A Russian anti-aircraft missile fired from a fairly small area in eastern Ukraine destroyed Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 on July 17, 2014, killing the 298 people aboard, according to a report from the Dutch Safety Board released Tuesday.
The report is by far the most in-depth and definitive to date dealing with the deadly attack, which struck a passenger flight that happened to be flying over the Ukrainian civil war zone.
While identifying the type of rocket, warhead and launcher, the report stops short of assessing blame or naming who might have been responsible for pulling the trigger. Russian and Ukrainian officials, as well as pro-Russian separatists involved in a civil war in Ukraine’s southeast corner, have traded allegations in the 452 days since the plane was shot down.
But the report does eliminate theories offered by Russian and pro-Russian analysts that suggested Ukrainian jets had tracked and destroyed the flight, and it places the launch point in a 123-square-mile area of eastern Ukraine – about the size of a medium-sized U.S. city such as Columbia, S.C., Kansas City, Kan., or Mobile, Ala.
That general geographic location points a finger at Russia or pro-Russian separatists, though the report says that “further forensic research is required to determine the launch location.” Such an investigation is already underway, with results expected in 2016.
Ukrainian reaction was swift and strong. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said, “Personally, I have no doubt that this was a planned operation by Russian special services.”
He said that the report clearly indicates the missile was fired from territory “controlled by Russian militants,” but he went on to add that Ukraine has doubts the rebels were capable of shooting down the plane. “There is no doubt that drunk separatists cannot control such complicated systems,” he said Tuesday during a Ukrainian government meeting.
In a chilling side note, the report said at the time the Malaysian airliner was destroyed, three other passenger flights were in the general area.
Ukrainian officials released their own technical study, in which they claimed the missile was fired from the town of Snizhne in the Donetsk region, which was firmly under the control of pro-Russian separatists at the time. Urkainian officials said they believe the separatists were supplied, trained and led by members of the Russian military.
Officials in Moscow claimed that the missile in question, an 9M38, hadn’t been used by the Russian military since 2011 and said that their studies indicate it was fired from territory controlled by Ukraine. Yan Novikov, an executive with Russian state-controlled arms maker Almaz-Antey, told a news conference that the Russians believe the missile came from the vicinity of Zaroshchenskoye, a rural settlement in the Donetsk region that was under Ukrainian control.
The report did fault Ukraine for not having closed its airspace to civilian aircraft in the days before the Malaysian airliner was downed. The report noted that military aircraft had been shot on July 14 and 16 that were flying at the same altitude as civilian airliners. Those incidents “provided sufficient reason for closing the airspace above the eastern part of Ukraine as a precaution.”
Ukrainian officials said that at the time they didn’t know such high-level anti-aircraft systems had been moved into the area.
Flight 17 had left Amsterdam earlier that day, headed to Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur. It was following a fairly standard flight path that took it over the Netherlands, Germany, Poland and Ukraine before it was shot down just as flight control was about to be passed to Russian air traffic controllers.
Of the 298 people on board, 196 were Dutch citizens.
The report paints a graphic picture of how the plane was downed. The missile exploded, it said, just outside the left cockpit window, sending missile fragments into the bodies of the plane’s pilot, first officer and another crew member who was in the cockpit at the time. Those deadly fragments proved critical to determining what type of missile had been used.
Until the explosion, the flight had been routine, according to the cockpit and flight data recorders, which were handed over to investigators by pro-Russian separatists. Then two “peaks of sound” could be detected in the last 20 milliseconds of the cockpit recorder, and both recorders’ data “ended abruptly, at 13:20:03” (1:20 p.m. and three seconds local time).
The report noted the “shape and form of the parts recovered is consistent with a 9M38 series surface-to-air missile.”
“The impact killed the three persons in the cockpit and caused structural damage to the forward part of the aeroplane (sic), leading to an in-flight breakup,” the report said. “The breakup resulted in a wreckage area of 50 square (kilometers, about 19 square miles) between the village of Petropavlivka and the town of Hrabove. All 298 occupants lost their lives.”
In a chilling side note, the report said at the time the Malaysian airliner was destroyed, three other passenger flights were in the general area – a Singapore Air flight, an Air India flight and a flight belonging to the Taiwanese airline EVA. One of those planes was just 20 miles or so away.
Matthew Schofield: @mattschodcnews