This blogpost is the second part of a series that I will publish in the last months before the MH17 trial starts, on March 9, 2020. It will review important parts of the evidence as publically disseminated or (implicitly) endorsed by the JIT. As social media and open source intelligence (OSINT) played a pivotal role, first part of the series contained an assessment of the OSINT method the JIT also seemed to have embraced.
The research presented in later parts of the series will reveal how the “main scenario” the JIT worked with was framed, how the OSINT evidence came about, who were involved and how the Dutch Safety Board investigations supported the scenario.
It seems most if not all evidence ultimately arrived from a special unit, partly operating overtly and partly covertly, tied to the Ministry for the Interior and the organization that politically resorts under it, the Ukrainian secret service SBU.
part 2: Strange Ways
The narrative of an alleged Russian Buk trail through the Donbass to a perceived launchsite and then back to Russia was ready-made from a few written messages, pictures and videos that were disseminated on social media. More than once the way how this alleged evidence in the MH17 case was popping up, showed some bizar aspects.
To tell the stories behind the construction of the narrative, one could start with discussing two videos allegedly posted by “ordinary citizens”, a photo allegedly taken by a freelance photographer for the French magazine Paris Match and an anonymous eyewitness account from an Associated Press reporter. We have at hand two social media sources which allegedly provided spontaneous, authentic, bottom-up information from civilians and two reporters from two well respected and widely trusted western media organizations. So at first glance all these sources were unsuspected, which might have made a fine start for OSINT gatherers like Bellingcat to use.
These stories convey some insights into the question how social media was used as a cleaning layer to support the impression only “ordinary people” were involved in the dissemination of the points of information that could be used to fill in the blanks towards a desired narrative. They also shed some light on some of the important players in the middle, the bloggers, OSINT gatherers and representatives from the (pro-)western mass media. Finally, one might get a glimpse of the way how western journalist sources retreated from openness to anonimity, playing their part in the OSINT information relay of the nameless evidence that was bubbling up from the infinite container of presumed neutral information, the world wide web.
2.1 Dajey Petros, the SBU and the videos from Zuhres and Snizhne
On July 17, 2014, influential pro-Kiev blogger Ukraine@war aka Dajey Petros, @djp3tros, now Putin@war, all aliases of Dutch citizen Peter Martin (or Peter Scheele), received a tweet written by @3Andryu. To the tweet a video was attached that showed a little convoy of two cars and a truck seemingly hauling a Buk launcher. They were passing by Zuhres, a city between Donetsk and Snizhne.
Petros didn’t retweet or reupload the video at that time, a few hours after MH17 was shot down. However, he did post a blog, dated the 17th, in which he showed three pictures, or video stills, of an alleged Buk convoy. Two stills showed, respectively, a tank and an armoured truck carrying separatists. Those have been identified as vehicles that travelled in a convoy of the “Vostok” battalion.
The battalion was a voluntary unit of local fighters assisted by veterans originating from “the East”, that is, Chechenia and Ossetia, led by former SBU officer Alexander Khodakovsky and – as rumours went – financed by Donbass based oligarch Rinat Akhmetov. This small convoy of three tanks, an armoured truck and some cars drove from Donetsk to Marynivka on the 17th., as could be testified by a series of videos from the movement.
The movement of the Vostok Convoy on July 17th, 2014: from their base in the eastern outskirts of Donetsk towards Marynivka at the frontline. The Buk went allegedly on its way from Donetsk by 11 AM, also drove on the N21 (after Makiivka) and should have passed the Vostok convoy between Zuhres and Shakhtarsk, according to the official timeline.
Third still was interesting. This still displayed the truck with Buk, driving at the same site as the stills of the Vostok convoy showed, on the N21 passing by Zuhres. It was likely a still from the video that was sent by @3Andryu to Petros. Petros wrote (apparently in a hurry, I corrected his many typos):
“On 17/7 at about 13:30 a Russian convoy entered the city [of] Snizhne in Ukraine which transported the BUK that shot down Malaysian MH17. This convoy consisted of 3 tanks, 2 BTRs, a truck with militia, a truck with a heavy machine gun and a loader transporting the BUK.”
The three stills as published by Ukraine@war, InfoResistance and the SBU: Two stills of a tank and a Ural from the convoy Vostok and one from the Buk.
So Petros suggested that this was a bigger convoy containing a Buk. However, there were more than one discrepancies with reality. First, the footage of the Vostok movement on that day did not show the Buk. In 2015 Petros wrote another blog in which he argued the Buk – which would have departed more than an hour later from Donetsk than the Vostok battalion, [as Micha Kobs showed in his elaborate report Hunt the BUK ] – would have actually passed the Vostok convoy somewhere between Zuhres and Shakhtarsk.
Because reporters from Russia Today and a separatist cameraman were joining the movement, Petros accused RT of surpressing the truth. As the story of the stealth Buk that was moved secretly from Donetsk to Snizhne through a densely populated area in broad daylight was irrational, maybe there was another explanation for the Buk missing on clear videos made alongside the road. Perhaps a Buk had not been there at all and the Zuhres Buk video had another date or was a fake.
Also contrary to the actual Vostok movement there was a report of two BTR’s (Russian Armed Personnel Carriers) and a truck with a machine gun mounted on it, a KAMAZ, an easy recognizable and unique Vostok vehicle. Those were not on the road that day, but did participate in a parade through Donetsk on July 10th.
Dmytro Tymchuk, ultranationalist Ukrainian politician and defense expert, also reported the same movement in a FaceBook posting, though his description of the big terrorist convoy showed a slightly different variation from Petros’s description. In his version a second truck that carried a gun had trailed the Buk (see screengrab below).
Even before the crash Tymchuk had reuploaded a video of the July 10th Vostok parade in Donetsk, as did pro-Kiev propaganda channel Euromaydan [see Hunt the Buk]. On FaceBook the Euromaydan account administrators also amended a midday report from “locals” about a Buk moving from Torez to Snizhne – probably relayed by Buk sighting tweeter @WowihaY (see part 3 of this blogpost series). They added the phrase “accompanied with machines and terrorists”. With this they probably alluded to a convoy matching their reupload of the July 10th Vostok battalion video.
Salient was that the SBU still suggested existence of a Vostok-Buk convoy in a July 19th press conference presented by counter intelligence chief Viktor Nayda, where the same three stills of the Vostok vehicles and the Buk were shown [see this documentary by Chris Nolan, from min. 34:30]. A few days had passed by after MH17 was shot down and yet the SBU was still publically clinging to the idea of the Buk-that-went-with-Vostok story.
However, in the evening of July 17 advisor for the Interior Ministry, Anton Gerashchenko, posted on FaceBook an account of all movements from that day, separating the Buk from the Vostok convoy, this was kind of remarkable. Now official channels had issued two versions of the Buk convoy, one with the Buk travelling in the Vostok convoy and one without the Buk in this convoy.
It would appear some people from within the SBU had been conveying information to trusted sources like Euromaydan and Dmytro Tymchuk. InfoResistance (a hardline propaganda network founded by Tymchuk) claimed they had received “operational information”, suggesting the non-existing convoy comprising Buk and Vostok vehicles had been monitored.
When the so called “Khmuryi Motel tapes” were published, also on the 18th [source and translations], a lead showed up. Apparently, according to a few calls that were intercepted by the SBU, second in command of the DPR forces Sergey Dubinski alias “Khmuryi” had spoken with the Vostok battalion subcommander San Sanych on 9:23 AM in the morning of the 17th.
In their call they had agreed to move the “you know what” (read: Buk) together with the Vostok convoy vehicles. In reality half an hour after this agreement the Vostok battalion departed without the Buk [see Hunt the Buk, p.29], which allegedly was parked on a road where someone captured it on video an hour later on about 11:05. (It was from this video two stills were handed over to Paris Match, who published them a week later; see section 2.2). The Buk, if it existed, did not go with the Vostok convoy. Yet providers of “operational information” told propaganda outlets it did.
Going back to Ukraine@war July 17th blogpost, Petros claimed that he received the stills and the information about the convoy from InfoResistance.
As a matter of fact the InfoResistance article was dated on the 18th, about 8:30 AM, half a day after the Ukraine@war blog was dated. However, as the Ukraine@war blog with the link to InfoResistance only was archived on a webarchive service for the first time in the evening of the 18th., it is possible his blog actually was written on the 18th. Another explanation might be that he also received the stills straight from the SBU – as InfoResistance probably did – and later sourced it as received from InfoResistance to cover this up.
Top: screenshot original 18.7 InfoResistance article with the still from the Zuhres video.
Bottom: July 17th Ukraine@war blog with the same still and the link to InfoResistance. However this blogpost was dated a day before the InfoResistance article was published.
Only showing a still from the Zuhres Buk video, apparently Petros had decided not to disseminate the entire video, which was given on a silver platter by @3Andryu, even with coordinates attached. @3Andryu changed his twitter handle and sent the video again to Petros on the 22nd of July, using the handle @m_a_s_h_ua. [see full report social media evidence, part I, The Zuhres video]
Through some helper it also arrived at the desk of Bellingcat’s Eliot Higgins, who started discussing it with Petros (see screenshot below).
Intriguingly, in this conversation Petros said he thought the video was possibly faked because of digital artefacts spotted around the cars. Nevertheless, he caved in easily after he was convinced by Higgins because it matched the timeline. Higgins simply didn’t entertain the possibility that the images were manipulated or fake.
The question remains why Petros didn’t publish the video immediately but instead only published a still, as it does not seem plausible he did not recognize that the Zuhres still was a screengrab from the video sent to him by @3Andryu. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact the Zuhres video did not show the large convoy, consisting of the “Vostok” vehicles and the Buk.
In a later blogpost from 2015 Petros stated this video was “released by the SBU at that time”. It is possible he got the stills from the SBU or he thought that the provider of the stills to InfoResistance was the SBU.
Anyway, the anonymous maker of the videos of the alleged Buk transport and the Vostok convoy never himself directly published the images from the Vostok convoy, with which the SBU, InfoResistance, Tymchuk and Petros concocted a Buk convoy accompanied by Vostok vehicles.
Therefore, we can conclude that the anonymous person both had provided the SBU with the Vostok imagery and the Buk video as well, and he was in direct contact with the SBU as one of their “spotters” along the N21, the main road from Donetsk to Snizhne. The reason why he also decided to disseminate the video through Petros and social media, is unclear, though it could have had something to do with the magic of social media, or simply as implied by Petros, with the SBU covertly injecting the information.
In relation to Dajey Petros (alias Peter Martin) there already was a smell of suspicion that he was in contact with the SBU. This suspicion did not become any weaker when he issued a high-resolution version of the video of a Buk driving on its own power on the T0522 south of Snizhne, the Vita V. video. This high-resolution imagery was never open sourced before he published it.
Vita V. lived in Snizhne in an appartment with a view on the south, the Savur Mohyla area, where heavy fights took place on those days. On the 15th she had posted a photo of a bombing of Saurivka, a village south of Snizhne, on the site of the VK.com group “Overheard in Snizhne”. The photo was taken from the exact same point of view as the video of the Buk. Investigation by Max van der Werff on site confirmed the location of the appartment and its point of view. By then Vita had moved – or was evacuated – to Wilnius, Lithuania in August 2014.
Just before 20:33 local time, 4 hours after the crash, she posted a link to the video on “Overheard in Snizhne”. Intriguingly the channel in which the video was posted – entitled the Balodya Familiev YouTube account – was opened on July 17th, 12:27 local time, which can be established by looking at metadata using a socalled API query. This was more than an hour BEFORE the Buk was allegedly captured on video, according to the official timing of the video (after 13:30 local time). The question is why Vita, who could have been informed a Buk was on its way, only posted the video after the crash and not right away. Why open a channel in a hurry and not post the video at the same time?
Title was chosen carefully: “The murder weapon of the Malaysians in Snizhne” (Орудие убийства малайзийцев Снежное). Finally, the original video was deleted at about 21:37 and the channel was never be used again. By then it was secured that Eliot Higgins, Euromaydan, Torez.info and many others had reuploaded copies, with low resolution and cropped differently to the original.
One of the earliest copies that is still available on YouTube was posted on 21:01 local time. It showed the original portrait format (Higgins and others reuploaded a landscape format), but it was posted with another caption, “Buk in Snizhne region”, in a resolution of 720×408. The Petros version of 1440px seemed to have been closer to the original, probably made on a mobile phone. As Micha Kobs explained to me:
“It seems the resolution depends on the way you download [the Ukraine@war version]. YouTube internally tries its best and the player provides 1080p best. [YouTube converts uploaded videos to a range of different formats; HR]
When you use a downloader that can access the API then you suddenly get a much higher resolution seemingly: 2560×1440.
As soon as the download starts and the downloader receives data from the video, the downloader realizes that there is a lot of black to fill the empty “landscape”. So it ends up with actual image information of 1440 x 816 pixel. It doesn’t matter if landscape or portrait because the difference is just a turned mobile.
“The format thing is a little tricky. U@W uploaded a video with the height of 1440px but I don’t know if this might be an upper YT limit at that time. However, the video ist 90° turned and subtracting the black borders you end up with a 1440×816 format. This is quite unusual since 16:9 would be 1440×810 and 8:5 would be 1440×900. I suspect that the original video was a FullHD 90° turned and YT converted it to a max possible height and added the black.
The second video [from Dya Dya Petya, the video posted on YT on 21:01; HR] seems to be a 720×408 and then converts to an upscaled 1440×816 (the same unusual format). Maybe this 816 gives a hint on the camera/mobile used. However, Ukraine@war appears to be much closer to the original file while the second might be downloaded and reuploaded at YT.”
If Ukraine@war’s copy had been “close to the original”, it could not only entail that he had contacts with the SBU (Ukrainian secret service), who possibly supplied him with the video on the evening of the crash. But also the maker of this video, Vita V., was in direct contact with the SBU, as she provided them with the video (Of course another possibility is that Vita was in direct contact with Petros or with Petros and the SBU at the same time, as Andrey A. also had been). Anyway, Martin (alias Petros) gave some evasive answers to questions how he had managed to download a high resolution version – as can be seen in the replies to his tweet.
The most important conclusion is that the odds are pretty high that both videomakers, the persons who made the Zuhres and Snizhne videos, were in direct contact with the SBU. Like reconnaissance volunteers they monitored their surroundings in the war zone and handed over the visual material they captured of what was going on to the appropiate people.
Ukraine@war thought the Zuhres video showed strange artefacts. The Snizhne video showed a unzoomed Buk that did not seem to be the focus of the videomaker, as the focus seemed to be on the horizon showing plumes of dark smoke. In a blogpost presented I provided a possible alternative for the date of the Snizhne video, based on origins of the black smoke plumes [see my blogpost].
The only thing we know for sure is that the videos and stills were published for the first time on the evening of the 17th. We don’t know if the original recordings have been made on an earlier date or if they were templates just to be used to “Photoshopping” in a fake Buk [see also the work by Sergey Mastepanov]. In an age of deep fakes and with suspicion that the SBU was somehow involved (what this means we shall see later on in part 3), we should not dismiss these options right away. It seems the JIT did, as they never doubted publically the authenticity of the social media/OSINT stuff that comprised the Buk trail through the Donbass.
Part 2.2: The strange sourcing of the Paris Match and Makiivka imagery
The story behind the imagery of a truck and a trailer with a Buk standing on a road in Donetsk, the images that French magazine Paris Match published, is a very remarkable part of the official narrative of the Buk trail. For instance, place, time and source of the photos were all changed along the way. Furthermore, in their September 2016 press conference the JIT revealed they had possession of a video. What were thought to be “photos” happened to be frames from the video.
In a tweet on July 25th, 2014, Alfred de Montesquiou, reporter for Paris Match, broke the story, claiming they had photos that showed the Buk entering Snizhne (see below). Actually, the imagery showed a location in Donetsk, as was subsequently discovered. Blogger Ukraine@war commissioned himself to revise the location changing it from Snizhne to Donetsk, after he sent someone with a car who found the exact spot. [source]. So that matter was taken care of very quickly.
The time of capture of the video was a big issue as well. The Paris Match “photo” was taken 6 hrs before the crash, so around 10:20 AM, De Montesquiou tweeted. After the site was revisioned by Petros, the timing was also changed. David Clinch from Storyful replied after questions he had sent to PM with a time of about 11 ‘o clock.
Bellingcat first claimed 9 AM (8.9.2014), followed by 11 AM (8.11.2014) and then revised it finally to 10:45 AM (16.7.2015). Based on shadow casting calculations Micha Kobs arrived convincingly at 11:05 in his report “Haunt the Buk”, p. 45, published on this webblog.
The troubles with the sourcing of this alleged evidence is of special interest here. In the first instance, the source would be a photographer who wanted to remain anonymous. The story was that he or she had made two photos in Snizhne, see also the conversations below in which Belingcat’s Daniel Romein and Aric Toler play their part.
After the JIT press conference of September 28th, 2016, the story was that the freelance photographer/journalist (was actually no longer mentioned as such, but designation had not been changed) had shot a handycam video. Eventually, timing of the video was mentioned in the name of its file: 10:23:54 AM [as the filename was vid_20140717_102354.mp4″]. De Montesquiou’s source had been right all along. However, this time did not match at all the thorough shadow casting analysis by Kobs.
Anyway, Toler and Romein were fooled twice. They did not really know the source of the images and they hadn’t known there was an entire video, as they kept on mentioning there was a “photographer” who had made “snaps”.
After the JIT presser Toler gloated about the report by Micha Kobs, as mentioned before published on this blogsite, because Kobs had provided reasons to question the authenticity of the stills [see from p. 72]. But now it happened to be a video, cheered Toler – as if a video was not comprised of a series of separate images. Nevertheless, this showed how Bellingcat had tied itself to the JIT narrative. Whenever critical reviews and counter evidence showed up, Bellingcat members did not try to discuss it, but would start to ridicule, insult or completely block the contender from social media and from the comments section at the bellingcat web site.
On July 1, 2017, Dutch news program Nieuwsuur broadcasted a short interview (see from min. 11:00 here) with the French photographer Capucine Granier-Deferre, which revealed that she only HAD SEEN the video on the 17th of July – and apparently received the stills later.
According to the voice-over: “The video maker doesn’t know what he just has seen and walks into the Ramada Hotel“. (The suggestion is this source was only a naive bystander and not part of a SBU job to provide western journalists with – possibly fake – information; HR). There he found the small group of French journalists: Alfred de Montesquiou, Jérôme Sessini and Capucine Granier-Deferre.
Deferre (at least as naive): “I didn’t pay much attention to it at first. He showed it and said: Look, there are lying huge rockets overthere. We were about to leave so I didn’t do anything with it. “
[screenshot Capucine Granier-Deferre] He showed it and said: “Look, you all, there are lying huge rockets overthere”
This story shows possible leads for the earlier stated incorrect indications of place and time. Time for a bit speculation: Deferre was contacted by an unknown source, possibly a covert intel operative, when she was at Hotel Ramada’s in Donetsk. The source apparently knew where he could find a group of western journalists. He showed the French the video and provided a story, presumably something like: “Something with large missiles on its way to Snizhne”. Only a week later De Montesquiou passes on the images and the misinterpretation of the destination location, Snizhne, as the location where the video was shot.
I wondered earlier how it could happen that a journalist would not have known where he or she photographed the transport, as could be concluded from stating the wrong location on the stills made from the video. That question was answered. The photographer never took the shots, but was ‘fed’ with it, together with information about the destination of the complex.
Deferre was not alarmed, so that’s why the stills only popped up after a week. In the interview she had ample time to correct the mistakes made at first. Deferre’s testimony sounded as if she read from a list of official statements:
“This was on the morning of the 17th. The video was filmed in Donetsk. But on that moment I didn’t give it any attention. The photo in Paris Match was a still from this video on which one could see the Buk-missiles in the morning of the 17th in Donetsk.”
Some people tried to fill in the blanks: the provider must have been their driver. While there is absolutely no indication to conclude this, it would also be a really strange coincidence that it was the driver of western journalists who made this important visual evidence of the Buk in Donetsk. Anyway, in the many contacts between an alleged driver and the French along the trips they would have made, there could not have been persisting any doubts about time and place of the recording. It is more likely Deferre saw this source only once or twice.
It probably was someone who was surveilling the white truck with the red lowloader – as he seems to get his camera ready right in time before passing by. If true, we could assume he drove by for the second time or with foreknowledge, as he obviously had to know where the truck was parked to capture it on time.
Salient is he also knew where to “sell” his story of a vehicle with large missiles going to Snizhne. We should remember, at about 10-11 AM this was information about an event that had not happened yet – as the Buk entered Snizhne, according to the rest of the trail story, at about 1 PM! If the speculation about the origin of the wrong site proves to be true, then how did he know it went to Snizhne, some 70 km further away? An educated guess or insider information?
2.3 The Makiivka imagery: planned and coordinated dissemination?
Om May 12, 2016, Bellingcat announced that two of its biggest Twitter supporters, @AmishJihadi and @loondale – fierce watchers of the #MH17 hashtag on twitter to attack dissenters of the Bellingcat narrative – had found a new video of the Buk transport, as it was driving through Makiivka. The video appeared to have been published on a YouTube channel opened by someone named Ivan Oliferenko, a channel that – again, as was also true the Zuhres and Snizhne videos – was used for one time publication only.
The video was heavily degraded in quality, but it appeared to prove that the Buk previously seen waiting in Donetsk for hours, had actually made its way to Makiivka, the city east from Donetsk. A large sigh of relief was heard from the Bellingcat bureaus, as they had bought satellite imagery somewhat north from the road on which the Buk was filmed, and hadn’t found the Buk then. With this video, this problem was solved.
Only a day later, on 13 May, 2016, US based private intelligence firm Stratfor published proof to shore up the degraded video. They obtained a satellite image (apparently the Pentagon declassified it) and on this image the Buk transport was also found – in fact almost at the same spot as seen in the video, on Avtotransportna street, Makiivka. Nine days later also Google Earth and Bellingcat presented this imagery, so from then on everybody could see a vehicle that looked like a trucked cargo on a trailer driving away from Donetsk towards the east.
Avtotransportna street, Makiivka, the site where the Buk on its way to Snizhne allegedly was captured on satellite imagery (inlay on the right) and a dashcam video.
Actually, one could have expected another Buk video would show up. On May 3, 2016, the same day on which the Oliferenko video was published, the BBC broadcasted a documentary about MH17. It featured a Buk sighting and launch plume photo tweeter, @WowihaY, who made a remarkable statement. He claimed there would be another video of the Buk transport. When the video was subsequently “found” on the 12th, it seemed that Wowhay had alluded to this video. He even helped Bellingcat to establish the exact day on which the video was already captured [source].
Of course, nobody within the anti-Russian OSINT community asked questions about this rather remarkable display of cooperation and apparent coordination. It could have been expected that the US state apparatus and their surveillance capacities would monitor every separatist and Russian movement in the area, so this particular satellite image should have been known immediately after the events on July 17, 2014. Why was it published only 22 months later through a private conduit (Stratfor) and why was Google Earth permitted only then to make it available for public display?
When the JIT in May 2018 made public that they had confirmed the Buk in the Donbass originated from a Russian convoy a high resolution still from this video showed up. Bellingcat claimed they had received the high resolution version – although they did not make it open source. They had contacted the publisher, who brought them into contact with the videomaker, they claimed. Bellingcat’s Aric Toler and Eliot Higgins attempted to justify not publishing the high resolution version of the video on the grounds that it could possibly identify the video shooter but gave no indication how it might do this. So much for “open” source. Apparently Bellingcat does not operate on the basis of ideology, like Wikileaks does.
For the story that develops in this blogpost series the @WowihaY announcement was, of course, one of the most salient parts. In the interview he seemed to know the actual filmer, as he conveyed feelings of fear that this person had shared. With this he invoked the fear of reprisal theory [see screenshots from the BBC documentary below] to cover for the secrecy of the source and dissemination by a one-time used channel. Actually, the same procedure was seen with respect to the Snizhne video.
How did WowihaY know and why did he want us to know? And did this video also originate from a unit of secret surveillance troops and infowarriors? Apparently it did, as will be revealed in part 3 of this series.
2.3 The fear-of-reprisal and the need-for-secrecy theories
Virtually all written accounts of Buk presence in the Donbass, before MH17 was shot down, seem to display second hand information and/or rumours from untraceable original sources. For elaborate discussion of the tweets, their sources and the information they conveyed, see also part 3 and part 4 of this blogpost series and, of course, the social media report.
All social media evidence is limited to the Donetsk-Snizhne part of the route. There are no accounts available of a Russian Buk being transported from the airforce base at Millerovo near the Russian border to Donetsk and from the launchsite back to the Russian border mentioning or showing this alleged Buk transport. The only exception is the infamous and heavily disputed video that a SBU spotter (according to Interior Minister Arsen Avakov a covert intel operation) filmed in Luhansk, allegedly on 4:50 AM on the 18th, of a Buk with only three missiles – suggesting it was missing one.
There is not one first-hand social media account [there is 1 second- or even thirdhand account, as will be discussed in part 4] from a pro-separatist source along the entire Buk trail, not from the route out of Russia to Donetsk, not from Donetsk to the alleged launchsite and not from there to the Russian border. Hundreds of kilometers of absolute silence. Neither was there a realtime posting from a pro-separatist citizen – so posted before there was any knowledge of the downing – copied by a pro-Kiev infowarrior. Finally, not even one Omerta breaker appeared on social media after the crash.
The virtually entire absence of pro-separatist news about the Buk transport stands in contradiction with the news of June 29th, 2014, when rebels had raided Donetsk airforce base A-1402 and, according to some pro-rebel social and traditional media sources, allegedly seized one or more Buk launch facilities. It is plausible the presence of a Buk anti-aircraft system would be cheered for, like it was on June 29, especially after a bombing of Snizhne on July 15th, when 11 people died. Probably many people would thank God that finally some really effective air defense was arriving.
Known footage from a convoy on the 15th and the Vostok convoy on the 17th, of which various accounts from both sides have been captured (for details about these convoys, see reports Hunt the buk by Micha Kobs and What you see is all there is, by Arnold Greidanus), demonstrates transports were filmed along the road without fear and published online by both parties.
The Buk transport must have received attention, especially during the 2 hrs stay in Donetsk and during the Torez drive-through, as on the JIT Torez video a loud siren that accompanied the small convoy, can be heard. So the absence of any pro-separatist witness account for the 17.7 trail of delivery of the Buk to the launchsite conflicts with the screenshot below, which shows people cheered for separatist military transports along the roads and used their smartphones to capture them.
Still from a video of a separatist convoy consisting 3 Gvozdikas and 3 tanks, made on 15.7.2014. This sheds some light on the “fear-of-reprisal” theory, peddled by Kiev supporters in the first 2 years after the crash to justify the meagre existence of clear 17.7 Buk transport videos, made alongside the road. It can be seen lots of fearless people showed up, in groups as we see, taking videos with their smartphones.
Pro-Kiev sources like Bellingcat claim the absence of clear first-hand Buk witness accounts, like the ones from the 15.7 and Vostok movements, is due to the fact people were afraid for or of the rebel authorities. Though this may be true in some cases, one would expect several realtime accounts along the road, at least until the time the story of separatist guilt spread. There were no such published witness accounts or imagery that were copied to be used against the separatists after the downing. For this the pro-Kiev propaganda had to resort to the retracted message on Strelkov_info.
2.4 A witness account from an Associated Press journalist
Other sources alluded to a demand for secrecy as an explanation why journalists or others didn´t provide any visual confirmation when the Buk was on the road in the period between entering Ukraine and leaving. According to Yuri Butusov, chief of ultranationlist channel censor.net and befriended with Anton Gerashchenko, this still was the leading narrative back in 2017:
“And at the same time, on the same day the enemy redeployed the Buk from Donetsk to the same vulnerable area of Torez-Snizhne-Dmytrivka. This redeployment was done without publicity, secretly. Would anyone believe that while sending Buk from Donetsk to Torez, Russian generals spent time on explanations or warnings that civilian planes could flight over some corridors?”
The story of the anonymous American Press journalist, allegedly threatened by a Russian crew not to take pictures of a Buk driving through Snizhne, is also a vivid example of this. One and a half hours after the crash the Daily Mail issued a statement that an Associated Press (AP) reporter had seen the Buk in Snizhne city:
“An Associated Press reporter on Thursday saw seven rebel-owned tanks parked at a gas station outside the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne. In the town, he also observed a Buk missile system, which can fire missiles up to an altitude of 22,000 meters (72,000 feet).”
US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power even used this testimony as proof in a special meeting of the UN Security Council on the 18th of July. It had to be a SA-11 [Buk], because “it was seen in Snizhne by a reporter”, she claimed. She also provided further evidence from the disinformation that the pro-Kiev side put on the internet hours after the crash: “Separatists initially claimed responsability” and “leaders also boasted on social media, but later deleted these messages”, referring to the false story about the withdrawn postings on pro-separatist message board Strelkov_info. Of course this SA-11 had to be wielded by the separatists as “we are not aware of any Ukrainian SAMs [Surface-to-air missiles] in the area of the shoot down”. See this documentary from 1:25:50
The story of the on location AP reporter testimony was followed up in an article written by AP reporter Peter Leonard on July the 25th, who talked with the reporters (there were two now):
“The vehicles stopped in front of journalists from The Associated Press. A man wearing unfamiliar fatigues, speaking with a distinctive Russian accent, checked to make sure they weren’t filming. The convoy then moved on, destination unknown in the heart of eastern Ukraine’s pro-Russia rebellion.”
There were two AP reporters present in the area that day, as testimonies on site and photos from the AP databank testify: Mstyslav Chernov and Dmytri Lovetsky. Lovetsky had photographed the four tanks in a convoy belonging to the “Oplot” battalion seen at the Lexus gasstation in Snizhne around 2 PM. The witness mentioned could well be him, though his identity remained a secret at that time.
Photo of a tank of Battalion Oplot, made by AP’s Dmitry Lovetsky at the Lexus Gasstation in Snizhne, July 17, 2014, on 14:08 local time.
Then in 2016 a mysterious tweet was posted by Vasily Maximov, a well known photo journalist operating in war zones:
“Yesterday in Baikonur I met a photographer from Russian “media”, who personally saw the Buk in Snizhne, on that very day. But he won’t say publicly(“
According to Maximov he had spoken with the Associated Press Buk witness in Snizhne, the famous one seeing a Buk around midday and was forced not to take pictures by a crew with “strange uniforms and Moscovite accents”.
Citizen investigator Arnold Greidanus and I responded with names, which prompted Maximov to hang on to a role in which he acted as someone who wanted to keep things secret (after he had just spilled the beans).
Nevertheless, Maximov advised us both to get engaged in Direct Message. In our conversation about the matter he confirmed the witness had been Lovetsky and that the latter had told him about the event when they were chatting in a bar. According to Lovetsky’s Facebook account, he indeed stayed in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, at the time of Maximov’s revelation (see screengrab below).
Screenshot Facebook account Lovetsky proves he was in Baikonur at the same time as Maximov stayed there
Though Maximov would try to get more answers on questions I had for Lovetsky, they never came. Maximov had to, as he said, search for a translator, but that only seemed a tactic for discouragement. In the end all I had received was confirmation of a name that was already pretty certain anyway.
What to make of this? Maximov spilling the beans, then peddling back, but still pushing for a private conversation in which he is ratting out his friend? Not very likely. One could only speculate about the backgrounds of this strange information relay…
Anyway, if the need-for-secrecy narrative that Lovetsy’s testimony supported, had any credibility, one would not have dared to ask some questions. For example, why a Buk transport would move through a densly populated area in the middle of the day with sirens on, when they would want to keep the presence of a Buk in the Donbass a ¨secret¨. Not a very efficient way to do it.
In fact, after the Torez Buk video came to light, in which sirens can be heard, the story could not survive – and it didn’t. In a podcast from July 2019 Bellingcat’s Aric Toler is heard saying that people that believe somehow this had been a secret transport, must be “delusional”.
Apparently, members of Bellingcat stopped being wrong (and delusional?) about the need-for-secrecy part of the narrative only after 5 years. The problem this switch caused – only a couple of realtime, but second-hand sightings were posted before the plane was downed – was now dealt with by lying that the entire social media had been flooded with messages about presence of a Buk in the Donbass.
At least two things had been solved. The public knew the anonymous freelancer for Paris Match never made the photos and the secrecy about the identity of the anonymous AP journalist was lifted. Directly (Deferre) or indirectly (Lovetsky), the anonymous freelancers had come out of the closet. Of course, it is rather weird they had been anonymous for years, as it is a main task for a journalist to open up sources and not close them down. From all this a strange taste in the mouth remains. Why had they acted so mysteriously and why wouldn’t they want to answer questions from less narrative friendly collegues? Were they afraid people could catch them on inconsistencies?
Conclusion from all this is that sources in social media or even vested media are not what they seem on first sight and that narratives coming from people blindly using these sources should be met with caution. Of course, under normal circumstances this does not say these sources do not show true information. However, when neutrality, spontaneity and authenticity can fundamentally be put into question, players have defined interests and, as we shall see in part 3 of this blogpost series, give more reasons not to be trusted, it is time to pay attention.
Part 3 of the series, titled “Behind the screens”, will contain the following sections
3.1 Buk witnesses
3.2 The launch plume photo: involvement of Anton Gerashchenko from the Interior Ministry
3.3 A triumvirate and their militia for special operations
3.4 The surveillance network in Torez, Snizhne and surroundings
3.5 The Ukrainian propaganda machine, manipulations rampant