Newly discovered photographs allegedly provide more evidence that a Buk missile launcher suspected of downing Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July traveled from Russia to separatist-controlled areas in eastern Ukraine, further raising suspicions that the Kremlin was complicit in a war crime of grave proportions.
Bellingcat, a citizen journalism project started by Eliot Higgins, analyzed the two photographs. Higgins — a blogger better known by his online handle "Brown Moses" — uses open-source information to study the origins of weapons in conflicts.
"Both of these new images… supports the earlier findings of the Bellingcat report Origin of the Separatists' Buk that a Russian-provided Buk missile launcher was filmed travelling through separatists held territory towards the alleged launch location of the missile that shot down flight MH17," Higgins wrote.
Although the Ukrainian military regularly reports seeing Russian-sourced weaponry in eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin has denied proving arms to the pro-Russia separatists. Rebel leaders have often said they steal their guns and tanks from captured Ukrainian weapons caches. But a November report by Armament Research Services (ARES), a consultancy that offers technical expertise and analysis on arms and munitions, concluded that "limited illicit importation has certainly taken place" to supply the separatists with Russian arms.
After MH17 was downed July 17, killing all 298 people on board, Russian media suggested a Ukrainian fighter jet shot down the airliner. The reports explored a variety of conspiracy theories involving a "Spanish dispatcher" and a plane full of corpses. President Vladimir Putin said Ukraine was responsible for any planes downed in its airspace, and Russian state-owned television channels have continued to run reports that include an odd-looking "spy satellite image" that purportedly shows a jet firing a missile at MH17.
But the circumstances of the catastrophe raised suspicions in the West that separatists had blown the Boeing 777 out of the sky with a Buk missile likely provided by Russia. The rebels shot down several military planes in prior weeks, and a social network page linked to a main separatist leader bragged shortly after the fall of MH17 that a large plane had been downed.
An October report by Germany's foreign intelligence service concluded that separatist forces shot down MH17 with a Buk missile captured from a Ukrainian military base. But the initial Bellingcat report in November argued that the Buk originated in Russia. Higgins' site referred to photographs and videos of a Buk launcher taken July 17 in separatist territory around the crash site. Other evidence showed what appears to be that same launcher heading toward the Ukrainian border in late June as part of a Russian convoy, and of a Buk launcher — minus one missile — in Luhansk, allegedly on July 18.
"There is strong evidence indicating that the Russian military provided separatists in eastern Ukraine with the Buk missile launcher filmed and photographed in eastern Ukraine on July 17," the Bellingcat report read.
The latest Bellingcat report examines an image that allegedly shows a Buk launcher in rebel-held Donetsk. Not only does this launcher have camouflage netting similar to a launcher photographed July 17 near the MH17 crash site, it also has exhaust marks and damage to the rubber side skirts over the launcher's tank tread that match those seen on the "Buk 3x2" filmed inside Russia.
The report's second image, posted in June to a social network page used by locals in the Russian town of Alexeyevka, shows the Buk 3x2 on a truck carrier. It reveals a new angle on the damage to the side skirts.
Higgins tweeted Monday that Bellingcat will publish "an in-depth look at claims about the launch site for the missile that shot down #MH17" later this week. He said the forthcoming report will include higher-resolution photos of the missile's suspected smoke trail that "will allow anyone to do their own analysis on the images to uncover any signs of forgery."
Follow Alec Luhn on Twitter: @ASLuhn