MH-17: leaving no stone unturned
08 november 2022 | Eric van de Beek
Eric van de Beek is a Dutch investigative journalist and the author of a book on the MH-17 affair – the Malaysian airline which crashed in Ukraine in July 2014. He has followed the trial as no other journalist has done. The judgement of the Dutch tribunal is expected on 17 November. FVD International is grateful to Eric van de Beek for this fascinating interview.
Are you the only journalist who has followed the MH-17 trial closely?
As far as I know, yes. I attended all 68 court sessions. No other journalist has reported as much as I have about the trial. I also never stopped doing my own research. The mass media lost interest after the first press conferences of the Dutch Safety Board and the Joint Investigation Team in 2015 and 2016. They are totally convinced MH17 was shot down by a Russian crew.
Who are the defendants and what exactly are they accused of? Are they accused of being actual perpetrators?
The defendants are three Russians and one Ukrainian: Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinsky, Leonid Kharchenko and Oleg Pulatov. They are accused of complicity in the shooting down of Flight MH17 and having killed all 298 passengers. Their specific involvement is said to have consisted of: demanding an anti-aircraft system with crew, specifying a suitable launch site for that system, as well as transporting and guarding it. The person who ordered the missile to be fired and the person who actually pushed the button are still at large. It is unclear who they are and why they launched the missile. However, the Dutch prosecutor suspects the Russian army's 53rd anti-aircraft missile brigade in Kursk. A Buk-Telar of this brigade was supposedly driven into rebels-held territory on the trailer of a Volvo truck and it supposedly shot down MH17 from a farm field, south of the city of Snizhne.
Why is this trial being conducted in the Netherlands? The plane was Malaysian and the crash occurred in Ukraine.
On 7 July 2017 The Netherlands signed a bilateral agreement with Ukraine for the transfer of prosecution. It was officially said that the countries that carried out the criminal investigation, Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, Ukraine and The Netherlands, had taken this decision together. I do not know why they concluded that the case could best be conducted in The Netherlands. Maybe this had to do with the fact that most passengers were Dutch. Why not Malaysia? The Ukrainians, and probably also the Dutch, Australians and Belgians, did not trust the Malaysians. They are not within the Anglo-Saxon sphere of influence and have a good relationship with Russia. Why not Ukraine? Maybe to avoid the impression that the trial would be biased.
Is it not plausible that the Donbass rebels used anti-aircraft systems given to them by Russia? They were being bombed every day by the Ukrainians. They could have fired off a missile aimed at another plane, or even by mistake, which hit MH-17 by accident.
This certainly cannot be ruled out. But until now I have seen no convincing let alone conclusive evidence for this. As a matter of fact, the separatists did pretty well defending themselves against these bombardments before the alleged arrival of a Russian Buk-Telar on 17 July 2014. Before the MH17 crash they had already downed sixteen fighter jets, helicopters and transport planes of the Ukrainian air force. They did so by using MANPADS and other devices that they had confiscated from the Ukrainian military.
How do we know that the Ukrainians also had Buk missile systems nearby? Has the Prosecution accepted this?
On 29 February 2020 the website Bonanza Media published a confidential memo of the Dutch military intelligence service, MIVD. It contains all positions of Buk Telars in eastern Ukraine around July 2014 known by western intelligence services. Seven Ukrainian Telars had been spotted there and no Russian Telars. The Prosecution has confirmed the authenticity of the memo, but they added that the MIVD had not concluded from this that there was no Russian Telar on 17 July. The MIVD report concerns only locations where Buk systems were stationed for longer periods of time, they said. Short operations, whereby a Buk system is delivered, used and removed immediately, fell outside the scope of the MIVD’s observations.
What can you say about the photographs which purport to show a Russian-supplied Buk in the rebel-held areas?
The Prosecution presented three photographs and six videos of a Buk Telar. The state attorneys claim all imagery was taken in rebel-held territory on 17 July. The Telar was identified by a Dutch police officer as a Russian Telar. There are so many issues with these photos and videos. It is not without reason that I dedicated a full chapter to this in my book. None of the imagery was published before the crash and in almost all cases the photographers are unknown. The Joint Investigation Team (JIT) seems to have received only two files physically, on two Secure Digital cards. The others were downloads from social media or file transfer services. Even the files on the SD cards, which include a dashcam video, have serious issues. For example, the dashcam video contains a 2012 timestamp. According to the person who filmed from his car this was due to a malfunctioning battery. Police officers of JIT then asked him if he remembered when he shot the video. He said this must have been somewhere in July, a few days before he heard about the crash. Mind you, the Prosecution says the video was shot on 17 July. And so, if the video is authentic, either it was shot a few days before 17 July, or the photographer must have slipped into a coma right before the news broke out about the MH17 crash and stayed there for a few days.
Do we know where the missile was fired from?
Judging from the damage to the plane, the Russian manufacturer of the Buk-system Almaz-Altey concluded that the fatal missile must have been launched south of the village of Zaroshchenske. Oleg Pulatov’s Dutch lawyers presented a report by a team of American experts that confirms this analysis. If this is correct, if the missile indeed came from this location, it may have been fired from a Ukrainian position. Around 17 July, the area south of Zaroshchenske was no man’s land. However, the Belgian Royal Military Academy (RMA) and the Royal Netherlands Aerospace Centre (NLR) pointed to areas much more to the east, partly overlapping each other. Right at the border of the overlapping areas there is a farm field that caught the attention of the JIT shortly after the crash. On 21 or 22 July, two journalists found that the field south of the town of Snizhne had been on fire recently. This could have been caused by the launch of a Buk missile, they thought. Also, a photo of a smoke plume that was published right after the crash seemed to originate from this field. On an American satellite picture that was published later, track marks can be seen. According to the Prosecution they are from a Buk Telar. However, when studying satellite imagery, it becomes immediately clear that many agricultural fields around Snizhne had been on fire. No wonder - it was a war zone. Also, there are track marks everywhere. Hardly surprising. Where there is farmland there are agricultural vehicles, creating caterpillar track marks. If, however, the missile was launched from where the JIT thinks it was launched, the separatists are to blame. The area south of Snizhne was controlled by them.
What have we learned from Pulatov’s Defence
More than I expected. I learned that the evidence put forward by the Prosecution is even weaker than I thought. My MH17 book was published in January 2022, a month after the Prosecution had read out the charges. Then in March 2022 Oleg Pulatov’s Dutch lawyers delivered the Defence. There was so much new information coming to the surface that I decided to rewrite my book and bring out a fully revised edition. However, the main line of defence of Pulatov’s lawyers did not come as a surprise to me. They noted, as I did in my book, that even assuming that all the images of a Buk in rebels-held territory is genuine, it cannot be concluded from this that this particular Buk shot down MH17. There is no photo or video of this Buk standing at the alleged launch site and firing a missile. Also, there is no known intercepted phone call in which an admission of guilt can be heard or one separatist blaming another for the downing of MH17. If it was a Buk, then it might as well have been a Ukrainian Buk.
In any murder trial, the Defence can question the validity of the evidence presented by the Prosecution (cf. O. J. Simpson trial). Has any actual exculpatory evidence been presented in the MH-17 trial?
According to the Prosecution, MH17 was brought down by a Buk missile equipped with a 9N314M warhead. This kind of warhead contains 1870 bowtie shaped particles. Arena tests performed by Almaz-Antey in Russia and the JIT in Ukraine showed that such particles cause bowtie shaped impact marks in targeted objects. All experts consulted by the JIT agreed that such impact marks are not visible on the wreckage of MH17.
Also, there is a motor casing that was found by the Dutch in the area, nine months after the crash. According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, the serial number indicates it belonged to a Buk missile that was delivered in 1986 to a Ukrainian air defence unit, the 223rd Brigade. The Ministry substantiated this claim by showing the Soviet missile administration records. The Ukrainian authorities have not denied that they received this missile. They simply said they could not look it up because they had not kept a record of anything delivered to the 223rd Brigade before 2 September 1991. The Dutch Prosecution then decided not to present the casing as forensic evidence. One of the state attorneys said that the JIT had not been able to establish when this part of the missile had landed in the area. It could have happened before or after 17 July.
Much of Pulatov’s Defence was concentrated on the personal role he played in the alleged transport of the murder weapon. The lawyers argued that the intercepts clearly indicate that not Pulatov, but one of the other three defendants, Leonid Kharchenko, was tasked with leading a convoy of military equipment from Donetsk to Snizhne on 17 July. Both men met in Snizhne around midday. But even if Pulatov had seen Kharchenko there with a Buk, Pulatov cannot be found guilty of the mere fact of observing a Buk, his lawyers argued. After the convoy had arrived, it was Kharchenko, not Pulatov, who put others to work to guard the military equipment. Also, Pulatov’s cell tower records show that he was not near the launch location when MH17 was hit.