On July 20, Russia’s most prominent anti-corruption activist, Alexey Navalny, currently putting himself forward as a candidate for the presidency , held a televised debate with Igor Girkin, a former officer in the Federal Security Service (FSB) who, under the nom de guerre of Strelkov, led Russia-backed paramilitary forces during the first few months of the war in eastern Ukraine.
During the debate Girkin was asked directly who was responsible for the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 on July 17, 2014, while he was styling himself the ‘minister of defense’ of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR). All 283 passengers and 15 crew aboard the Boeing 777 airliner were killed when it was destroyed by a missile above separatist-controlled Hrabove in eastern Ukraine.
“The militia did not shoot down the Boeing [MH17]. I only had Igla and Strela anti-aircraft missiles.”
By Igla missiles, Girkin means 9K38 Igla shoulder-launched, surface-to-air missiles (known as man-portable air defense systems or MANPADS). These missiles are short-ranged and incapable of reaching the cruising altitude of a commercial airliner such as MH17, which was flying at 33,000 feet at the time it was shot down. Meanwhile “Strelas” could refer to two very different weapons systems. The first, and perhaps most likely in this context, is the 9K32 Strela-2, another MANPADS which was openly displayed by Russia-backed paramilitaries in the early months of the war. However, it could also be a reference to the 9K35 Strela-10, a powerful surface-to-air missile system (SAM) mounted on an armored vehicle, examples of which have been spotted numerous times in the Donbas. Such weapons were used to shoot down a number of Ukrainian military aircraft, including an Il-76 transport plane on June 14, 2014, resulting in the deaths of all 49 aboard.
Whatever Girkin meant by Strelas, it is true that none of these weapons had the range to strike MH17 that day.
Other surface-to-air missile systems have been documented in separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine, notably the 9K331 Tor-M1 and the Pantsir S-1. Both of these weapons systems could certainly pose a threat to an airliner such as MH17. However, it is uncertain whether either system was deployed on Ukrainian territory at the time of the disaster. Tor systems were first documented in the Donbas in September 2014 and Pantsirs in January 2015.
Just three days before MH17, a Ukrainian An-26 transport plane was struck by a missile and destroyed while flying at over 21,000 feet in the Luhansk region, near the border with Russia. The weapon used to strike the aircraft was not identified and the Ukrainian military claimed that the missile may have been fired from Russian territory. However, Russia’s pro-Kremlin Vzglyad newspaper reported that day, citing a since deleted VKontakte post, that separatist paramilitaries had taken credit for the downing, boasting that they had used a 9K37 Buk system, supposedly captured from Ukrainian forces.
While it is uncertain whether a Buk was really used to shoot down the An-26 on July 14, there is demonstrable evidence that such a weapon was used on July 17 to down MH17.
Several videos and photographs, which have been painstakingly verified and geolocated by both open-source analysts and the Dutch Safety Board (DSB), which conducted the official investigation into MH17, show a Buk missile launcher moving through the Donetsk towns of Torez, Zuhres and Snizhne, just a few kilometers from Hrabove, on the day of the disaster and, several hours later, headed towards the Russian border, minus one missile.
The locations of the photographs and video were even verified in person by journalists from several international media outlets, including ARD, the BBC and Australia’s Channel 9 who visited the sites at which the Buk had been documented in the hours preceding MH17s destruction.
At least two photographs were taken that day that show a trail from a rocket launched from a hilltop near Snizhne. Roland Oliphant from The Telegraph and Mashable’s Christopher Miller subsequently visited the scene and found burn and track marks, corresponding with the launch site identified in maps released by U.S. intelligence officials.
Investigators also found shrapnel damage patterns on the fuselage of the Boeing 777 and distinctive, ‘bow-tie’ shaped fragments precisely corresponding with the warhead of a 9M317 Buk missile.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Security Service has released several audio recordings of intercepted phone calls between paramilitaries and Russian agents that day, discussing the delivery of the missile system and its use. The communications make it clear that the fighters had not been aware that the aircraft targeted was a civilian airliner.
Aleksandr Khodakovsky, another separatist paramilitary commander, who led the notorious Vostok Battalion in fighting around Donetsk, admitted just days later that Russia-backed fighters had been in possession of a Buk in an interview with Reuters:
"I knew that a BUK came from Luhansk. At the time I was told that a BUK from Luhansk was coming under the flag of the LNR," he said, referring to the Luhansk People’s Republic, the main rebel group operating in Luhansk, one of two rebel provinces along with Donetsk, the province where the crash took place.
"That BUK I know about. I heard about it. I think they sent it back. Because I found out about it at exactly the moment that I found out that this tragedy had taken place. They probably sent it back in order to remove proof of its presence."
Damningly, Girkin and his paramilitaries had already boasted on social media of having shot down a Ukrainian military aircraft that afternoon, before the awful truth of what they had struck became clear.
Incredibly, Russia’s state-owned TASS news agency still has reports on their website, published on July 17, citing “eyewitnesses,” claiming that separatist fighters had shot down another An-26 near Torez:
“The militia of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) have brought down a military transport Antonov-26 (An-26) plane of the Ukrainian Air Force on the outskirts of the town of Torez, eyewitnesses said.
A missile hit the An-26, it fell on the ground and caught blaze, they said.”
So Girkin’s claim, three years later, that the forces that were, nominally at least, under his control had neither possessed the necessary weapons nor fired on MH17 is absolutely false.