In this post I will try to bring together a few items from investigating the tragedy of MH17 and some of the background to the conflict as various parties, including the Ukrainian authorities, put more of their case forward.
The war in East Ukraine
In describing the area of Eastern Ukraine from which the MH17 was likely downed as rebel-controlled, it is important to understand something of the nature of this conflict. This is not World War One with fixed lines of control. There is a patchwork of checkpoints and most fighting takes place in urban, populated areas.
The area to the south of H21 (the main road in this area) is rural and it may be possible for a pro-Kiev armoured column to reach this area without meeting significant resistance. Many of the small towns here would likely have no organised pro-Russian or pro-Kiev forces, although local sources report a rebel outpost was set up in Stepano-Kynka (on 15 July) and pro-Kiev checkpoints were in place at Mospyne and Tarany.
Ukrainian regular army morale is low, with a very high level of desertions. There have been numerous instances of army units being overwhelmed by local people, forced out of and abandoning their vehicles and unwilling to shoot at civilians, which lends some credibility to recent theories that a group of Ukrainian army deserters may have been in charge of a BUK in this area.
As an aside, those soldiers, who genuinely see their job as to protect civilians, and have refused to take part in war crimes against the local population deserve praise.
On the other hand we find openly fascist, fiercely Russophobe units of the formations such as the Avov Battalion (reportedly based not far to the south of this area) who have been committing war crimes including the indiscriminate use of Grad rockets against populated areas.
Shizhne (aka Snezhnoye) is a small town in Eastern Ukraine which US intelligence say was the launch point for the missile which brought down MH17.
Snizhne came under air attack on the morning of 15th July and 11 civilians were killed as their apartment block was flattened. The film below shows the aftermath of the attack (and mentions the earlier war crime in Lugansk):
Frantic attempts to rescue a child from the rubble:
One can imagine that local people would be incensed to have townsfolk, including children, being slaughtered in this way, and very keen that someone would provide them with protection, providing strong motivation for the rebels to deploy anti-aircraft assets to the area.
On the other hand, given the (highly dubious) Ukrainian suggestion Russia was responsible for the bombing of Shizhne, it can be understood why Ukrainian military would have deployed BUKs in Zaroshchenske which is where Russian satellite imagery shows a group of BUK complexes, believed to belong to the 156th AA Missile Regiment, at 11.32 on the morning of the disaster.
Evidence, sightings and geography on the day
The map above shows the area around Shizhne (and if you hit the + button on the map above the location of Zaroshchenske).
Video footage posted to an anonymous YouTube account shows a BUK on a trailer in Zuhres moving eastwards. The uploader says this was taken at about 11.40 am)
An SBU (Ukrainian KGB) provided photo of a BUK on a trailer shows the same vehicle in Torez, 30 km to the west, together with a UAZ-469 (featured image at top of page).
On the day in question, before the MH17 tragedy, AP reported on the presence of the missile launcher in Zhizhne, 12 km east of Torez, saying: “An Associated Press reporter on Thursday saw seven rebel-owned tanks parked at a gas station outside the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne. In the town, he also observed a BUK missile system, which can fire missiles up to an altitude of 22,000 meters (72,000 feet).”
According to a later report AP AP journalists saw the BUK moving through town at 1:05 p.m. The vehicle, which carried four 18-foot (5.5-meter) missiles, was in a convoy with two civilian cars.
The convoy stopped. A man in sand-colored camouflage without identifying insignia — different from the green camouflage the rebels normally wear — approached the journalists. The man wanted to make sure they had not recorded any images of the missile launcher. Satisfied that they hadn’t, the convoy moved on.
On 25/07 Paris Match released a new photo of the trailer which shows the owner’s contact details. They contacted him and he claimed it had been “stolen” by SDF members at the beginning of the month:
Video footage uploaded to YouTube on the 17th suggests that T-62s and at least one armoured personnel carrier of the Vostok Battalion (commanded by Alexander Serhiyovych Khodakovsky) were in Shizhne at some point on the 17th. According to the commentary on a Ruptly video uploaded on the 17th: “Snezhnoye has witnessed heavy fighting recently, reports from DPR claim the anti-Kiev militia are attempting to encircle groups of Ukrainian Army soldiers located there.”
Video footage has been geolocated showing a BUK without trailer on the outskirts of Shizhne heading south (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K5U45MHZmxI). (This vehicle would not have been heading to Russia, as has been suggested, as pro-Kiev forces control the border in this direction and there is reportedly a pro-Kiev checkpoint at Tarnany 30km to the south.)
These towns are obviously all close to where the Russians say Ukrainian BUKs were located, in Zaroshchenske. However, the case outlined by the Ukrainian counterterrorism chief, Vitaly Naydais, is that a BUK launcher and trailer crossed the border from Russia at 1 am on July 17th, travelled westwards to Donetsk (200 km to the east), and then returned eastwards along the H21, fired a missile which hit MH17 and then returned to Russia that same night.
As yet, no photographic or video evidence has produced of the BUK’s journey to Donetsk or from Donetsk to Zuhres.
A short video clip, has been published by the SBU, which the interior minister Arsen Avakov initially said was filmed by an undercover unit in Krasnodon at 4.50am on the 18th. In fact, the video has been geolocated to Lugansk.
The video clip shows what may be the same trailer and BUK, with a missile missing, travelling into the Lugansk suburbs at an unknown time. Lugansk. on the 17th, was mainly rebel controlled (although parts were reported to have been taken by pro-Kiev forces on the 18th). This video clip does not show any support vehicles. The intersection it is filmed on is not on a direct route from Snivhne to the Russian border.
To sum up, the Ukrainians have managed to put together a credible narrative but the scenario they present currently lacks concrete evidence, particularly of the BUK originating from or returning to Russia. The intercepts they have produced indicate that if the rebels did shoot the plane down, it was a mistake.
The Russians have published satellite imagery of the area which shows Ukrainian BUKs very close to the area. They may have more satellite evidence of the movements of these BUKs and of the BUK(s) seen in Torez and Snizhne.
The USA has not provided any data, but an intelligence assessment that the missile was fired from a “rebel-held area” that, as far as they know, the Russians weren’t involved and that the shooting down was a mistake.
The rebel’s official line (in so far as the various groups have one) is that they weren’t involved, but it seems some rebel officials have been making admissions that their forces have made a dreadful error.
Even if the plane was shot down in the belief it was a military plane, the crew could still be held responsible for a war crime if they did not take enough care to protect civilian lives. It is certainly possible that governments from which victims came will push for some kind of trial.
This may give all parties (including pro-Kiev pilots and politicians) pause for thought, as any war crimes tribunal for Ukraine may consider the potential war crimes committed by the pro-Kiev side, including bombing of civilian areas from the air and by Grad rockets, in which 100s of civilians have also died. However, as we know, US allies and their proxies are rarely, if ever, held to account for their war crimes, and in the ICC the one-sided nature of international justice is there for all to see.
As for the wider picture, the MH17 tragedy is a part of the greater Ukrainian tragedy which goes back to the control of the country by competing oligarchs and the failure to develop a unified sense of identity or mutual tolerance. The current attempts (by Ukraine’s nationalists and especially by neo-fascist forces) to destroy the Russian heritage and culture of the country is leading Ukraine deeper and deeper into disaster.
Unfortunately, this is seen as a geo-political success by many in the US foreign policy establishment, who are glad of the opportunity to drive a wedge between Europe and Russia, forestall the creation of a Euroasian union and perhaps weaken Russia, an awkward obstacle to global hegemony.
(Updated with info from AP and Paris Match 26 July 2014; Ruptly Vostok Battalion info on 27/07)
(Replace dead link with link to Peter Leonard AP article on 3/08/2014)