The report published by the Dutch Safety Board on the Boeing 777 Malaysia Airlines disaster cannot be definitive because it largely ignores the findings of Russian experts.


Journalists take images of part of the reconstructed forward section of the fuselage after the presentation of the Dutch Safety Board's final report into the reasons of the MH17  downing in Eastern Ukraine last year. Photo: AP

For a very different take read: "The Malaysian Boeing saga is far from over"

On Oct. 13, the Dutch Safety Board presented its final report on the downing of the Boeing 777 Malaysia Airlines passenger plane (Flight MH17) over the Donbas region on July 17 last year. The report was presented by the head of the investigation, Tibbe Yaustra, at the Gilze-Rijen military base in the Netherlands.

One of the main causes of the disaster was identified as Ukraine’s failure to close its airspace to passenger planes, despite the hostilities in the Donbas region involving surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). Russian experts agree with that finding, but note that both sides in the conflict employed air defense systems.

Some of the blame for what happened was apportioned to Malaysian Airlines, which was “aware of the potential risks of flying over the conflict zone.” When the tragedy occurred, there were three passenger planes in the sky above the hotspot. That fact cannot be argued with, but foreign airlines had no information about what altitude was deemed safe.

SAMs generally do not go higher than 2.2 miles (3.5 km) if fired from a portable air defense system, so an altitude of 6.2 miles (10 km) is considered safe for civil aviation (which is why, for example, passenger aircraft continued to fly over Afghanistan during the armed conflict there). But Kiev knew that more powerful anti-aircraft missiles had been deployed in the conflict zone, primarily its own, but did not inform foreign airlines in advance.

Who is to blame?

There is a wide divergence of opinion on that question. For example, the international commission set up to investigate the accident (which for some reason excluded not only Russia, but also the International Civil Aviation Organization) reached the conclusion that the Boeing 777 had been hit by a Russian-made BUK missile fired from the settlement of Snezhnoe, which at that time was part of the militia-controlled Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR).

According to the investigators, an anti-aircraft missile struck the cockpit on the left side, which caused the head of the plane to separate from the fuselage, killing all passengers and crew almost instantaneously. It omits the fact that this type of missile targets the middle of the aircraft to ensure annihilation. The cockpit is usually hit by pilots firing from aircraft cannons.

A different view is held by Russian experts. First of all, they noted that the international commission did not provide evidence that the body of the plane displayed the characteristic mark of a BUK missile (a butterfly-shaped hole). And one of the photographs submitted by the commission depicts part of a BUK system that could not have remained wholly intact on being fired.

Also read: "The MH17 tragedy has become a geopolitical game"

Second, the report on MH17 was submitted to the Russian side as a fait accompli, which meant it could not be amended. Moreover, it leaves out most of the comments previously made by Russian experts.

Third, the Dutch authorities did not permit Russian experts to inspect the crash site. Even a month after the disaster, not all the bodies had been removed (shrapnel wounds could have been vital clues for the international investigation). And contrary to established practice, a substantial part of the wreckage was left where it fell, which hampers the conduct of a full-scale study.

Fourth, there was no thorough analysis of the instructions of the Ukrainian air traffic controllers who “led” the Malaysian plane into the conflict zone and then inexplicably altered its flight level.

Recall the incident on March 17, 1994, when a C-130 military transport aircraft carrying Iranian embassy personnel was shot down over Nagorno-Karabakh near the town of Stepanakert, killing all 19 passengers, including 9 children, and the crew of 13. According to sources, the Azerbaijani air traffic controllers intentionally diverted the aircraft by about 100 km (62 miles) into the combat zone, where it was shot down by an Armenian SAM.

Fifth, the commission’s report did not consider the possibility that Flight MH17 was intercepted by a Ukrainian jet, even though there was one in the immediate vicinity. It would have been capable of both killing the crew with aircraft cannon and “backing up” the air defense system (usually two SAMs are launched simultaneously in case one is off target; in this instance an air-to-air missile could have been the reserve option).

Sixth, on July 2, 2015, the Almaz-Antey joint stock-company, the manufacturer of the BUK system, submitted documents to the international commission on the first phase of a full-scale study using a scale model of a Boeing 777.

It showed that the aircraft could have been shot down by a 9M38M anti-aircraft missile, which is no longer in service with the Russian Armed Forces. However, the commission ignored the documents.

The second phase of the experiment, held on Oct. 7, involved a decommissioned IL-86 plane. It was confirmed that the Malaysian Boeing 777 was shot down from an area controlled at the time by the Ukrainian Army — 2.2 miles (3.5 km) south of the village of Zaroschenskoe. Had it been fired from Snezhnoe (as stated by the international commission), no submunition could have entered the plane’s engine, which is in fact what happened.

Seventh, the United States did not provide the international commission with data from satellites that were above the combat zone at the time of the incident.

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Eighth, there was no investigation of Ukraine's air defense systems, including, for instance, their location at the time of the incident and a physical inventory of their anti-aircraft missiles.

Will Russia and the West agree on the causes of the crash?

For the reasons outlined above, the Dutch Safety Board report may not be conclusive. It does not take into account the totality of the available data, and appears subjective and politically motivated. The “meticulous” investigation did not take 15 months — that time frame was merely a delaying tactic when conclusive evidence about Russian involvement could not be verified.

Unfortunately, when it comes to airline disasters, Ukraine has not been entirely blameless. In October 2001 a Russian Tu-154 passenger aircraft was hit by a Ukrainian S-200 anti-aircraft missile over the Black Sea, which had been launched during a military exercise in Crimea. There were no survivors among the 66 passengers and 12 crewmembers. It cannot be ruled out that something similar may have happened in the skies above Donbas.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.