On May 24, the Dutch Joint Investigation Team presented the findings of its investigation into the origin of a 93K7 “Buk” (NATO reporting name: SA-11 Gadfly) surface-to-air missile system that unintentionally shot down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 passengers and crew onboard. Using a variety of sources and information, the JIT established that the Buk belonged to the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade of the Russian army, based in the Russian city of Kursk. During the presentation, the JIT officials referred to markings on the Buk launch vehicle which they compared to “fingerprints,” saying these fingerprints could be used to identify which unit the Buk belonged to.
“Several images of the BUK-TELAR with which MH17 was downed are available,” a press release on the JIT’s official site stated. “Analysis of those produces a number of characteristics. The combination of those is so special that that can be considered as a fingerprint. This fingerprint has been compared with numerous images of BUK-TELARS, both Ukrainian and Russian ones. The only BUK-TELAR on which this combination of characteristics also was found, is a BUK-TELAR that was recorded several times when it joined a convoy of the 53rd brigade on 23 – 25 June 2014.”
Later on May 24, the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti published a response from Yuri Shvytkin, deputy head of the State Duma’s Defense Committee. Shvytkin called the investigations findings “stupidity” and “an obvious fake.” But based on Shvytkin’s quotes, it appears he misunderstood what the JIT said about how they identified the Buk.
We were prepared to call Shvytkin’s claim “false.”But about two hours after publishing the piece, RIA Novosti added a disclaimer to the story which said that the “commentary was nullified due to an incorrect translation from initial news reports,” along with an apology to the readers.
What happened? It’s not really clear. It seems Shvytkin took the term “fingerprints” literally, and questioned how the JIT could possibly identify the Buk’s unit based on fingerprints when they have no biometric data for Russian servicemen. He also questioned how fingerprints can belong to a military brigade and not an individual soldier, further demonstrating that he did not understand the JIT’s statement.
Yet RIA Novosti’s disclaimer, itself, is not clear.The Russian news organization did not call it a “correction,” although the effect of saying the commentary is “null” amounts to admitting the story was incorrect.Moreover, there was no indication as to whether RIA Novosti or Deputy Yuri Shvytkin or somebody else was responsible for the mistranslation.
So, we still find the whole episode to be “misleading,” much like a succession of claims by the Russian government and Russian state media – such as the claim that a Ukrainian fighter shot it down or that is was a Ukrainian government Buk missile, among many other claims that have since been thoroughly debunked.