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MH17: Re-evaluating the tragedy after the ceasefire

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Despite Russia's repeated denial of involvement in supporting the activities of Russian separatists in Ukraine, the bounds of credibility have been stretched beyond breaking point after recent events, write Euromaidan supporters Andrew Olexander and Vitalii Usenko.

Giving peace yet another chance is something Ukrainians and the EU have become very used to. Yesterday’s Minsk Accord is the second attempt at a ceasefire in Ukraine, and the third or fourth attempt of some description in the last nine months. Regardless of whether this new accord leads to a genuine cessation of hostilities, the EU, NATO and Washington have been taking another look at the MH17 tragedy, in the light of the massive escalation of hostilities in Ukraine – and clear evidence of a direct Russian military presence there

The Accord comes soon after a recent violent escalation of Russian military and terrorist activity in eastern Ukraine has once more placed the issue of who was responsible for the downing of MH17 over the fields of Donetsk in Ukraine into sharp focus. Both the international community and the Ukrainian Government are examining the newest evidence.

The ramping up of the war in Ukraine, which includes the complete destruction of Donetsk Airport, bombardment of civilian transport and the shelling of the City of Mariupol has been confirmed by Security Bureau of Ukraine (SBU) to have been undertaken by both Russian military and separatist elements in Ukraine using heavy artillery and multiple missile launch systems of Russian origin. SBU detained two terrorists involved in shelling of Mariupol neighborhood on February 2, 2015. The indiscriminate loss of life has shocked Ukraine, Europe and the world.

In the township of Volnovakha the lives of 13 civilians were lost when a commuter bus was shelled by Russian terrorists near a Ukrainian Government check-point on 13 January 2015.

On the 22 January, at least eight civilians were killed and seven injured as a result of heavy mortar shelling of a trolleybus in Donetsk City. On 24 January, 67 civilian buildings, four schools and three kindergartens came under sustained bombardment by Russian backed terrorists using Russian supplied Grad multiple rocket launch systems. So far, 30 civilians have been confirmed killed and 105 wounded in Mariupol.

The pressing question of direct Russian military involvement and participation has arisen again. Stormy sessions in the European Parliament and the united Nations Security Council have shown compelling evidence that not only are regular Russian Federation troops present deep inside Ukraine, but they are directly responsible for these atrocities and war crimes.

Even those in the west who have given Vladimir Putin the benefit of the doubt (in response to his repeated denials of involvement), are now actively questioning how a rag-tag group of "civilian separatists" could possibly get hold of such complicated heavy military hardware and be able to operate it to such devastating effect without professional military technicians being involved? The bounds of credibility have been stretched beyond breaking point in the light of recent events.

The Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko who recently visited Australia has declared after Mariupol shelling:

"... civilised countries must further unite in efforts and stop the spread of the terrorist threat. The so called ‘Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples Republics’ must be recognized for what they are — they are terrorist organizations. And it is time to call their Russian Federation patrons by name. Isn’t assistance to terrorists, the supply of weapons, equipment and well-trained manpower — isn't this direct support of terrorism which is visible to the entire world?”

Valeriy Chaly, the deputy head of the Presidential Administration, reiterated the president's call when she said:

"The shelling of Mariupol is a shocking terrorist act, the same as the shelling of the bus near Volnovakha and the trolleybus in Donetsk, as well as the elimination of the MH-17 aircraft. Humiliation and tortures of Ukrainian warriors by the so-called DPR violate all civilised rules of treatment of war prisoners. These actions have put DPR in line with ISIL terrorists.” 

These recent atrocities have forced investigating authorities in Europe to pay special attention to the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, another alleged war crime which led to the deaths amongst many, of 38 innocent Australians. A re-evaluation is currently underway.

NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, stated on January 24, without equivocation:

“For several months we have seen the presence of Russian forces in eastern Ukraine, as well as a substantial increase in Russian heavy equipment such as tanks, artillery and advanced air defense systems. Russian troops in eastern Ukraine are supporting these offensive operations with command and control systems, air defense systems with advanced surface-to-air missiles, unmanned aerial systems, advanced multiple rocket launcher systems, and electronic warfare systems.”

U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe, on 22 January alleged asserted that NATO had detected signs of heightened Russian involvement in fighting in parts of eastern Ukraine.

As more clarity appeared, on 27 January, 2014 the Ukrainian Parliament (Verkhovna Rada) has recognised Russia as a country aggressor and made the first step in procedure of recognition the so-called Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) and Lugansk People's Republic as terrorist organisations. The Ukrainian Parliament urged foreign Parliaments and international organisations to also recognise Russia as a country aggressor and the so-called People's Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk as terrorist organisations.

The next day, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in its resolution, on January 28, 2015

'... condemned the illegal annexation of Crimea and its continuing integration into the Russian Federation.'

It also condemned Russia’s role in

'... instigating and escalating developments in Ukraine, including with arms supplies to insurgent forces and covert military action by Russian troops inside eastern Ukraine.'

On 5 February 2015, the defeat of an entire Russian Army tank group near Debaltseve (Donetsk region) occurred. The consolidated Russian tank unit of 16 tanks was destroyed by the Ukrainian Army. This provides more strong evidence of direct Russian involvement.

Investigations within and outside Ukraine have been uncovering even more compelling evidence of Russian Military involvement inside Ukraine, including of alleged Russian Federation involvement in the downing Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.

As early as last year, on October 19, 2014, Germany's foreign intelligence agency (BND) said in its review of the crash of MH17 in Ukraine that it had concluded the flight was brought down by a missile fired by pro-Russian separatists near Donetsk. BND President Gerhard Schindler said his agency had come up with unambiguous findings. He also announced that Russian claims the missile had been fired by Ukrainian soldiers and that a Ukrainian fighter jet had been flying close to the passenger jet were false.

"It was pro-Russian separatists”, Schindler said of the crash, “which involved the deaths of four German citizens”.

But still, since that time Russian President Vladimir Putin has assiduously dodged the key questions asked by experts and journalists everywhere. How can a Russian BUK missile system be operated by civilians without specialist technical training? How did the terrorists get hold of such complex military hardware in the first place? How did this complex Russian BUK missile system come to be deep inside Ukrainian territory? How was the BUK missile system transported out of Ukraine and into Russia to leave no trace? Who actually operated the BUK anti-aircraft missile system responsible for downing the MH17 flight?

The BUK missile system is a family of self-propelled, medium-range surface-to-air missile systems developed by the Soviet Union and its successor state, the Russian Federation, and designed to fight cruise missiles, smart bombs, fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft, and unmanned aerial vehicles.

The BUK is a mobile, radar-guided surface to air missile (SAM) missile system with four main components – acquisition and targeting radars, a command element, missile launchers, and a logistics element – all mounted on tracked vehicles.

You can see the description and characteristics of the BUK system at the manufacturer’s site — the BUK is a complex weapon.

Even a cursory look at a photo of  a BUK control panel of only the firing unit tells even the layman, that civilian separatists in eastern Ukraine would almost certainly have no idea how to operate it properly.

As military experts say, the BUK is a highly complex and deadly system, its mastery requires continuous training. During the Soviet era, it took five years for soldiers to learn how to operate the guided missile system.

Recently, major investigative work was done by German journalists from Corectiv and published in the German analytical journal Der Spiegel under the title 'Death Flight MH-17'. The investigation is alleged to have unveiled a clear chain of evidence that MH17 was downed by a ground-launched BUK missile launched by a unit of the 53rd Russian Air Defense Brigade from Kursk, Russia. The brigade unit, tasked with protecting Russian tank units inside Ukraine, was allegedly operating in mid July 2014 on Ukrainian territory in secret without displaying national Russian Federation insignia. Corectiv! journalists revealed evidence of the BUK’s path from Russia, across eastern Ukraine where it was allegedly used to down Flight MH17.

There is a second piece of evidence discovered by another international investigative team. Bellingcat.com is led by the relatively young journalist Eliot Higgins. His method is to forensically investigate the traces that an event leaves on the internet. Photos, videos, posts in social networks and the like are systematically combed to build a factual chain of events. Higgins has shown that digging around in the depths of the internet can lead to stunning revelations. Among other things, Bellingcat was allegedly able to recently uncover secret arms shipments in Syria and reconstruct a poison gas attack using these methods.

Higgins allegedly traced the BUK system, starting from Kursk in Russia, all the way to Snizhne in the Donetsk region of Ukraine. This was the launch site where everyone agrees the ground-to-air rocket was launched to down Flight MH17. The village of Snizhne was and is in territory controlled by Russian backed separatists. Bellingcat says it was able to identify the 53rd Russian Air Brigade from Kursk as the specifc unit which commands the soldiers who launched the deadly missile at Flight MH17.

Journalists from the Guardian and Buzzfeed visited Torez, a small town in the Donetsk region on 22 July and interviewed locals who are reported to have confirmed both the time and route the BUK missile launcher took through Torez on the way to Snizhne along the H21 motorway in Ukraine, connecting Torez and Snizhne.

Another investigation of MH17 was conducted by Ukrainian military experts. They analysed "geotagged" photos and videos with coordinates from Google Maps to reproduce the path of the same BUK missile unit from Russia to Ukraine. They claim to have proven that, on 17 July, a Russian convoy had arrived in Ukraine which transported the BUK that shot down Malasian MK17. The evidence is said to show that at 13:30 the BUK system entered the city Snizhne. The convoy is alleged to have consisted of three tanks, two BTRs, a truck with militia, a truck with a heavy machine gun and a loader transporting the BUK. The same "geotagging" method was used to allegedly track the Russian transport of the BUK that shot down MH17 and its path out of Ukraine.

The Dutch Safety Board have still not published their official conclusions on MH17. Their preliminary report was published on 9 September 2014 and commits to publish their final report within one year of the date of the crash. Some scant preliminary information on the investigation was published in December 2014 by the Security Bureau of Ukraine (SBU) and the International investigative team.

Ukraine is a small and friendly ally of Australia in Europe. We Ukrainians mourn hand in hand with Australia over this atrocity. Ukrainians hope and pray that those responsible for what we consider to be a war crime are brought to swift justice. I know that we join Australians in their hope that all of the new data and evidence which has arisen since the Dutch international investigation commenced will be thoroughly evaluated in our common quest for truth and justice to prevail, to prevent such an outrage occurring again and to help provide closure and solace for the families and friends of the innocent victims of Flight MH17.

Dr Vitalii Usenko is an expert on psychology of communications at the Centre of Military-Political Studies (CMPS) in Kiev. Andrew Olexander is the Director of the Ukrainian World Network in Australia.

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