The wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was still smoldering in the countryside of eastern Ukraine, the remains of the 298 people aboard strewn across several kilometers of rolling fields of wheat and sunflowers, when Russian media began relaying news of a downed plane in the area.
“A fresh victory for the Donetsk rebels: Another Ukrainian plane was shot down in the city of Torez,” the anchorwoman for the Kremlin-loyal network LifeNews told viewers, referring to Russia-backed separatists fighting Kyiv’s forces in the region known as the Donbas:
The shoot-down led the network’s news segment on the evening of July 17, 2014, as the anchorwoman gave details of the separatists’ putative triumph.
“The rebels say they were able to shoot down another transport plane of the Ukrainian Air Force,” she said. “This occurred above the city of Torez in the self-declared Donetsk Republic. It all happened at around 5 p.m. Moscow time. A Ukrainian An-26 was flying, and suddenly it was struck by a missile, an explosion was heard, and the plane began to fall.”
The plane, of course, was not a Ukrainian military aircraft. It was MH17, from whose fuselage thick black smoke was streaming into the summer sky in the amateur footage broadcast by LifeNews.
The segment is part of a patchwork of evidence -- including news reports, social-media posts, and witness accounts -- showing that the Russia-backed separatists initially believed they had shot down an enemy aircraft -- and even boasted about doing so -- before the scale of the tragedy became clear. The victims – adults and children on a routine Boeing 777 flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur -- included citizens of 17 countries.
An international criminal investigation has since concluded that MH17 was shot down by a surface-to-air Buk missile from Russia’s 53rd Antiaircraft Missile Brigade that was fired from territory held by the Russia-backed separatists. Last month, Dutch prosecutors announced murder charges against three Russian nationals and one Ukrainian for their alleged roles in the crime.
Both Russia and the separatist leadership deny involvement in the downing of MH17, despite the compelling evidence presented by Dutch prosecutors.
Here’s a look back at those brief few hours five years ago when the separatists -- in concert with Kremlin-friendly Russian media -- took credit for shooting down the plane that turned out to be MH17.
'A Birdie Fell'
The most famous claim came in a pro-separatist forum on the Russian social-networking site VKontakte that frequently reposted dispatches from the war in eastern Ukraine from Igor Girkin (aka Strelkov), a former Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) officer who served as a separatist commander at the time MH17 was downed.
At 5:50 p.m. Moscow time on July 17, 2014 -- around 30 minutes after air-traffic controllers lost contact with MH17 -- a post was published in the VKontakte forum under the headline “message from the resistance.”
"In the area of Torez, we have just shot down an An-26 airplane" -- an Antonov military transport plane. It added, "We warned them -- don't fly 'in our sky,'" and said no civilians were injured after the “birdie fell.”
The post included two videos showing the black smoke from MH17 pouring out of the wreckage. The preview stills visible in archived versions of the now-deleted post show that one of the videos featured the same footage aired in the LifeNews report.
The post has frequently been attributed -- probably erroneously -- to Strelkov himself. As Bellingcat researcher Aric Toler notes, it was most likely published by "fans" of the separatist commander.
The post was scrubbed once it became clear that the plane in question was a civilian airliner. It was replaced by another saying that the report was reposted from a forum in which “locals and rebels socialize” and that Strelkov “does not confirm” its accuracy.
The other video included in the original post is still available on YouTube. In it, bystanders off camera are heard discussing how a plane was “shot down.” One man says, “They brought it here for a reason,” though it’s unclear specifically what he is referring to.
Dutch prosecutors have concluded that MH17 was shot down by a Buk missile system brought in from Russia and taken back across the border shortly after the deadly incident.
In an interview published nearly two years after the downing of MH17, French photographer Jerome Sessini described in an interview how he ended up at the crash site to snap a series of images that earned him a World Press Photo award.
On the day of the tragedy, Sessini recalled in the interview with the World Press Photo Foundation, he was contacted by a spokesperson for the Russia-backed separatists.
“He said first: ‘We shot down a military plane from Ukraine,’ and for me it was like he was giving us...information to cover this,” Sessini recalled.
Sessini said he received a call from a fellow journalist 15 minutes later as he was heading toward the site of the downed plane.
“He said: ‘They shot down a civilian plane in Ukraine. Where are you?’ And I asked: ‘Are you sure it’s civilian?’ And he said: ‘Yeah, yeah, we have the confirmation.’ He said: ‘Malaysian Airlines plane with 200 people on board.’ I couldn’t believe it. It was so horrible.”
Reached by telephone recently, Sessini declined to be interviewed about this interaction with the separatist representative, saying he has already given a public account. But he told RFE/RL that the phone call was fielded by the fixer he was traveling with and whose name he couldn’t recall. RFE/RL was unable to identify the fixer.
The Donetsk separatists’ press office initially tweeted that an airplane – "presumably an An-26 of the Ukrainian Air Force" -- had crashed in the area where, it later became clear, MH17 was downed.
The tweet did not indicate a cause for the crash. After news of the MH17 crash emerged, the press office on Twitter accused “foreign bosses” of downing the plane.
'If It Was A Passenger Plane, We Didn’t Do It'
In addition to LifeNews, Russian state news agencies also initially reported that the separatists had shot down a Ukrainian An-26 in the area that turned out to be the MH17 crash site.
The initial reports by RIA Novosti and TASS both cited local witnesses as saying that the separatists had shot down the plane with a missile.
“We saw how the missile struck it, giving off an explosion, and the airplane fell to the ground leaving black smoke behind it. Some of the wreckage was falling from the sky,” RIA Novosti quoted a witness as saying.
The initial LifeNews report published on its website gave a nearly identical account – but rather than local witnesses, it cited the separatists themselves as saying they had shot down a Ukrainian An-26.
All three of these initial reports noted that separatist forces had shot down a Ukrainian An-26 three days earlier in the Luhansk region, which is adjacent to Donetsk and is also partially held by the Russia-backed separatists.
RIA Novosti’s updates to the story became increasingly muddled after it emerged that MH17 crashed in the same area where the separatists said they had shot down the Ukrainian plane -- giving the impression that two aircraft had gone down. There is no evidence of a second plane at the MH17 crash site.
As the separatists began denying any involvement in the downing of MH17, one of their leaders, Russian nationalist Aleksandr Borodai, told RIA Novosti, “If it really was a passenger airliner, then we didn’t do it.”
Video from the MH17 crash site obtained and released by Australian media on the one-year anniversary of the tragedy shows separatist fighters sorting through the wreckage and appearing surprised that it was a civilian airliner.
In the video, they also put forth a theory that they did, in fact, down a plane -- but that it was a Ukrainian Sukhoi Air Force fighter that had shot down the Malaysia Airlines plane.
“They say the Sukhoi brought down the civilian plane, and ours brought down the fighter,” a commander at the scene says, according to a transcript of the video by News Corp Australia, which obtained the video that it says was smuggled out of eastern Ukraine and had been provided to the investigators.
Part of the video appears to have been released by the separatists to the BBC in the days immediately after MH17 was shot down.
The original post in the pro-separatist VKontakte forum also said that “there is information about a second downed airplane, apparently a [Sukhoi],” but it did not elaborate. Dutch prosecutors say they have conclusively ruled out the possibility that MH17 was shot down by another aircraft.
'From The Ukrainian Side'
The independent Russian newspaper Novaya gazeta said that based on its own information, separatist command contacted journalists it was in close contact with shortly after the downing of MH17 and boasted about the downing of a Ukrainian aircraft as a military victory.
Following its initial broadcast trumpeting the separatists’ purported downing of a Ukrainian military plane, LifeNews -- widely seen as having close links with Russia’s security services -- quickly shifted its narrative once its reporter became one of the first journalists at the crash site.
During her interview with the correspondent from the studio as reports of the MH17 crash came in, the LifeNews anchor makes no mention of the Ukrainian An-26 that was supposedly shot down.
The correspondent says it’s “not so hard to determine that it was a civilian airliner,” noting the Malaysian and Dutch passports strewn at the scene.
He says that “preliminary information, according to the rebels,” is that the plane was shot down by a missile “from the Ukrainian side.”
“All of this information is preliminary and will be checked,” he says. “It’s possible that it really was shot down by Ukrainian air defense forces from Buks.”