Russia’s Ministry of [Defense] did not explicitly decide to send a Buk missile launcher to Ukraine, the decision to send military equipment (with or without crew) from the Air [Defense] Forces to Ukraine was likely made at a very high level and, therefore, the Russian Ministry of [Defense] bears the main responsibility for the downing of MH17,” the report concluded.
In October 2015, a Dutch Safety Board investigation also concluded that MH17 was shot down by a Russian missile fired from a portion of Ukraine that was, at the time, under the control of Russian-backed separatists fighting the Ukrainian government. The report indicated that the 9n314m warhead was fired by a Buk surface-to-air missile system–a modern air defense weapon fielded primarily by Russia, although it is also used by Ukraine. The report, however, did not blame Russia nor the separatists. Instead, it only indicated that the weapon was fired from territory controlled by the Kremlin-backed insurgents–a conclusion that was echoed by the White House.
The Dutch investigation, did however, blame the Ukrainian government for not closing the airspace over its war torn east, an area that MH17’s flight path nearly bisected.
Russian officials were quick to call the Dutch report biased and political. Its conclusion was immediately contested by a Russian investigation released on the same day as the Dutch Safety Board’s findings. The Russian report was led by the missile’s manufacturer, Almaz-Antey. The company concluded that the missile that struck MH17 was an older variant used by the Ukrainian military, and that the missile was fired from Ukrainian held territory.
Since October’s flurry of statements and diplomatic barbs, a Dutch criminal investigation into the missile strike has encountered issues similar to those faced by the Safety Board during its research. According to a recent Dutch news report, the Chief Prosecutor for the criminal investigation, Fred Westerbeke, has not been able to obtain certain Russian radar images of the day of the shoot down. Westerbeke also added that his team is eyeing “a large group of people” that might be responsible for the attack, but cautioned the investigation could still take a considerable amount of time.
Earlier this month Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Bert Koenders met with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov on the outskirts of the annual Munich Security Conference, urging Russia to cooperate with Dutch investigators.
“It’s our job to keep the world’s attention focused on this process and to call on all countries to cooperate fully with the criminal investigation that is underway,” Koenders said in a statement. “It’s our duty to the victims and their next of kin.”