MOSCOW -- The Russian Defense Ministry published doctored, misdated satellite imagery to support its suggestion that Ukraine was responsible for downing of a passenger jet over eastern Ukraine in 2014, independent investigation group Bellingcat alleges in a new report.
The report provides an overview of Bellingcat’s exhaustive open-source investigation into the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, which killed all 298 passengers and crew aboard the airliner bound from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
It was published two days before the second anniversary of the July 17, 2014 incident, which drew the world’s stunned attention to the war between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists and added its victims to the conflict’s toll -- now more than 9,300 civilians and combatants.
Dutch investigators said in 2015 that the airliner was shot down with a Russian-made Buk surface-to-air missile and identified a 320-square-mile area from which it was fired -- most of it held by the separatists -- but did not place blame.
Britain-based Bellingcat says evidence it has collected shows that the Russian army supplied the missile-launcher that brought down MH17 and moved it toward the Ukrainian border before the shootdown. The jet crashed in separatist-held part of the Donetsk region.
Russian officials and state media have made strenuous efforts to lay the blame on Kyiv, at various times suggesting that the jet was shot down by a Ukrainian fighter or by a Buk missile-launcher in the hands of Ukrainian forces.
The Bellingcat report, however, says that images published by the Russian Defense Ministry in July 2014 to make the case that Kyiv was to blame were found to have been digitally altered.
The group invited an expert on open source intelligence, Jeffrey Lewis, to use forensic analysis software called Tungstene to evaluate the reliability of images central to its investigation, Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins told RFE/RL.
“The satellite imagery from the Russian MOD was heavily edited, including the addition of clouds and Buk missile launchers to some images,” Higgins said.
A news release accompanying the Bellingcat report said that some of the satellite imagery was "so heavily manipulated that it lacks any credibility as evidence."
As presented bythe Russian Defense Ministry, the images suggested that a Ukrainian Buk missile launcher had been moved from its base in the days before MH17 was shot down.
By contrast, the report says that key images in the Bellingcat investigation -- such as photographs widely circulated by Paris Match of a Buk missile system being transported through eastern Ukraine -- were found to be “genuine.”
“For me the question is now, 'How are international governments going to respond to Russia creating fake evidence in the inquiry into the murder of 298 people?'” Higgins said in an interview with RFE/RL’s Russian Service.
Bellingcat says the airliner was shot down by a Buk missile with the number 332, which it says was transported from a military base in Russia’s Kursk region to an area near the Ukrainian border by the 2nd battalion of Russia’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Brigade.
It says that the launch site was south of the separatist-held town of Snizhne, and that the missile system was spirited back toward the Russian border.
Russia has denied any direct involvement in the war in eastern Ukraine, despite what Kyiv and NATO say is ample evidence that it has sent large numbers of troops and weapons across the border to support the separatists.
The conflict broke out in April 2014, shortly after Russia used military force and a referendum widely dismissed as illegitimate to seize control of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula -- a takeover that followed the ouster of Moscow-allied Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. He fled to Russia after months of protests over his decision, late in 2013, to abandon plans for a landmark agreement with the European Union and cultivate closer ties with Russia instead.
Russia’s interference in Ukraine has badly harmed its ties with Kyiv and brought its relations with the West to a post-Cold War low.
U.S. and German intelligence reports have blamed the Russia-backed separatists for the downing of MH-17. The Dutch authorities leading the international investigation recently visited Moscow, after which Dutch authorities pressed Russia to hand over additional information. The probe is expected to be completed later this year.
Higgins said he hopes those responsible for the deaths will be brought to justice.
"We've been able to identify nearly all the members of the 53rd air defense brigade which was in this convoy that took this missile launcher to the Ukrainian border,” Higgins said, adding that the international investigators “might have a lot more information. Maybe they have information that, combined with our information, can lead you to the exact names of the people who .... shot down MH17."
"But MH17 is really part of a broader story and that's Russia's involvement in the conflict in Ukraine," he said. “Ultimately the person who made the decision to send Russian troops to Ukraine is going to be the head of the Russian army, which is Vladimir Putin.”