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Flight MH17 Fact Sheet: Evidence Increasingly Points To Moscow

Responders stand amid aircraft parts at the crash site one day after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 crashed on July 19, with 298 people from 11 countries aboard, in a field near the town of Shaktarsk, in rebel-held eastern Ukraine.
Responders stand amid aircraft parts at the crash site one day after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 crashed on July 19, with 298 people from 11 countries aboard, in a field near the town of Shaktarsk, in rebel-held eastern Ukraine.

Amid mounting circumstantial evidence that Russia-backed separatists caused the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, there also appears to be a concerted effort by Moscow to disseminate its own narrative and perhaps obstruct the investigation on the ground.

Here is a rundown of what we know so far:

The Buk Missile System

There appears to be consensus outside of Russia that the flight, which was carrying 298 people, was downed by a Buk surface-to-air missile. Originally designed by the Soviet Union, the Buk missile system is part of both Moscow and Kyiv's arsenal. Russia has attempted to use this fact to create plausible deniability about its role in the disaster.

But before the downing of MH17, separatists had boasted on several occasions about acquiring the Buk system, which can hit targets as high as 22 kilometers in the air.

In a June 29 tweet, the official press account of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic posted a photo of the missile launcher.

The tweet was deleted following the MH17 crash and separatists now claim not to have had the capability of striking an airliner flying as high as the 10,000 meters that MH17 was traveling.

But several Russian news outlets, including the state-run ITAR-TASS agency, had already reported on the separatists confirming possession of the weapons. And a reporter for AP said he saw a missile launcher close to the crash site shortly before MH17 went down.

The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) also released a video that it claimed showed separatists escorting the Buk missile launcher -- with one warhead missing -- back into Russia early in the morning following the downing of MH17.

As "The Interpreter" points out, the location of the video has not yet been independently confirmed.

Alleged Recordings Of Separatists Immediately Following MH17 Crash

In audio released by the SBU, Igor Bezler, a separatist leader in Horlovka, allegedly phones a Russian military intelligence officer to tell him that fighters have shot down a plane. In follow-up calls on the same audio recording, separatists appear to realize that the plane they have hit is a civilian aircraft. In one call, Mykalo Kozitsyn, a local Cossack leader whose unit was apparently involved in the attack, expresses frustration: "Well, then it was bringing spies. Why the hell were they flying? There is a war going on."

Bezler has since acknowledged that it is his voice in the first recording, but said he was talking about a different plane.

On July 19, the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv released a statement claiming that U.S. intelligence officials had evaluated the recordings and could authenticate them.

Hindering The Investigation

The plane came down in an area of Donetsk currently controlled by pro-Russian separatists. This has made investigating the crash difficult. On July 21, a full four days after MH17 fell from the sky, the bodies of victims were still waiting in a refrigerated train car in the separatist-controlled town of Torez. The bodies were finally released to territory controlled by the Ukrainian government late on July 21.

Reports from the ground say that armed gunmen have also prevented workers from Ukraine's state emergency service and representatives from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) from gaining full access to the crash site.

And there is still confusion about whether the plane's black box recorders have been found -- and if so, where they are.

Russia, meanwhile, has called for an independent investigation into the crash; but a recording released by the SBU over the weekend, appears to suggest its own interest in hindering international access to important information about MH17.

In the recording below, Aleskandr Khodakovsky, commander of the powerful Vostok separatist battalion, demands that an employee of the "Donetsk People's Republic" find MH17's black-box flight recorders and keep them under "our control." Speaking to another separatist, he says, "Our friends from high above are very interested in the fate of the black boxes. I mean people from Moscow."

Russian Involvement

So why would Russia want to obstruct the investigation?

If -- as seems increasingly likely -- MH17 was shot down by a separatist Buk missile it was almost certainly one provided by Russia. More than that, it stretches credulity that firing the weapon -- which is far more complicated than shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles -- and hitting a target 10,000 meters high could have been accomplished by inexperienced rebels without training or even direct assistance from Moscow.

This is the case that Kyiv itself has been making, with some suggesting that Russians themselves may have been operating the Buk system inside Ukraine.

In an SBU recording, released the day after the attack on MH17, a member of Russia's Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) working with the separatists in eastern Ukraine allegedly confirms with another separatist that a Buk missile launcher has been delivered from Russia, along with a trained crew.

Washington Building Its Own Case

On July 20, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry appeared on American news channels to argue Washington's case that U.S. intelligence shows that Russia-backed separatist fighters shot down MH17.

"We picked up the imagery of this launch," he said in one interview. "We know the trajectory. We know where it came from. We know the timing, and it was exactly at the time that this aircraft disappeared from the radar. We also know from voice identification that the separatists were bragging about shooting it down afterward."

The imagery to which Kerry referred has not been publicly released.

...As Is Russia

On July 21, Moscow began articulating its own case, rejecting the building consensus that pro-Russian separatists had shot down MH17. In a press conference, Andrei Karopolov, of Russia's general staff, claimed that a Ukrainian SU-25 fighter jet equipped with air-to-air missiles had been detected within three to five kilometers of MH17 at the time of the disaster.

Karopolov demanded an explanation, while also claiming Ukraine's own Buk missiles were within striking distance of the plane.

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    Glenn Kates

    Glenn Kates is the former managing editor for digital at Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. He now reports for RFE/RL as a freelancer. 

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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