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MH17 Downing: One Tragedy, One Truth, But Many Stories

  • Robert Coalson

A local resident stands amid wreckage at the crash site of a Malaysia Airlines plane, which was shot down over eastern Ukraine last year, killing all 298 people on board.

A local resident stands amid wreckage at the crash site of a Malaysia Airlines plane, which was shot down over eastern Ukraine last year, killing all 298 people on board.

One year after the single deadliest incident of the Ukrainian conflict -- the shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines jet, killing all 298 unsuspecting passengers and crew aboard Flight MH17 -- the world still awaits international investigators' official findings into its cause.

But reported leaks suggest that their draft conclusions blame pro-Russian separatists for firing a Russian-supplied surface-to-air Buk missile into the clear, midsummer sky above rebel-held territory on that July day.

Such findings -- if they are confirmed when the final report is made public in October -- could scarcely be more at odds with assertions and suppositions flowing out of Russia since the disaster.

Moscow quickly realized it had a PR problem of the highest order on its hands.

There were early hints of separatist involvement in the airliner tragedy -- rebels' undisputed recent history of shooting down Ukrainian military planes over the conflict zone, a subsequently deleted social media post by a rebel leader boasting of downing an airplane, a leaked conversation suggesting Moscow and its proxies were coordinating a scramble to retrieve MH17's black boxes, and geolocated images tracking a Buk launcher's apparent deployment to the area soon before the crash and its return that night to Russian territory.

But, in the absence of more conclusive evidence, Russian officials and Russian media have continued to put forward myriad alternate theories of the MH17 tragedy, and as recently as this week Moscow said it would shoot down efforts to create a UN-backed tribunal to punish those responsible for the crash.

Here are some of the most notable half-baked claims to have come from Russians or to have gained wide circulation within Russian media.

The Phantom Jet

Less than a week after the MH17 disaster, the Russian Defense Ministry released its "materials" on the case and held a high-profile briefing to present them. Although the Defense Ministry didn't make any firm conclusions, it claimed that the Ukrainian military was operating Buk antiaircraft systems in the area at the time of the incident. It also alleged that a Ukrainian military Su-25 close-support fighter plane was trailing the ill-fated passenger jet. Kyiv says that it had no military aircraft flying in the area because several of its planes and helicopters had already been shot down by insurgents using Russia-provided weapons.

The Su-25 theory was the main argument of an RT (formerly, Russia Today) documentary broadcast in October.

A report by an unnamed "group of aviation specialists" was released on July 14 and argued that MH17 was "most likely" shot down by an Israeli-made Python air-to-air missile fired from an upgraded Su-25.

In January, former AP journalist Robert Parry, who writes for the ConsortiumNews website, quoted unnamed U.S. intelligence sources as saying MH17 may have been shot down by "a defector from the Ukrainian military" using a Buk antiaircraft system.

'Carlos' The Air-Traffic Controller

In the hours following the MH17 downing, a person claiming to be a Spanish air-traffic controller working in Kyiv started posting information on Twitter that claimed there were two Ukrainian military jets in the air near the scene of the tragedy. The Spanish Embassy in Ukraine said it had no knowledge of who "Carlos" was, but had noted his activity on Twitter during the Maidan protests in Ukraine. The airport where Carlos claimed to work said it had no foreign air-traffic controllers and had "never employed any Spaniard for that or any other task."

Carlos's Twitter account has been suspended. Nonetheless, Russian state media have quoted him extensively over the last year, and many analysts writing about the MH-17 case continue to refer to him.

Dead Bodies?

Former rebel military commander Igor Strelkov, a Russian national who played a crucial role in eastern Ukraine and later claimed to have been a colonel in the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), said on the day after the MH17 tragedy that the bodies on the plane were "not fresh" and had died several days before. "I can't confirm the accuracy of this information," he cautioned. He also noted that "not all" the people aboard the plane were dead before it crashed.

Nonetheless, nationalist Russian Duma deputy Vladimir Zhirinovsky cited the claim in an interview with Vesti FM radio. "The fact that the plane fell is an American provocation," Zhirinovsky said. "They always do everything possible to blame Russia. It's possible that there were corpses that were placed ahead of time in the seats of the plane."

Inevitably, the "dead bodies" speculation tied the downing of MH17 to the unexplained disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH-370 four months earlier, in March 2014, an incident that has also proven fruitful for the conspiracy-minded.

PHOTO GALLERY: Scenes Of Tragedy At MH17 Crash Site

Searching For A Motive

One theory that was widely publicized in Russian media in the aftermath of the disaster was that Ukraine was trying to shoot down Russian President Vladimir Putin's plane as he returned to Russia from a visit to Brazil.

Komsomolskaya Pravda reported shortly after the incident that Ukrainian air-traffic controllers had deliberately rerouted MH17 into the conflict zone so that it could be shot down in order to blame Russia. The tabloid said "a Ukrainian attack plane" assisted by a U.S. spy satellite shot down the airliner.

A commentator on the airwaves of another anti-American, state-run station, Iran's Press TV, offered his own motive for the tragedy. James Henry Fetzer, a noted conspiracy theorist and Holocaust denier said: "What could Russia have possibly stood to benefit in shooting down this plane? Russia had nothing to gain from this. Israel's [Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu had everything to gain because it was occurring by remarkable coincidence at the very same time Israel is launching its massive inhumane savage slaughter of the Palestinian people in Gaza."

Fetzer did not go so far as to say directly that Israel shot down MH17.

Others noted that among the MH17 dead were scientists and activists working to cure AIDS who were on their way to a conference in Australia. "Would it be safe to assume," one conspiracy blogger wrote,"that the scientist [sic] on board MH-17 were about to present breakthrough research which could have resulted in the AIDS cure? Could these men have been 'taken out' by the global elitists in order to protect their highly-profitable [sic] AIDS industry, which generates billions of dollars for government run [sic] pharmaceutical companies?"


No conspiracy theory is complete without the notion of a cover-up. Self-proclaimed cultural anthropologist and investigative historian Eric Zuesse, who writes frequently on the website of the Canada-based, pro-Russian "think tank" Global Research, has reported on a secret August 8 agreement between Ukraine, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Australia ("all of which nations are allies of the United States and are cooperating with its new Cold War against Russia") to not disclose any information about MH17 without the agreement of all four countries. Zuesse concludes that such an agreement means Kyiv will "veto" any information that implicates the Ukrainian military.

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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to