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Russian Missile Maker Says BUK Likely Belonging to Ukraine Took Down Flight MH17

A Russian joint undertaking in the arms industry told journalists in Moscow on Tuesday that the shrapnel patterns seen on debris from the Boeing 777 were consistent with a strike from an older BUK M1 system.
June 2, 2015, 7:50pm
Photo by Alexander Ermochenko/EPA

In an argument that makes the case to have Western sanctions against it lifted, the Russian producer of the BUK surface-to-air missile has said Malaysia Airlines flight 17, which crashed in Ukraine in July, was brought down by a BUK that likely belonged to the Ukrainian military.

Western investigations have previously presented photographic and other evidence that a BUK missile from Russia had likely been used in the July 17 attack, which killed all 298 people on board and crashed the plane headed from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur in Donetsk Oblast. That was the bloodiest day in the conflict between government forces and Russia-backed rebels that has so far claimed more than 6,100 lives since April 2014.

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The Almaz-Antey defense concern, a Russian joint undertaking in the arms industry, told journalists in Moscow on Tuesday that the shrapnel patterns seen on debris from the Boeing 777 were consistent with a strike from an older BUK M1 system firing 9M38M1 missiles. The Almaz-Antey team said it can't say for sure which side owned the BUK used, but left little doubt where its suspicions lay.

"The missile was not produced after 1999, so neither the [Almaz-Antey] concern nor its enterprises could have delivered this missile to anyone," director Yan Novikov said. "At the same time, we have undeniable evidence that the Ukrainian military has this type of missile. In 2005, the concern performed pre-contract analysis on extending the use of these rockets in Ukraine. At that time, there were 991 units."

Russia and Ukraine, whose defense and space industries are closely integrated, have many of the same weapons and military equipment in their arsenals, including BUK missiles.

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Almaz-Antey's version of events falls in line with explanations given by the Russian defense ministry, which claimed in July that the Ukrainian army had deployed 27 BUK M1 launchers in the area before the tragedy.

A Ukrainian military spokesman said that BUK missiles systems had been stationed at a base near Donetsk, but that they had been destroyed before rebels took over the installation.

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Separatists have said they did not have a BUK M1 at the time of the MH17 catastrophe, although one commander said in July that rebel forces had a BUK missile system at the time of the tragedy. The Associated Press reported the sighting of a BUK missile being driven through the rebel-held town of Snizhe just four hours before the plane was shot down.

In a July presentation, the Russian defense ministry argued that either a Ukrainian ground-attack Su-25 fighter jet or a Ukrainian BUK system had fired on MH17. The fighter jet explanation resonated with many Russians, who remember an infamous 2001 incident in which a Ukrainian fighter jet accidentally shot down a Russian airliner over the Black Sea, killing all 78 on board.

But to successfully shoot down MH17, which was cruising at 33,000 feet, an Su-25 would have had to have climbed to its operational ceiling of 16,000 feet, pulled up at a 45-degree angle and fired an air-to-air missile at near-maximum range. Tuesday's presentation by Almaz-Antey, which is state-owned, seems to suggest that the fighter jet theory has fallen by the wayside.

Separatist forces were nonetheless not implicated by the new analysis. Novikov also said that judging by the damage to the plane's debris, the missile must have been fired from a point just south of the town of Zaroshchenske — not from the town of Snizhne as has been previously reported. It is not clear which side controlled Zaroshchenske when MH17 went down, while Snizhne was certainly under separatist control.

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"The missile intersected with the plane's course at a horizontal angle of 72-78 degrees and a vertical angle of 20-22 degrees," Almaz-Antey design specialist Mikhail Malyshevsky said. "Only under this alignment could the right side of the cabin be separated out, and so that the glass from the right side remained intact."

Related: Exclusive Footage of MH17 Aftermath

At the July presentation, the Russian defense ministry displayed satellite and radar images that it said showed two Ukrainian BUK missile launchers in Zaroshchenske on July 17. But an analysis published this week by Bellingcat, a group that studies open source information that is led by well-known blogger Eliot Higgins, found that the satellite images were actually from June 2014 and had been doctored to show BUK missile launchers in attack range of MH17.

Previous reports by Western specialists have painted a picture implicating separatist forces and their Russian backers, and the international MH17 investigation has said its leading theory is that the plane was downed by a BUK missile fired from separatist territory. The rebels had downed several military planes in the weeks leading up to the catastrophe, and a social network page linked to a major separatist leader bragged shortly after MH17 was attacked that a large plane had been shot down.

A November Bellingcat report presented evidence that the BUK missile in question came from the 53rd anti-aircraft missile brigade in Kursk, Russia. It included photographs of a BUK missile launcher in separatist areas near the crash site on July 17, as well as what appears to be the same launcher, minus one missile, in rebel-held Luhansk on July 18. Videos appeared to show that launcher being transported near Kursk.

Another report published in January included an image of a BUK missile launcher in separatist-controlled Donetsk that bore similarities to the launcher photographed near the MH17 crash site and the BUK filmed inside Russia.

Related: Return to the MH17 Crash Site

Follow Alec Luhn on Twitter: @ASLuhn