Tag Archives: Ukraine

Flight MH17 tragedy in Ukraine – new evidence

New evidence presented at Russian Ministry of Defence press conference, 17 September 2018.

In July 2014 the Malaysian Airline Flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine. All 283 passengers and 15 crew died. A Dutch-led international Joint Investigation Team (JIT) has been investigating the tragedy with the aim of determining criminal blame.

Update: Facebook took it upon themselves to censor my timeline and remove the Facebook post of my article. It seems their fact-checkers at the Atlantic Council have judged this information as “not following community standards”

Bit of a lesson there.

 

The JIT produced a preliminary report in 2016 (see But will it stand up in court?) and updated this with new evidence at a press conference last May 24. At the conference they revealed the serial number of the missile which shot down the plane and made a general appeal for people who might have information on this to come forward. At a Press Conference this week the Ministry of Defence (MOD) of the Russian Federation has responded with information from the manufacturer’s log books about this specific missile.

This appears to be the most concrete evidence to date which could be used to lay credible blame for the tragedy.

The JIT reveals serial numbers of the missile and appeals to the public for information about it.

While the JIT May 24 statement laid the blame on the Russian Federation, their evidence was rather subjective – relying on subjective interpretation of markings on vehicles in videos available online. “Open source” evidence. In contrast, the Russian MOD was specific and taken from archived information from the missile manufacturer.

In a way, this is rather unique because this information was understandably classified. Presumably, Russian officials have been active in the period between May and September locating the log books, interviewing relevant staff members from the time of production and going through the bureaucratic procedures required to declassify the material.

The new evidence

The video of the Russian MOD press conference above summarises three pieces of evidence the Russians have made available:

1: The most convincing evidence is the date of manufacture of the specific missile (December 1986) and its transport to the military unit where it was deployed. The records show it was deployed to a unit based near Lvov in the then Ukrainian Socialist Republic. It had never been returned to Russian territory.

I think that evidence is solid. The MOD spokesperson said the information has been passed onto the JIT and if they ask to inspect the archives they will be invited to Moscow to do so. He also made the point that the Russian side has asked the JIT to request the log books of the Ukrainian military unit which has been in possession of that missile and reveal its movements and location during July 2014.

2: Analysis of the video material the JIT had relied on to support their conclusion that the missile came from the Russian 53rd Anti Aircraft Missile Brigade based near Kursk in the Russian Federation. That video material had initially been compiled by Bellingcat, a suspect internet group now allied with NATO. The JIT conclusion relied on subjective tracking of markings on a BUK unit and its transporter and claimed to track it through its journey.

JIT open source video evidence supporting their conclusion that the BUK unit came from Russia

Russian experts have analysed these videos and shown problems with lighting and perspective indicating they have been faked. Something as simple as placing an image of a BUK unit into an existing video.

Their analysis seems credible, but obviously, this is the sort of thing which could be debated between experts in a court.

3: A recording of a telephone conversation made in 21016 where Ukrainian Armed Forces Col. Ruslan Grinchak refers to the tragedy in a way that implied it was caused by the Ukrainian armed forces. This person was in charge of airspace over the Donetsk region at the time of the tragedy.

This evidence relies on interpretation so is less convincing by itself.

Conclusion

The new evidence resulting from the discovery of the missile serial numbers by the JIT looks conclusive. As Russian Lieutenant General Nikolai Parshin told reporters the archives show:

“the missile was assembled on December 24, 1986, and delivered by rail to the military unit number 20/152, officially named the 223rd Air Defense Missile Brigade. It was deployed to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic’s Ternopol Region, which was part of the Subcarpathian Military District.”

Unless archive evidence in the possession of the Ukrainian armed forces can show that the missile was subsequently exported back to the Russian Federation there seems no doubt that Flight MH17 was shot down by a Ukrainian missile.

However, much more has to be done to apportion blame. There is still the possibility that this particular BUK unit was in the hands of the separatist forces in the Donetsk or Lugansk regions (although Dutch Intelligence reports at the time indicated any BUK units in the hands of separatists were not functioning -see Flight MH17 in Ukraine – what do intelligence services know?).

What is clear is that the ball is now back in the hands of the JIT, and more specifically, the Ukrainian armed forces. The JIT should now demand archived information on the locations, servicing and possession of this specific missile in the period between 2086 and July 2014.

Of course, as in other aspects of this investigation, the Ukrainian side may claim that records do not exist or have been destroyed. I do not think that is good enough and such lack of cooperation has already damaged the reputation and reliability of the JIT. Ukraine, as possibly one of the suspects, should never have been given membership of the JIT where it can influence the investigation and exert veto power over the dissemination of findings.

Perhaps reporters should now be asking the Ukrainian military to go away and find this specific missile and hold their own press conference where they can expose the serial number of the one they have in their possession.

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Another BUK accident in Ukraine

Ukrainian BUK transport misses corner and ploughs into a building in the centre of Kiev. Image credit: Hromadske

It seems the Ukrainians do have problems with some of their military equipment. In particular their BUK missile systems (A BUK missile was implicated in the Malaysian MH17 tragedy in July 14 – see But will it stand up in court?).

A Ukrainian BUK missile destroyed a passenger airline (Siberia Airlines Flight 1812) in 2001 with the loss of 78 passengers and crew. Apparently as a result of an accidental firing during military exercises in the Black Sea. Now one of these systems has had an accident in the heart of Kiev during rehearsals for an independence day parade due August 24th.

‘Vlad Vash’, an eyewitness, wrote on Facebook:

“Well, there is your parade for you! First a tank nearly mowed me down, but stopped just in time. Then the very next vehicle drove into a wall.”

This just illustrates to me a huge flaw in the official investigation of the MH17 tragedy. The Joint Investigation Team seemed to start with a preconceived scenario (“the Russians did it”) and were sufficiently blinkered not to investigate alternative scenarios (see But will it stand up in court?). I have always been amazed that the investigation did not look at the BUK missiles systems held in the conflict area by both the Ukrainian army and the Donbass rebels (see my article Political interference prevents investigators from considering the “bleeding obvious”).

Accidents do happen and the Ukrainian army has a recoird of such accidents. There were also reports of poor maintenance and drunkenness among military personnel at the time. In fact, the situation in the Ukraineian army was so bad theat many soldiers defected to the rebels and the Kiev regime set up National Guard brigades manned by ultranationalist and neo-fascist groups involved in the February 24 coup. These brigades have been responsible for most of the fighting against the Donbass forces since.

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Policing social media – who is coming next and who is behind it?

Free speech and the problems of deplatforming and censorship are in the public mind at the moment. The banning of the conspiracy theorist outlet Infowars by a number of social media networks is just the latest example concerning many people – most of who, like me, do not support Infowars or Alex Jones in any way. Mind you, that does not stop supporters of this censoring claiming that we do – a claim Glen Greenwald described as “utterly obnoxious & disingenuous”

A slippery slope

The Real News video discussion with Max Blumenthal above warns that this censorship is a slippery slope – a slope along which we have already slipped well past Infowars. Blumenthal gives examples where his own media presence has been censored.

Blumenthal also warns that those doing this policing of social media are hardly humanitarians attempting to prevent hate speech. They have deep political and military origins which are driving this activity.

I find very disturbing that Facebook and the Atlantic Council are now cooperating in policing of Facebook content and in directing social media users to “approved” and “official” news sources (see Atlantic Council press release: Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab Partners with Facebook to Combat Disinformation in Democratic Elections). So we will now have a NATO-aligned “think tank” controlling information US voters, and the rest of us, get via social media. An organisation which is also strongly linked to outfits like the terrorist aligned White Helmets in Syria, the nationalist regime in Ukraine and conspiracy theorist “open sources” like Bellingcat.

Hopefully, readers will watch this video and its follow-up. I know some readers will see this as just another conspiracy theory. Apparently, they believe I am prone to such theories and urge me to wear blinkers and restrict my news sources to just the approved “official” sources.

Perhaps, instead of their outright rejection of the video above, they should critically consider the conspiracy theories they adhere to. The “official” conspiracy theories promoted by their “approved,” “official,” mainstream media sources. The conspiracy theories that get the blessing of outfits like The Atlantic Council, the Ukrainian regime and Bellingcat.

The “official” conspiracy theory promoted by the mainstream media

The video below is satirical – but really – how different is its content to the “official” “Russiagate,” conspiracy theory our mainstream media is bombarding us with every day.

Apparently, US society is really utopian – it has no problems. All the conflicts we read about are caused by those pesky Russians and their president, Putin.

Also, the video below from Syriana Analysis raises warnings about the slippery slope organisations like the Atlantic Council, are moving us down. Many people like me rely on multiple sources for information. The mainstream media (which never seems to be censored by these social media or the Atlantic Council) inevitably follows the official narrative on many issues (consider Syria, Russia, etc.). They often give fake news or misrepresent information (see, for example, Blatant misreporting of latest OPCW report on chemical weapons in Syria and The “heart of the Syrian chemical weapons programme” destroyed?). A wise person uses multiple sources, including independent or alternative media, to avoid this sort of control on information.

Hassling alternative and independent media

Syriana Analysis is one of the many sources I often check out for information on Syria. Independent sources like this rely heavily on social media like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to get out their message and to get financial support for their work.

Its spokesperson describes some of the hassles his organisation faces from social media bans and censorship. Many other independent or alternative media sources describe similar problems.

Some people object to using the word “censorship” to describe this problem. They point out that even big corporations like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have a perfect right to decide how their businesses operate. That the government is not involved.

However, this is naive.

Politicians driving the censorship

Let’s not forget that the US Senate Judiciary Committee subjected these corporations to strong pressure aimed at forcing them into the role of censors. This is how Caitlan Johnson, a very wise woman, described this in her article Social Media Censorship Is Vastly More Dangerous Than The Censored Material:

“A few months ago the Senate Judiciary Committee spoke with top legal and security officials for Facebook, Twitter and Google in a very disturbing way about the need to silence dissenting voices. Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii demanded that the companies adopt a “mission statement” declaring their commitment “to prevent the fomenting of discord.” Former FBI agent and deep state lackey Clint Watts kicked it up even further, saying, “Civil wars don’t start with gunshots, they start with words. America’s war with itself has already begun. We all must act now on the social media battlefield to quell information rebellions that can quickly lead to violent confrontations and easily transform us into the Divided States of America.”

This happened on the Senate floor, right out in the open.”

I don’t think attempts to censor social media and close down independent and alternative media sources are going to succeed, at least permanently. The internet has let the genie out of the bottle. Official mainstream media and the political establishment can no longer control the information available to those who look for it.

At least I hope that genie is out of the bottle.

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Political interference prevents investigators from considering the “bleeding obvious”

Official investigations contaminated by political pressure are hardly likely to be transparent or give reasonable and rational answers to problems. Once politics is in the driving seat the political aims become the driving force behind any conclusions.

The “novichok” poisonings

Many people see this as the basic problem with the investigation of the nerve agent poisonings in Salisbury and Amesbury, UK. Political forces took this over in the very early days and used the incidents to precipitate a very serious international crisis. Claims were made without evidence – and now it is hard to see how the investigation can ever recover from such a high-level interference.

Right at the beginning, many people drew attention to the fact that these accidents occurred only kilometres away from a government defence laboratory which holds stocks of nerve agents. I did myself – see Where could you get a nerve agent in Salisbury? and Time for a serious auditing of Porton Down’s nerve agent stocks?

Surely one of the first lines of enquiry in these investigations should have been an audit of nerve agent stocks held at the Porton Down Laboratory and investigation of possible scenarios for their accidental loss or even purposeful stealing. Not to do so, and instead launch an international crisis could at best be interpreted as missing the “bleeding obvious.” At worst it could be seen as an intentional promotion of an international crisis.

Yes, I know, there will be people who claim there was no need for such an audit. That we should just trust the professionalism of the staff and security procedures in force.

Well, I am not that easily fooled. People who use this argument should read the latest Annual Report and Accounts (2017/208) from this Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. Here is a pdf copy for you.

On Page 55 a section Incident investigations  reports (my emphasis):

“We actively promote the reporting of near misses and incidents. We investigate incidents proportionately based on the potential the incident could have had as well as in balance with the actual harm or damage caused. The responsible business unit investigates all incidents classified as ‘medium’. Incidents classified as ‘high’ are subject to an independent, corporate investigation.

During the year, we had 53 incidents reported of which 42 were investigated as high potential/actual incidents19 safety, seven business, 12 HR, two whistle-blowing and two security. Six of the safety incidents were reportable to the Health and Safety Executive under RIDDOR (Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations). Of the 11 incidents not investigated: eight were reclassified as ‘medium’ and investigated within the Division or Function; two HR allegations were dropped as on review there was no case to answer; and, the final incident was investigated by an external partner.”

Of course, such annual reports are hardly transparent. They are more likely to cover up problems than be honest about them, And the bureaucratic language helps such cover-ups.

But, if nothing else, this report shows that serious”incidents” are possible, even likely, for such a laboratory. Only a fool, or a politically directed investigator would miss out this obvious first step – checking out a local source.

Mind you, I have not seen anything official (who has?) and a final report may actually detail such an audit. Maybe investigators have been able to resist the political pressure to the extent that they did not miss this obvious first step.

Malaysian airline MH17 tragedy report

The same provision cannot be made for the “official” investigation of the Malaysian MH17 tragedy in eastern Ukraine where a commercial airliner was shot down in July 2014 with the death of all 298 crew and passengers on board. The “official” reports have been published.

I have written about the Final Technical Report in the article  MH17: Final technical report.

Readers are no doubt aware of the scenario the investigators have “gone with.” In my view, they “went with ” this scenario form early on – to the extent they put all their efforts into “proving” their favourite scenario and not objectively considering all the evidence. This for political reasons.

Investigators in the Russian Federation have complained that the official investigation team have refused to consider the information they provided on raw radar data and declassified data on the possible missile used. However, I think the negligence of the investigators was even more fundamental.

They missed completely the first obvious step, the “bleeding obvious” step of actually auditing and checking the BUK missile systems known to be on the ground in eastern Ukraine at the time. I do not argue they should not have considered other scenarios, even one as wild as a system being purposely brought across the border and returned after the tragedy all within a day. But the negligence in making the first obvious checks is so blatant one can only assume political interference.

The fact is that BUK missile systems were in the hands of both sides in this conflict at the time. The “rebel” forces had acquired these from the Ukrainian army because of capture of equipment and personnel defections (Ukrainian President Poroshenko claimed a 30% defection rate and his estimate will be low). The missiles on these systems were of an older style still in use in Ukraine but which had been replaced by modern versions in the Russian Federation.

So, an obvious first step – audit the existing BUK systems (yes, I know this would mean the investigation team would need to interact with rebel forces – but come on. This is basic – how could an independent investigator object?). Rebel territory was being mercilessly bombed from the air at the time so those forces certainly had a motive to use such a weapon. (Although the fact that Dutch intelligence had already determined the BUK system in rebel hands was inoperative may explain some of this negligence see Flight MH17 in Ukraine – what do intelligence services know?)

The Ukrainian armed forces had more of these systems and it is likely that at least some of these were operative. Given that the Kiev government was promoting an argument that the Russian armed forces may have been attempting to operate a “no-fly zone” in eastern Ukraine at the time it is easy to see how the pro-Kiev military could also have mistakenly identified a high-flying commercial airliner as a Russian military plane.

But a big problem with this investigation is that the Ukraine government was part of the investigation team. They had veto rights on the publication of findings and could easily have prevented investigation of any scenario which implicated their forces.

We should all learn to be sceptical about politically driven investigations. At least critically read the reports and not rely on media coverage – well-known for distortion and political agendas. And especially look for examples where investigators purposely ignore the “bleeding obvious.”

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But will it stand up in court?

mh17_missile_impact_-_dutch-webm

MH17 tragedy. Arguments remain about the model of missile used, the location where it exploded and its launch site

The joint investigation team (JIT) responsible for the criminal investigation of the downing of Flight MH17 over Ukraine in July 2014 have delivered the preliminary results of their investigation.

Wilbert Paulissen, the head of the Dutch National Detective Force announced their findings at a press conference in the Dutch city of Nieuwegein, saying:

“We have no doubt whatsoever that conclusions we are presenting today are accurate.”

The important question, though, is not the beliefs or conviction of the JIT spokesperson – but whether or not a court of law will accept these conclusions.

The scenario

The JIT has often been accused of deciding on the scenario they would investigate early in their investigation and subsequently restricted their investigation to that scenario – despite claims to the opposite. In other words, not giving proper consideration to other possibilities.

The presentation is online at Presentation preliminary results criminal investigation MH17 28-09-2016.” It  asserts:

“The BUK-TELAR that was used was brought into Eastern Ukraine from the territory of the Russian Federation.”

They rely on “intercepted telephone conversations and videos and photographs on the social media” for this assertion. Readers who have followed the social media discussion will not be surprised to find this scenario is exactly the same as that advanced by Bellingcat – a controversial site run by British journalist and blogger Eliot Higgins (formerly known Brown Moses). This site is well known for advancing apparently plausible but cherry-picked information promoting Higgin’s political arguments against Syria and Russia.

The problem is that having decided on this scenario last year, the JIT’s search for evidence involved the presentation on social media of a video outlining the scenario and asking residents in the area if they could contribute any evidence. It seems no other credible scenarios were  investigated.

The Ukrainian Army had many BUK systems and missiles in the area. I would have thought these should have been given at least as equal consideration – especially compared with an implausible scenario which involved very tight movement of  a system from the Russian Federation and its return to account for the fact that intelligence agencies had reported just days before the crash that the separatist groups did not have any such missile systems (see Flight MH17 in Ukraine – what do intelligence services know?)

As it stands a court may consider the sort of evidence promoted by Bellingcat and the JIT regarding this scenario as circumstantial at the best. Especially if JIT continues to base their scenario on “classified” US information they cannot reveal to the court. And how will the JIT respond to defence lawyers asking if they had catalogued all the BUL systems and accompanying missiles in possession of the Ukrainian Army at the time?

The other press conference

For some balance, I checked out another press conference occurring at a similar time today – that given by technical experts from the manufacturer of the BUK missile system – Almaz-Antey. Unfortunately, you are unlikely to see that press conference on our main-stream media.

Here is a video from this press conference – I appreciate it is hard to follow technical information presented in a foreign language and relying on translators – but it is worth watching and thinking about.

Credit: MH17 Malaysian Facebook feed.

Almaz-Antey, of course, does not have any responsibility to determine what the real scenario was and who was responsible. But they do have the technical skills to evaluate conclusions being drawn about the missile system, its detonation near the aircraft and its launch site.

Here they repeat data presented last year evaluating the conclusions drawn by the Dutch Safety Board in their final report. They also carried out an experiment testing these conclusions using a real missile and aeroplane fuselage. They found  that the Board was mistaken – holes and marks on the experimental fuselage did not correspond to those on the MH17 wreckage – and concluded that the missile used was actually an older version (not in the current Russian service but still used by the Ukrainians), that the detonation took place differently to what the Board had concluded and, therefore, the launch site could not be in the region the Board had concluded.

The primary radar data discussed was new – having been recently found among calibration data stored by a subsidiary company. This data could not find any record of a missile on a trajectory assumed by the Dutch Safety Board – and their estimate was that if a missile had been on that trajectory for the required time the chance of it being recorded in the primary radar data is more that 99%.

Unfortunately, that primary radar was not capable of recording any signal from the different trajectory and launch site indicated by the Almaz-Antey analysis of fuselage damage on MH17.

The company has passed on this information to Russian investigators who, I understand, have in turn passed it on to the JIT.

Conclusion

So, I am not convinced that the JIT has produced a case that will stand up in court. if they included further information – such as a survey of the BUK systems known to be in Ukraine at the time, and actual satellite data the US claims to have – then their circumstantial case may be more credible.

As for the Almaz-Antey information – I find it technically credible. But of course, that can only be tested by people with the same level of expertise. Until that is done it should not be rejected out of hand as the Dutch safety Board (and the JIT) appear to have done.

Let’s note that Wilbert Paulissen said: “there was conclusive evidence that a missile from the Russian-made Buk 9M38 missile system downed the passenger flight on July 17, 2014.” This relates to the missile system and should not be opportunistically interpreted to mean the JIT has “conclusive” evidence for the Bellingcat scenario they are pursuing.

I think most people now accept that a BUK missile system was the most likely weapon used. Tthe arguments are about the model of the missile, the detonation point and the launch site. I cannot see any credible argument from the JIT for their claims on these aspects to be conclusive.

Update

Here is the video of the JIT presentation referred to at the beginning of the article. It is quite difficult to follow (foreign language, translators and the problem of sound levels of each) but I managed to stick with it to the end.

The first half essentially follows the text linked to above (Presentation preliminary results criminal investigation MH17 28-09-2016) but the last parts are interesting with statements from the countries involved (illustrating the political nature of the event) and the questions.

The video confirms for me that the JIT investigators had started with a preferred scenario and are not willing to consider others. I can’t see this standing up in court – if it ever gets to a reputable court.

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Being better informed – unexpected advice from The Guardian

guardianKillingTruthLogo

How often does The Guardian attack truth instead of presenting it? Credit: “The Guardian” Blaming Trump for Racism in America

This opinion piece by Piers Robinson in The Guardian surprised me – and then it pleased me – Russian news may be biased – but so is much western media.

Surprised me because, of late, The Guardian has been shockingly one-sided. Particularly in its treatment of Russian politics, nationally and internationally. Unfortunately doesn’t include any self criticisms – that would have been nice but let’s be thankful for small steps. The fact the article appeared may mean some people at The Guardian recognised the their paper’s toeing of the “party line” on these issues may have been counterproductive.  Alexander Mercouris goes so far as to pose the question:

“Could it possibly be that the new editor – Katherine Viner – does not share the obsessive anti-Russian mania that took hold at the Guardian under the preceding Rusbridger regime?”

Wouldn’t it be  nice if this opinion piece was providing notice of a new policy, and is not just a one-off – an aberration?

Pleased me because the article makes recommendations I fully agree with and have often advocated:

“The first step towards becoming more informed is to avoid seeing our governments and media as free from manipulation while demonising “foreign” governments and media as full of propagandistic lies.

The second step is to recognise that one can gain useful insights and information from a variety of news sources – including those that are derided as “propaganda” outlets: Russia Today, al-Jazeera and Press TV should certainly not be off-limits.”

Some commenters have attacked me here for daring to use “unapproved” sources or questioning the prevailing “official” attitudes. I have also often warned about the demonising of governments and politicians  which, unfortunately appears to drive the political thinking of many people.

The article is directed mainly at common media reaction in the UK to the Russian news outlet RT. This has always seemed to me a rather childish reaction to the success of a competitor. However, it has led to serious calls for clipping RTs wings, even somehow banning it. There have been similar, perhaps more serious, calls from US politicians.
The author says of these complaints:
“Whatever the accuracy, or lack thereof, of RT and whatever its actual impact on western audiences, one of the problems with these kinds of arguments is that they fall straight into the trap of presenting media that are aligned with official adversaries as inherently propagandistic and deceitful, while the output of “our” media is presumed to be objective and truthful. Moreover, the impression given is that our governments engage in truthful “public relations”, “strategic communication” and “public diplomacy” while the Russians lie through “propaganda”.”
And yet:
“Neither of these claims has significant academic support. A substantial body of research conducted over many decades highlights the proximity between western news media and their respective governments, especially in the realm of foreign affairs. For reasons that include overreliance on government officials as news sources, economic constraints, the imperatives of big business and good old-fashioned patriotism, mainstream western media frequently fail to meet democratic expectations regarding independence.”
It refers to a Manchester University study showing that “UK media coverage of the 2003 Iraq invasion . . . . found that most UK mainstream media performed to reinforce official views rather than to challenge them.” And the recent Chilcot report  describing how “Tony Blair had discussed how phases 1 and 2 of the “war on terror” would require a “dedicated tightly knit propaganda unit”.”
The article is certainly true in its assertion:
“These are confusing times for consumers of the news, and the issue of which media outlets should be trusted is as demanding and critical as ever. Given the level of conflict and potential conflict in the world today, plus pressing global issues regarding environmental crisis, poverty and resources, it is essential that people learn to navigate the media and defend themselves against manipulation.”
All the more reason to avoid bias – to avoid:
“seeing our governments and media as free from manipulation while demonising “foreign” governments and media as full of propagandistic lies.”
And especially to be open minded. To obtain:
“information from a variety of news sources – including those that are derided as “propaganda” outlets.”
Now, wouldn’t be nice if The Guardian followed this advice in future.

MH17 tragedy – 2 years on

Two years on and there has yet to be a a decision on who was responsible for shooting down Malaysian Airlines MH17 over Eastern Ukraine.

This video shows the local memorial meeting held near the crash site. We often forget that the locals in such tragedies also suffer as they have to deal with the destruction and death on the ground.

Another group which suffered this exposure to death and destruction were the members of thew OSCE special monitoring mission who were very quickly at the scene. The Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, Ambassador Ertugrul Apakan, commented on July 17 saying:

“The disaster once again reminds all of us of the heavy toll that civilians pay in the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, and in all armed conflicts. “

“We take this moment to again offer our sincere condolences to those who lost loved ones when Flight MH17 was downed two years ago in eastern Ukraine, with the loss of all 298 lives on board.”

“This tragic event affected many around the world, including SMM monitors, some of who were on the ground immediately following the crash. We recall that their involvement in the initial recovery efforts and in facilitating a localized ceasefire to allow access for emergency and recovery teams is a time of deep sorrow, but also of pride to have been able to assist in those dark hours,” said the Chief Monitor.

“The memory of those who perished is a reminder to us all that peace is precious and life sacrosanct.”

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MH17 tragedy – new investigation launched

MH17 front

The cockpit wreckage of MH17. Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Two years after the shooting down  of the Malaysian commercial airliner (flight MH17) over eastern Ukraine (Donbass), investigators seem no closer to identifying the culprits.  This may seem surprising given the quick recovery of the black boxes and most of the airplane. But, on second thoughts, perhaps not surprising given the regional and geopolitical politics.

But, time is taking its toll on the credibility of the current investigators. Until now the investigation has been handled by the Dutch Safety Board (which published its final technical report last October (see MH17: Final technical report) and the Dutch-led joint investigation team (JIT) which is responsible for a more detailed investigation enabling determination of criminal liability.

Now, the Malaysian government is launching their own independent investigation. In announcing this the Malaysian PM Najib Razak said this would be a joint investigation together with the Russian Federation and its research results would be revealed in October 2016 (see Malaysia to start independent investigation into MH17 tragedy).

Meanwhile, the work of the Dutch Investigating Commission (JIT) will continue and the Minister of Transport in Malaysia has asked that a Russian expert be included in that investigation team. This has upset the Ukrainian authorities  who have responded by asking that the US to prevent the joint Russia/Malaysia investigation. (Why the Ukrainians think the US has any power of arbitration or decision on this issue is beyond me).

Concern about attitudes of current investigators

Apparently the Malaysians are not happy with the current findings of Dutch investigators. The do not see any evidence implicating Russia in the tragedy and had found that  Russia was very supportive during the first days of the crash. They had requested Russia be involved in the official investigation but this was not allowed.

According to the Australian National Review:

“Furthermore, all independent findings of Russian investigators were avoided. After the meeting between the heads of the states, Transport Minister of Malaysia, Liow Tiong Lai sent a letter to the Commission of Inquiry of the Netherlands requesting that Russia be included in the investigations. The request set off an alarm as Malaysia’s claim cannot be refused. This has made international observers suspicious on why Ukraine is reluctant to include Russian experts in the probe team.”

I too am suspicious. Russia has experts who could contribute greatly to the investigation. They have made their own investigation of the crash which deserves proper consideration  because it was carried out by specialists from the manufacture of the likely weapon involved, Almaz-Antey. The final Report of the Dutch Safety Board brushed off these findings without proper consideration (see MH17: Final technical report). Yet the Russian research appeared to make a more evidence-based evaluation of the specific missile used and its likely launch location. This research is very relevant to the ongoing criminal investigation because of its relevance to the specific model of missile used and the launch location.

Russian investigators frustrated

This is frustrating the Russian investigators. In February, Oleg Storchevoy, the deputy head of Russia’s Federal Air Transport Agency, accused the Dutch Safety Board and JIT of “showing no interest” in working with Russia:

“I would like to stress that Russia disclosed all of its available satellite data in the days immediately following the crash,” he wrote, adding that the data it had submitted to the investigation showed “movement and increased activity by Ukrainian BUK surface-to-air missile systems observed within the conflict area in eastern Ukraine one day ahead of the tragedy.”

Includingof Ukrainian experts in the JIT, while at the same time excluding Russian experts, raises suspicions. The Ukrainian Army, together with the rebel authorities in the Donbass region, are the main suspects. In fact, analysis of the intelligence evidence presented to the Dutch parliament (see Flight MH17 in Ukraine – what do intelligence services know?) indicate that the only BUK systems active in Eastern Ukraine at the time of the tragedy were in the hands of the Ukrainian Army.

Because much of the work of the JIT takes place in Kiev, close relationships have formed between the Ukrainian experts and the Dutch and Australian experts. Commentators see this as a problem in making an objective evaluation of the evidence supplied by the Russian Federation and the Ukrainian security and intelligence service, SBU.

Geopolitical prejudices may be preventing proper consideration of Russian data but of more concern is the likely biased information provided by the Ukrainian SBU. Apparently this included telephone wire-tapping data which is very hard to verify without full and open access. Ukrainian authorities are unlikely to give this on security grounds.

There are also problems with US satellite data which the JIT says they have access to – but only in secret. These security factors make it impossible to use such data in a criminal case. Although, politically motivated press releases are great for casting suspicions  – and this has plagued this investigation from the start.

So, I welcome the new investigation by  Malaysia and the Russian Federation.They have declared their willingness to cooperate with the Dutch-led investigators.  Currently, the Dutch-led investigation is being carried out by officials from Australia, Malaysia, Belgium and Ukraine but it would gain more credibility if it included Russian investigators. The Dutch-led team claim they are making good progress and their report is just months away.

Hopefully, this report, and a similar report from the Malaysian/Russian joint investigators due in October, will show some progress which helps bring justice to the families who lost loved ones in this tragedy.

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Flight MH17 in Ukraine – what do intelligence services know?

MH 17 intelligence report

Despite claims of proof made by politicians like David Cameron, Barack Obama and Tony Abbott after the downing of flight MH17 in Ukraine in 2014 no intelligence agencies in their countries ever provided any evidence. I find that surprising as these intelligence agencies were obviously monitoring the area and should have been able to give evidence to back up the claims. In fact, rumours suggested the intelligence evidence didn’t back up the claims.

I am forced to conclude the claims owe more to politics, in particular, the geopolitical struggle, than they do to facts.

Perhaps it is in their (and their political masters) nature that intelligence agencies may not be forthcoming on this issue. But I recently came across a largely unpublicised  report which I think does give some idea of what the intelligence community did know at the time. The  Review Report arising from the crash of flight MH17 was prepared by the Dutch Review Committee on the Intelligence Services specifically to answer questions from the Dutch government on what the intelligence community knew, and what they could have done to avert the disaster.

The review covers the role and knowledge of the Netherlands’ Military Intelligence and Security Service (MIVD) and the General Intelligence and Security Service of the Netherlands (AIVD).

No, it doesn’t give the intricate details. But it does summarise their knowledge at the time – a knowledge which was informed by material from allied intelligence agencies (The Netherlands is part of NATO) and which they would have passed on to those agencies. As such, I think it provides a valuable insight into what was known – an insight enabling us to judge the claims being made by the politicians at the time. Perhaps an insight helping us to decide for ourselves which party was likely responsible for the downing of the plane, and hence the killing of 283 passengers and 15 crew.

Possible culprits

The report says:

“there were three relevant actors with military capacities in the period prior to the crash:
• Russian armed forces
• Ukrainian armed forces and
• Pro-Russian separatists.”

I have made this point repeatedly in the discussion we have had on the issue here – also saying I did not commit to any conviction that either of these parties had yet been shown to be the real culprit.

However, I now think  the intelligence community probably rules out the “Pro-Russian separatists.” The report says that neither of these parties had the intention to destroy a civil aircraft and only the Russian and Ukrainian armed forces had the weapons required. It concluded:

“Prior to the crash of flight MH17, the AIVD and the MIVD possessed the following information regarding the security situation in Eastern Ukraine that was relevant for assessing a threat to civil aircraft flying over the area:
• The Russian and the Ukrainian armed forces did have the capacity and potential to hit a civil aircraft at cruising altitude. However, they did not have the intention. There were no indications that they were engaged in activities (such as preparations) targeting civil aviation.
• There were no indications that the Separatists had the capacity to hit civil air traffic at cruising altitude. Moreover, there were no indications that they would target civil air traffic or that they were engaged in activities with this objective in mind.”

What capabilities did the “pro-Russian separatists” have?

The report concluded:

“Even though there was information pointing to the fact that the Separatists had been supplied with heavy weapons by the Russian Federation, there were no indications that these were powerful anti-aircraft systems.”

Politicians may debate that. After all, the Ukrainian Armed forces were shelling and bombing the separatist cities and villages and the separatist armed forces were certainly shooting Ukrainian planes out of the sky. But it was the very fact that separatists had been successfully shooting down those planes (particularly an An-26 military cargo plane on July 14 (3 days before flight MH17 was hit) that led intelligence forces to look closely at their capabilities. Here’s how the report describes this:

“On 14 July 2014, an An-26 military cargo aeroplane (referred to hereafter as: the Antonov), belonging to the Ukrainian airforce, was shot down. The Ukrainian authorities reported the event the same day in a briefing with Ukraine’s presidential administration in Kiev. The MIVD also received a concise report of the briefing from the Dutch Defence attaché. The report revealed that the Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Klimkin, declared that the situation in the east had reached a new and dangerous phase because the Russian Federation was now openly providing the Separatists with military support. As an example of the escalation, Klimkin cited the Antonov’s being shot down in the area of Lugansk. Klimkin reported that the Antonov was flying at an altitude of 6,200 metres and could only have been hit with Russian equipment, because the Separatists did not possess this kind of anti-aircraft systems.
According to a media report on 14 July 2014 (which the MIVD possessed), the Ukrainian authorities stated that the aeroplane was flying at 6,500 metres and was not shot down by a portable anti-aircraft system but by a more powerful system. This was probably carried out from Russian territory. In the media, the Separatists claimed that they had shot down the aeroplane and taken some of the crew prisoner.”

So, spokesman for the Kiev regime were claiming (although probably didn’t really believe) that the Russian armed forces had directly entered the fray. Perhaps they were implying the Russians were effectively setting up a “no-fly zone” for Ukrainian military planes. At any rate, the possibility of direct involvement of Russian armed forces would explain the presence of Ukrainian anti-aircraft weapons in the area despite the separatists not using aeroplanes.

The intelligence community appears to reject claims of direct Russian involvement:

“If the Antonov had indeed been shot down by, or even from, the Russian Federation, this would have been a game changer. Direct Russian participation in the conflict would have become a fact.

That is why the MIVD immediately launched an investigation into the incident. In the morning of 17 July 2014, the MIVD communicated the results of this investigation in its daily intelligence summary (‘dagintsum’), which had a number of users, including the NCTV and the AIVD.”

This intelligence assessment was communicated on the very day Flight MH17 was shot down.

“The MIVD assessed it to be unlikely that the Antonov had been shot down by a powerful anti-aircraft system (separate from the question whether this had been carried out from Russian territory). From pictures of the wreckage and eyewitness accounts it was clear that the aeroplane’s right-hand engine had been hit and that 5 to 6 parachutes had subsequently appeared. The Antonov had allegedly crashed only then. On this basis, the MIVD concluded that the appearance of the damage was not consistent with a hit by a powerful anti-aircraft system. The aeroplane would in that case probably have been destroyed in the air.

The crew would probably not have survived if this had been the case. According to the MIVD, the wreckage and the eyewitnesses supported the fact that the aircraft was shot out of the air by a MANPADS from Ukrainian territory. This would only have been possible if the Antonov were flying substantially lower than 6,200 or 6,500 metres. Another possibility was that a short-range, vehicleborne anti-aircraft system”

And apparently the Ukrainian authorities, at least in their public statements, also did not believe that separatist armed forces had the capability of shooting down a civil airliner. I need to give the qualification because Ukrainian authorities are well known for providing inaccurate information for political purposes. It is likely they well knew the Antonov was not flying at the height they claim but wished to implicate the Russian federation.

What about the Buk missiles?

Although not completely ruling out an air-to-air missile the Final report of the Dutch safety board determined that MH17 was most probably hit by a missile from a Buk  system (see MH17: Final technical report).  But this review concluded that separatists just did not have such a weapon:

“The AIVD was aware that the Separatists, in addition to a broad range of artillery (eg machine guns), light anti-aircraft artillery (e.g. rocket launchers), anti-tank weapons and tanks, also possessed MANPADS and possibly short-range vehicle-borne anti-aircraft systems. Both types of systems are considered surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). Due to their limited range, the aforementioned weapons do not constitute a danger to civil aviation at cruising altitude.

“On 16 July [the day before MH17 crashed], the AIVD received a report from a reliable source that stated that there was no information that indicated that the Separatists possessed a medium-range SAM system. This comment was made in view of the circumstances related to the Ukrainian armed forces’ Antonov being shot down on 14 July 2014 in Eastern Ukraine.”

“The AIVD did not have any information that indicated that the Separatists possessed an operational, powerful anti-aircraft system such as a Buk system, also called an SA-11, prior to the crash of flight MH17.”

But what about a Buk system the separatists had captured from the Ukrainian armed forces?:

“On 29 June 2014, the Separatists captured a Ukrainian armed forces military base in Donetsk. At this base, there were Buk missile systems. These are powerful anti-aircraft systems. This development was reported extensively in the media prior to the crash. The MIVD also received intelligence information on the subject, on 30 June and 3 July 2014 as well as on other dates. During the course of July, several reliable sources indicated that the systems that were at the military base were not operational. Therefore, they could not be used by the Separatists.”

I had always considered the separatists could have been the culprit because of the availability of a captured Buk system but the intelligence community seems to have confidently ruled out that possibility.

What about a Russian Buk system?

Some motivated sources have promoted on social media a story that flight MH17 was shot down by a Russian Buk system specifically brought into eastern Ukraine for the job and removed directly after the crash. Of course, investigators must look into such stories but there does not appear to be any intelligence evidence to back them up.The review describes the relevant tasks of the Dutch intelligence bodies as investigation focused of the Russian Federation and the possible risk of an incursion into Eastern Ukraine (MIVD) and investigation of the politico-strategic aspect of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine and on the Russian Federation’s political influence on Ukraine.

The review describes the relevant tasks of the Dutch intelligence bodies as investigation focused of the Russian Federation and the possible risk of an incursion into Eastern Ukraine (MIVD) and investigation of the politico-strategic aspect of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine and on the Russian Federation’s political influence on Ukraine (AIVD).

Given the size of the Buk systems and the associated vehicles, it is hardly likely intelligence forces could have missed the movement of such a system in and out of eastern Ukraine, crossing the international border in two directions.

My conclusions

This may be the only direct public information about intelligence assessments of the situation in eastern Ukraine at the time of the MH17 crash the public will ever see. It is not detailed but is meant as a reliable summary for governments. And given the degree of cooperation and exchange of information among western intelligence agencies, I think it is probably an indication of the conclusions from all these agencies, not just the Dutch.

Intelligence agencies in the Russian Federation may have different or alternative information. Some, but probably not all, of this has already been released by the Russian government.

In the past, I had considered that it was highly probable Flight MH17 was accidentally shot down by separatist forces using a captured MH17 system and operators who had defected from the Ukrainian armed forces. But I now think that scenario is very unlikely. I had also thought that it was equally probable that the culprits were a unit of the Ukrainian armed forces making a mistake during a training exercise with a Buk system. I thought a scenario involving armed forces of the Russian Federation was far less likely.

Currently, I think the most likely scenario is that MH17 was mistakenly shot down by a unit of the Ukrainian armed forces – maybe in a training exercise or in an act of defense. While there is no evidence of direct involvement by air forces of the Russian Federation it is very likely that story was believed by forces on the ground, if not the politicians in Kiev promoting the story. Fear of a Russian aerial attack would also have been promoted by a series of losses of Ukrainian aircraft in the days before the MH17 crash – especially as the authorities in Kiev were claiming these could only have been shot down by Russian forces.

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MH17: Final technical report


dutch-safety-board-report-on-mh17-crash-english-1-638

The final technical report from the Dutch safety Board on the crash of Malaysian flight MH17 in Eastern Ukraine has just been released. You can download your copy here or go to the Final report page which also provides links to the appendices. (Warning – I don’t think this URL is permanent).

Having discussed the previous preliminary report here, and got into a debate on responsibility for the crash, I feel the need to make at least some comment on the final report. My comments will be brief – I have so far not read the complete document. The report is 280 pages long, and there are extra, important, appendices (I think about 26 in total) which are also quite lengthy. Very few people will invest the time to get their head around all these.

So, my observations:

1: Its very technical

Well – it could be worse. The report itself does leave the details to appendices – and doesn’t give even appendices for some of the evidence. This video of a recent press conference by the Russian Arms manufacturer gives an idea if the complexity of the issue (made worse in this case by having to rely on an oral English translation). Skip through to the middle if you want to avoid the formal introductions.

2: Blame

This technical investigation did not have the task of apportioning blame – that is the subject of a later report (probably next year) from the criminal investigation group. However, the Ukrainian Government does get the obvious blame for allowing commercial flights  over a war zone – moreover a zone where planes were regularly being shot down. The lessons about this are probably the most important, and of most interest to potential airline passengers. The report makes some recommendations on this

3: The most likely scenario involves a surface-to-air missile

While the report is definitive about this it effectively relies on two assumptions:

  • Most of the likely air-to-air missiles stationed in the area do not contain the “pre-formed elements” (shrapnel) of the shapes found in the crash debris and the bodies of the flight crew.
  • There were no other aircraft in the area at the time. I couldn’t find any mention of the Russian primary radar data released soon after the crash which did suggest two other aircraft were present (these would not necessarily have shown up on the secondary air-traffic control radar if they were military). This was referred to in the preliminary report (see MH17 – Preliminary report leaves most conspiracy theories intact).

So, I don’t think the air-air missile scenario is definitely excluded but the surface-to-air missile scenario seems most likely and that is what was tested in computer simulations.

4: A Buk missile with a specific warhead was most likely used.

This was based on the recovery of “preformed elements” from bodies of the crew and the aircraft debris. Bow-tie, and square elements were found. The 9N314M warhead contains such elements.

Interestingly the missiles on the Buk-1 system (used by the Ukrainian armed forces use this warhead, but not the missiles on the Buk-2 system (used by the Russian federation armed forces).

The manufacture of the Buk systems, Almaz-Antey, claim the preformed elements found show an even earlier warhead was used, rather than the 9N314M. These warheads are no longer used in the Russian Federation as they are past their use-by date. But the manufacturer had reported servicing the older Buk systems own by Ukraine in the last 10 years.

5: Aircraft damage used to find possible missile trajectory

Simulation modelling was used to find the likely missile trajectory and launch region. The modelling was done by two Dutch groups (NLR & TNO), a forensic group in the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice and the Almaz-Antey company (the manufacturer). While all groups produced similar results  using the NLR/TNO data the Almaz-Antey group found a different missile orientation and locality on detonation using their own collected data.

This difference is immaterial for the purposes of this report but will be important for the criminal investigation.

Incidentally, Almaz-Antey have tested their computer simulations using field experiments involving detonation of a missile near typical material used in construction of the plane and, more recently, the front section of a decommissioned plane very similar to the Boeing. They reported in the press conference in the above video that the experiments vindicated their simulation results. However, the last experiment came too late to influence the Dutch safety Board Report.

Conclusion

No one expected identification of the forces responsible for shooting down flight MH17 in this report – and this is not the task of the Dutch Safety Board. More information apportioning blame should appear in the report from the Criminal investigation Team next year.

The report drew some conclusions about how authorities and airlines should handle the problem of flights over areas of conflict. Hopefully, this will make airline travel safer in future.

In my mind, a scenario involving an air-to-air missile was not completely ruled out (and perhaps the report should have been more qualified about this). However, a surface-to-air missile appears most likely.

So, two of the scenarios (involving attack aircraft) I suggested in my article on the preliminary report, MH17 – Preliminary report leaves most conspiracy theories intact, are most likely ruled out. The remaining scenario I mentioned was that the plane was downed by a surface-to-air missile launched by armed forces of the Kiev government, the Russian Federation or the opposition pro-autonomy militias.

The old warhead suggests that armed forces of the Russian federation were not involved and most probably rules out the social media story of a Russian Buk system being brought in specifically for the attack and then quickly removed.

I think this leaves either the armed forces of the Kiev government (Ukrainian army) or the Donetsk and Luhansk regions fighting for autonomy. The Ukrainian army is known to have weapons of this sort while both Kiev and the rebels claimed the rebels did not.

However, there is evidence that the rebels had either captured one or more Buk systems, or had obtained them via defection of military from the Ukrainian army (on the other hand reports from both the rebels and the Ukrainian side have claimed that at least one captured system was not operational).

So, still too early to claim we know who shot down MH17.

But, of course, that won’t stop the politically motivated blame game that has been going on in the international media (and promoted by some governments) ever since the plane hit the ground.

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