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A real bonanza The Kremlin touts a supposed bombshell in the Dutch investigation into MH17, but a closer look finds that it’s, yes you guessed it, bupkis

Source: Meduza
Emmanuel Dunand / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated on February 18 that the Dutch media has published data confirming the Russian government’s version of events on July 14, 2014, when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down and crashed in eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on the plane. Yandex News, Russia’s most popular online news aggregator, featured stories by Russian publications citing the project “Bonanza Media,” which released the information. These reports come a few weeks before the first court hearing against three Russian suspects and one Ukrainian in the Dutch MH17 criminal case. At Meduza’s request, Conflict Intelligence Team researcher Kirill Mikhailov reviewed the new documents and found that they contain none of the bombshell claims described in Russian news coverage.

What’s the new information cited by the Kremlin?

Excerpts from four documents published by Max van der Werff, a Dutch blogger and the co-founder of “Bonanza Media.” For years, he has tried to prove that Russia was not involved in the MH17 disaster. The documents are apparently leaked materials from the criminal investigation against four suspects in the MH17 case that a Dutch court is expected to consider early next month. How did van der Werff obtain the data? The transfer of records to the Dutch court most likely widened the circle of people familiar with the case materials. Defense attorneys representing one of the Donetsk separatists, for example, may have shared the materials with him. Bellingcat’s Christo Grozev has speculated that the two most “realistic” groups who might have leaked the case materials to Bonanza Media are Fancy Bear (the cyber espionage group linked to Russian military intelligence) or Malaysian officials.

In a report about the “new data” that supposedly supports Russia’s MH17 position, the Russian state news agency TASS sources the information to “the Bonanza Media platform for independent journalists.” On the crowdfunding website Patreon, where it currently has six patrons contributing $54 per month, Bonanza Media describes itself as “a team of investigative journalists that cover most troubling issues [sic] all around the world.” Since launching its own YouTube channel in April 2019, the project has released a dozen videos, including a 28-minute documentary film titled “MH17: Call for Justice,” which at the time of this writing has more than 257,580 views.

When the video first appeared in July 2019, the Russian media covered it exhaustively, calling the film “a bombshell.” The “team of investigative journalists” at Bonanza Media comprises just two people: former RT (Russia Today) employee Yana Yerlashova and Dutch national Max van der Werff. 

Van der Werff has never worked in the professional media. Judging by the content on his blog, the independence struggles of former Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia had an enormous impact on him during his adolescence, having been born to an Indonesian father and Dutch mother. His past amateur investigations focused mainly on war crimes committed and concealed by the Dutch army as the Netherlands’s colonial empire collapsed after the Second World War. 

Unlike van der Werff, Yana Yerlashova has worked as a professional journalist. In July 2014, she reported for RT as a correspondent and covered events including the aftermath of the MH17 disaster. After leaving the state TV network, Yerlashova explained on Kickstarter (where she and van der Werff raised funds for their “Call for Justice” film) that she believes she is “much more effective as an independent journalist” and prefers being “free of any labels.”

The documents shared by van der Werff include witness interview records (with Billy Six, a correspondent at the ultraconservative German newspaper Junge Freiheit, and an unidentified Donbas resident), an analysis of the metadata of various photographs of the “Buk” self-propelled launch system in separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine, and — most importantly — a letter from Dutch military intelligence addressed to the state prosecutors handling the MH17 criminal case. It’s this last item that has attracted so much attention from Russia’s state and pro-Kremlin news media, which rocketed the story to the top of Yandex News.

So what’s the letter say?

Dated in 2016, the letter contains a response to a request by the Dutch prosecutor’s office to provide data that could be important for its criminal investigation (the Dutch prosecutor’s office is participating in the international investigation into MH17). 

The document lists 11 positions of Ukrainian and Russian “Buk” surface-to-air missile systems, showing the dates when these positions were discovered by Dutch intelligence. Ukrainian Buks, for example, were stored at a base camp in the Kharkiv region and at the Kramatorsk airfield. Russia’s Buk positions, meanwhile, were detected in the Millerovo district in Russia’s Rostov region, where guided missile systems were deployed by Russia’s 53rd Air-Defense Missile Brigade, according to an investigative report by Bellingcat. A joint investigative team concluded that the missile launcher responsible for shooting down MH17 came from precisely this Russian unit. 

Both the Ukrainian and Russian military positions were located beyond the range of a Buk missile, more than 25 miles from where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashed. In other words, the missile that hit the passenger plane could not have been launched from any of those positions. 

Does that mean Dutch intelligence said a Russian “Buk” missile didn’t hit MH17?

No, the published document doesn’t say that. Moreover, immediately following a table depicting the various missile positions, the document states that the nature of the conflict in eastern Ukraine and the situation on the frontlines in July 2014 mean Ukraine most likely would have been unable to move its Buk launchers from any of the identified positions to anywhere within range of where the missile hit MH17. However, Dutch intelligence does not reach the same conclusion about Russian capabilities. 

But wait didn’t a Ukrainian fighter jet shoot down MH17?

Russia’s state media and pro-Kremlin blogosphere actively promoted this theory in the first years after the disaster, but Russia’s own Defense Ministry rejected this version of events in 2016, stating that radar data discovered two years later show no other aircraft in the area when MH17 crashed.

So they pinned this on Russia simply by process of elimination?

No. Journalists at Bellingcat found videos and photographs on social media showing Russian soldiers recording themselves on duty in the 53rd Air-Defense Missile Brigade, as well as footage from local residents in the summer of 2014 that shows the soldiers transferring the Buk missiles toward the border with Ukraine. Bellingcat says it was able to use photos and videos recorded in the Donbas on July 17 to identify a Buk missile launcher originating from the 53rd brigade. The researchers relied on signs like loading markings, traces of white paint, and unique damage “fingerprints” to the rubber side skirt above the tracks of the missile launcher. 

The joint investigative group led by Dutch law-enforcement agencies reached similar conclusions. In addition to open sources, international investigators cite interviews with numerous witnesses and intercepted telephone calls and billing records involving separatists and Russian military officers who took part in transferring the Buk missile launcher. In the end, prosecutors named four separatists in formal criminal charges and it’s these allegations that come before a Dutch court next month.

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Analysis by Conflict Intelligence Team researcher Kirill Mikhailov with assistance from Meduza’s Alexey Kovalev

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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