MH17 Crash & The Crisis in Ukraine

By August 2, 2014 No Comments

The Baseline

With the occupation and annexation of Crimea now confirmed in the March 16 referendum, Putin’s Russia moved on to the next stage of his invasion of Ukraine. No fewer than five provinces (oblasts) of Ukraine were considered to be vulnerable to Russian invasion. The ease by which Crimea was taken was an irresistible invitation to further incursion. Putin understood better than baffled Western analysts why no real resistance was offered against his aggressions. It was later revealed that Ukraine’s military had been dismantled and demoralized to the point that—across the country—only 6, 000 of some 130, 000 men on paper were combat ready. [1]

The gradual destruction of the world’s former fourth largest military power needs to be told to better understand this second phase of the Russian invasion and the de facto Ukrainian-Russian War. The first President of Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk, was a former member of the Ukrainian SSR’s Communist Party agitprop department that was in charge of Soviet orthodoxy, who later became the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet. During the 1991 August Putsch he resigned from the Communist Party and opportunistically accepted the role of head of a newly independent Ukraine. In 1991, Ukraine inherited a force of 800, 000 men, 6, 100 tanks, 8, 000 Armored Personnel Carriers (APC’s) and 1, 100 combat aircraft. [2] Kravchuk set the precedent by reducing the armed forces by 350, 000 down to 450, 000 men. Strangely, he also agreed to the division of the Black Sea Fleet (BSF) on a proportional basis, forgetting to also include the Soviet Union’s entire navy in that proportion. Instead of keeping the entire BSF, he agreed to a mere 18.3% of it and allowed Russia to base their lion’s share of the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol on sovereign Ukrainian territory. [3] In just two decades the army was optimized, reduced, reformed, restructured, and ultimately left unprepared for combat. Kravchuk was also responsible for giving up Ukraine’s nuclear arsenal in the Budapest Memorandum.

Having tasted the easy money from the sale of surplus equipment, senior military officials continued the reduction process down to 310,000. [4] Minister of Defense, Oleksandr Kuzmuk (1996-2001), sold the partly completed Soviet-era Kyiv-class aircraft carrier Varyah for scrap to China. This so-called scrap metal was launched as the aircraft carrier Liaoning in 2011. Similarly, under the Minister of Defense Volodymyr Shkidchenko (2001-2003), the Guided Missile Cruiser Ukrayina that was already 95% complete was mothballed at the Mykolayiv Shipyard. President Yushchenko (2005-2010) decided to, “upgrade the military to NATO standards,” [5] and so reduced this force even further to 210, 000. President Yanukovych reduced that number to 135, 000 by 2014 and planned to drop it to 70, 000 in 2017. [6] Similarly, the upper echelons of command were riddled with Pro-Russian patriots. The language of command and control in Ukraine’s military apparently remained Russian despite twenty-three years of independence.

The Buildup

The leadership and self-defence of the Maidan Ukrainian Revolution set an example for Ukraine’s much blunted military when Ukraine came under threat this year. Dmytro Yarosh, the head of the Right Sector, a self-defence group formed during the early days of Maidan demonstrations, announced that he had pulled out of the presidential race to focus his talents on the defense of the land. [7] Contrary to all Western media logic, an alliance between Yarosh and the newly appointed Jewish-Ukrainian oligarch Governor of Dnipropetrovsk, Igor Kolomoysky, allowed for the formation, training, and equipment of a citizen’s fighting force. This force consisted of several colorfully named battalions under the umbrella designation of the National Guard. These citizen-warriors were the example for the demoralized regular forces in a war that later came to be known as the Anti-Terror Operation (ATO). In the first weeks of the war it was the Aidar, Azov, and Donbas battalions, [8] as well as the original “Right Sector,” that would see the heaviest fighting and would take the greatest number of casualties. [9]

By early April, the buildup of Russian forces on Ukraine’s borders was quite alarming [10]. Military professionals warned of an imminent invasion. [11] Russian diplomatic threats included Putin’s statement about revising the Bialowieza Accords [12]—an agreement to split up the USSR set out on December 6, 1991. Speculation about targeted oblast’s (provinces) included Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv, Kherson, and Odesa. [13]

As early as 19 March 2014, Ukraine’s Sluzhba Bezpeky Ukrayiny (SBU) Security Service of Ukraine intercepted diversionary groups in the Luhansk oblast. [14] A report of the event states that other similar intercepted groups were comprised of Russian citizens including operatives of its special forces. They discovered five professionally equipped safe-houses, detailed instructions regarding the destabilization of Ukraine, seizure of government buildings, and plans to block the presidential election scheduled for 25 May 2014. [15] Among confiscated items were rifled firearms, firearm instructions, lists of members of the group, as well as currency.

The center of the pro-Russian occupation was the town of Slovyansk, located on a major highway at the halfway point between Donetsk and Kharkiv. Other towns occupied within a 30km radius included Krasnyi, Kramatorsk, Kostyantynivka, as well as Krasnoarmiisk which is situated on the major highway from Dnipropetrovsk. Ukrainian aircraft and helicopters at the Kramatorsk airfield had to be scrambled to prevent their capture as the military attempted to fight off the assault. An attempt by Ukrainian forces to retake Slovyansk, on 1 May 2014, resulted in the downing of a Ukraine helicopter and the capture of its wounded pilot. [16]  This was the first of many helicopter losses by Ukraine and a clear indication of the sophisticated armaments that Russia was willing to supply to their surrogates in Ukraine.

By 14 April 2014, Ukraine was dealing with widespread Russian aggression led by Moscow’s intelligence and diversional operatives. In town after town, armed men bearing no identification other than that of the infamous orange and black striped Georgian ribbons, were taking over police stations and municipal buildings. These assaults were met with little resistance from local police—a direct result of the corruption of “civil servants” who had been supplementing their meagre salaries through protection rackets, extortion, and drug trafficking. Similarly, much of the civilian populace of eastern Ukraine that had been shielded from western and central Ukrainian influence continued to be supporters of Victor Yanukovych, their deposed leader. [17] The so-called “separatist” movement attracted the local crime world who were also afraid of the threat of post-revolutionary Kyiv’s anti-corruption reforms. [18] The deeply criminalised world of Yanukovych’s wild Donbas were a force to be reckoned with. As a result, the Russian infiltration initially met with some active support and very little resistance.

The Spark

The 25 May 2014 was the day of the Presidential elections. For the first time in Ukraine’s history there was a clear winner in the first round of elections. Petro Poroshenko was declared the outright winner with 54.7% of the vote. [19] This win meant that Ukraine could avoid the possibility of Russian’s disrupting a run-off election. It legitimized the Ukrainian Revolution in the eyes of western democrats. It provided the country with a sense of stability and direction. President Petro Poroshenko vowed to defeat terrorism in the east and to return Crimea to Ukraine. [20]

The Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO), as president Poroshenko officially called the war, continued with heavy losses on both sides. Ukraine’s regular forces, including the 79th Air Mobile brigade, had limited defence options and had consequently taken a beating on 12 June 2014, leaving at least two killed and between twenty-one and twenty-five wounded (reports differ whether the battle was on the Russian border or near Slovyansk, but they all agree that they were facing professional Russian mercenaries). [21] During the night of 13-14 June 2014 an Il-76 transport plane was shot down killing forty-nine men including General Serhiy Kulchytskyy as it approached the Luhansk airfield. It was hit by a missile but continued its approach until it succumbed to heavy machine gun fire. [22] It was not surprising that on 15 June 2014 General Oleksandr Shutov of the General Staff was relieved of his duties on directions from the President.

Under pressure from the EU, President Poroshenko declared a unilateral seven day cease fire that began on June 20. Eighteen Ukrainian soldiers were killed during the cease fire. He then extended the cease fire three more days, during which 9 more Ukrainians were killed. [23] After the cease fire Ukrainian forces began a major offensive that by 5 July 2014 had liberated Slovyansk and Kramatorsk and forced Strelkov and his men to retreat to Donetsk. [24]

On 2 July 2014, President Petro Poroshenko appointed Valeriy Geletey as Minister of Defense. Victor Muzhenko was appointed Chief of the General Staff. They had both recently led a victorious assault on Karachun—a strategic hill overlooking Slovyansk. After the successful liberation of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, the ATO began to pursue two objectives. The first was to surround Luhansk and the second was to re-establish control over the border with Russia. However, a week later there was still a gap in the border directly east of Luhansk that included two major highways that were wide open to fresh invaders. Ukrainian forces controlled the border south of that, but were trapped in a very narrow pocket with the terrorists on one side and the Russian border with the ever present and ever more active Russian regulars on the other.

The ATO had success in early July and had squeezed the pro-Russian forces into an area less than half of what they had once occupied. Sloviansk had been retaken by the ATO. Furthermore, the nearly completed closure of the border was eliciting a response from the regular Russian forces sitting on Ukraine’s border. The 24th motorized brigade from Yavoriv and the 79th Air Mobile brigade came under a brutal missile attack in Zelenopillia at 4:30am of 11 July 2014. They were hit by a hail of Grad missiles from the direction of the Russian border. In an instant they had suffered 19 killed and 93 wounded. [25] In addition to this shelling by Russian missile batteries, at noon on 12 July 2014, four armored columns proudly displaying Russian flags crossed the border heading for Luhansk. [26] The next day, a concentration of Russian troops and vehicles displaying the Russian flag were seen near Heyivka in the Luhansk oblast’ near the Russian border. They appeared to be allowing for the rotation of pro-Russian troops from Luhansk. [27] That same day a Ukrainian Su-25 (NATO designation Frogfoot) ground attack fighter was hit and damaged by a man-portable air-defence system (MANPADS) surface-to-air missile. Authorities claim that the plane managed to return to base. [28] The attempt by the ATO to surround Luhansk was later abandoned lest those Ukrainian troops find themselves trapped in a pocket facing fresh troops from Russia.

On 14 July 2014, the narrow pocket of Ukrainian forces along the Russian border came under another intense attack. The open south end of the pocket was below the war memorial of Saur Mohyla (barrow) on a strategic high ground held by the Vostok terrorist battalion. Ukraine’s volunteer battalion, Azov, had sustained heavy losses here earlier on 6 July 2014. [29] A Russian victory here could result in a complete encirclement of Ukrainian forces holding the border which were already barely defensible positions. But since Russia was prepared to fire across the border these positions could be held only if Saur Mohyla was taken. Ukraine announced the taking of Saur Mohyla on 28 July 2014. [30] The resupply of the Ukrainian forces that were pinned to Russia’s border was being severely compromised. Reports were surfacing that the 5, 000 men located there were running low on ammunition, food, and water.

On Monday 14 July 2014 at about 2:30pm an AN-26 transport plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile in Luhansk oblast’. [31] It was flying at about 6400 m (21, 000 ft.) when it was hit by what experts conclude was a Buk (rhymes with duke) surface-to-air missile. [32]  Ukrainian officials concluded that the surface-to-air missile had to be fired from inside Russian territory. [33] It is likely that the transport plane was involved in a resupply mission for the beleaguered forces at the border. It may be that it was at this point that Strelkov’s terrorists asked Russia to supply them with their own Buk anti-aircraft missiles.

On 16 July 2014 the terrorists in the area of Saur Mohyla began a massive attack from the village of Stepanivka. The attack against the Ukrainian post employed tanks, mortars, and portable missiles. [34] The National Guard fought off the attack and pushed the enemy back to Stepanivka. The previous night the forces of the ATO had been attacked by Grad missiles, mortars, and self-propelled 122mm guns. [35] That fire came from the direction of the Russian border. The forces of the ATO reportedly returned fire. [36]

The Moment

The world was stunned on Thursday 17 July 2014 by the horrifying news that a Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 flying at 33,000ft from Amsterdam to Malaysia had crashed in eastern Ukraine near the Russian border. [37] Given the altitude of the airliner, only a sophisticated Buk surface to-air-missile could have brought it down.

Monitors of the internet had recorded Strelkov, the self-appointed ex-GRU Minister of Defense of the terrorists, bragging on Twitter about bringing down a Ukrainian AN-26 transport plane following the crash. At present, the terrorist site Russka Vesna continues to claim that they hit a Ukrainian military aircraft that day. [38] The photo of their victim’s wreckage on their website is that of the AN-26 that was shot down three days earlier.[39]

The Ukrainian SBU released recordings of phone conversations of the terrorists. The following is a translation of a conversation just as the plane was hit.

Strelkov: ‘The plane was hit! Look at those black spots, these are the parts, flying … it was a blast … look, look, black smoke!’

Another voice: ‘It was worth bringing this thing, wasn’t it?’

Strelkov: Just now the plane was hit
Second man: All over! It is already over!
Strelkov: It is going down now somewhere in the Progress area
Second: It is over! It is over!
Strelkov: We are out now, watching. Look at those black spots, these are parts, flying. And it was a blast…
Third man: Yes, I see
Strelkov: Look, look, black smoke right behind Terrikon [slag mound], where Progress is…
Third: It is now when the real work starts.
Second: F*** plane!
Strelkov: Look, look at the smoke!
Third: That was a blast!
Strelkov: Call him now!
Second: They got it, they hit it! They shoot and hit it!
Third: (laughs) It was worth bringing this thing, wasn’t it? [40]

Then immediately afterwards, Strelkov tweeted the following:

“‘In the area of Torez we just shot down an An-26, it’s lying somewhere in the mine ‘Progress.’
‘We warned you – do not fly in ‘our sky.’ And here is the video confirmation of the ‘bird dropping’. ‘The Bird fell near the mine, the residential sector was not disturbed. Civilians are not injured.’” [41]

In subsequent days several sources confirmed that Malaysian Airlines MH-17 was shot down by a Buk M1 surface-to-air missile (NATO designation SA-11 Gadfly) launched from inside terrorist territory between Snizhne and Saur Mohyla, and crashed near the town of Torez. [42] Reportedly, two Buk systems had recently been provided by Russia. [43]

Intelligence from civilians with pictures and video evidence, combined with SBU intercepted phone conversations, allow us to paint a picture of this infamous Buk missile battery. It was transported by tractor trailer on 17 July 2014 to an area just south of the town of Snizhne. [44] The SBU voice recording supports this:

“Talks between terrorists, July 17, 2014

Khmuryi: Sergei Nikolaevich Petrovskiy, Officer of Main Intelligence Directorate of Russian Federation, the Deputy Chief of Intelligence for Igor Girkin (Strelkov); at the time of the interception he was in Donetsk.

Buryat: militant of rebel group Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR)

Buryat: Where should we load this beauty, Nikolaievich?

Khmuryi: Which one? This one?

B: Yes, the one I’ve brought. I’m already in Donetsk.

K: Is it the one I’m thinking about? “B…,”M” one?

B: Yes, yes, yes. “BUK”,”BUK”.

K: Is it on a tractor?

B: Yes, it’s on it. We need to unload it somewhere, in order to hide.

K: Is it with a crew?

B: Yes, with the crew.

K: Don’t hide it anywhere. She’ll go there now.


July 17, 2014

Khmuryi: Tell me, have you brought me one or two?

Buryat: One, one. Because they had a misunderstanding there. They didn’t give us a tug. We loaded it and went at their own pace.

K: Did it go on her own or on a tug?

B: It crossed the line (border).

H: And now have you brought it on a tug [tractor trailer]? Don’t put in anywhere… I’ll tell now where it should go, it will go together with “Vostok” tanks.


July 17, 2014

Khmuryi and “Sanych” – militant of terrorist organization “DNR”. Deputy of Khmuryi.

Khmuryi: Sanych, the point is that my “BUK–M” will go with yours, it is on a tug. Where should I drive it to put in a column?

Sanych: There, behind “Motel”, not reaching Hornostaevka.

Khmuryi: Just after the Motel, right?


July 17, 2014

Khmuryi: Listen to me carefully, behind the circle near “Motel” there will be you know what. Call to “Bibliotekar” (Librarian). Bring inside only those, who just came back, only as much as you need for the convoy. Leave everyone else here. Not far away there is Pervomaiskoe, look at the map.

DNR militant: I got it.

Khmuryi: Settle somewhere in that area, bring there those who are left. Your task is reserve, plus protection of this piece, which you will drive now. “Giyrza” will come there too. If anything, I’m on line.

DNR militant: Ok.


July 17, 2014

Khmuryi and “Botsman” – officer of Main Intelligence Directorate of Russian Federation (to be identified).

Khmuryi: Yes, Botsman, I’m listening.

B: Hello, big brother. How are you?

K: Not so well. We are in Mariinovka. That’s why not well. Carrying on.

B: What’s wrong?

K: What do you think? (The Ukrainian army is) attacking with “Grad” (multiple-rocket launchers) all the time, finally now we’re having a little break. We’ve just hit a plane, Su–type. Because we’ve got BUK–M. They (Ukrainian soldiers) are now in Zelenopillja, trying to break free, but their way out is only through me. Yesterday we hit 2 Su jets, today – another two. Thank God “BUK–M” arrived today in the morning. It became easier. But in general, of course, it’s tough.

B: What can I say, if you need anything, call me – and I’ll arrive immediately.

H: Thanks, brother. I’m going in two hours…Seems like it’s a lull. In two hours I’m heading to Donetsk. Because I was sent three more “Gvozdika” (self–propelled artillery). Will carry ‘Gvozdikas’ here because it’s really tough now.

B: Maybe we should cover them with (our own) Grad (multiple-rocket launchers)?

H: The thing is that we have Grad, but no spotter. And secondly, we are waiting for Russia to f*** them from their side.” [45]


U.S. Intelligence assessments agree that the terrorists launched the Buk M1 missile that brought down flight MH-17 and that the missile was transported from Russia. [46] They have also noted that the systems have been quickly shipped back to Russia. [47]

Meanwhile, the crash site which is near the village of Hrabove directly north of Torez on the Donetsk-Luhansk oblast’ border, was poorly secured. Men in fatigues wandered the site, disturbing the evidence while pilfering items such as credit cards. [48] The plane’s black-boxes were also taken and were threatened to be sent to Moscow. At the same time, international forensic experts had delayed access to the site. It was on the fourth day, only after a UN Security Council resolution on the subject that international experts were allowed to perform their work. [49]

Ignoring world opinion and scrapping any pretense of non-involvement in actual combat, that same 17 July 2014 Russian forces scrambled a MiG-29 fighter across the border and fired a missile at a Ukrainian Su-25 ground attack aircraft. The Su-25 was damaged but returned to base. [50]

The misguided missile attack on flight MH17 was clearly part of the terrorists’ anti-aircraft tactics in the Saur Mohyla battle which attempted to interdict the resupply of Ukrainian forces. The 298 innocent lives from four continents added to the body count of Ukraine’s battle to secure its border with Russia.

The events of 17 July 2014 come just a day after the U.S. boosted the level of its sanctions on Russia. This included, for the first time, sectoral sanctions against specific companies including Rosneft, Gazprombank, Vnesheconombank, VEB, but they stopped short of freezing their assets. [51] On 21 July 2014 Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, John Baird, announced that Canada is expediting new sanctions against both individuals and entities. [52] Russia appears to be oblivious to sanctions, international law, and world opinion in pursuing an imperial goal that should have no place in the 21st century.

So far, much of the world had been able to turn a blind eye to events in Ukraine. The shoot-down of the Malaysian aircraft has brought the world’s attention to Russia’s hybrid war on Ukraine. Nearly a century ago it took the sinking of the Lusitania to bring America into a stalemated war. Today, the question is whether the U.S. or the EU will react by shipping badly needed military hardware to Ukraine, or will they continue to ignore the collapse of the very rules of conduct that brought them the comfort and wealth that they take for granted?