Several witnesses saw an anti-aircraft missile launcher that had secretly crossed into eastern Ukraine from Russia hours before it shot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, a trial in the Netherlands has heard.
Buk’s system crossed the border in the dark in the early hours of July 17, 2014. It was then loaded onto a trailer and taken to the rebel-controlled city of Donetsk, the court heard on Wednesday, before heading to the east towards the city of Snizhne.
Along the way, residents, a journalist and a passing driver saw the distinctive launcher. It carried four missiles. A Russian military crew accompanied the anti-aircraft gun, along with separatist fighters from the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), it was said.
Four suspects are on trial for their alleged involvement in the downing of MH17. The Buk was parked in a farm field south of Snizhne. Later that day, he shot down the passenger plane, which was on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, and killed all 298 people on board, the court was informed. Russia has denied its responsibility.
At the time, pro-Moscow rebels were losing ground to a Ukrainian military advance and separatist forces were vulnerable to attack by Ukrainian fighter jets, which had caused heavy casualties.
The court heard intercepted conversations in which the four defendants discussed the Buk and its need for an air defense weapon. Three of the four are Russian. The highest ranking officer is Igor Girkin, a former FSB spy agency officer who in April 2014 led the armed takeover of the Ukrainian city of Slavyansk, then withdrew to Donetsk.
The others are Sergei Dubinsky, head of the DNR’s military intelligence service, and his deputy, Oleg Pulatov. The two were closely related to Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency, which supplied the rebels with weapons, the court was told. The fourth man, Leonid Kharchenko, a Ukrainian, was a DNR field commander.
The rebels variously referred to Russia as “Moscow,” “you know who,” and the “neighbor to the east.” They discussed how the Buk, or “the toy,” as one commander put it, would dramatically transform the DNR’s fortunes on the battlefield and prevent its tanks from being eliminated.
“If I receive the Buk in the morning, I will send it to you,” Dubinsky said, according to a recording of a July 16, 2014 phone call transmitted by Ukraine’s intelligence service to Dutch investigators and played out in court. “If not, things will be totally screwed up.” Dubinsky also told Pulatov: “Our only hope is the Buk.”
After the Buks entered rebel territory, the couple spoke extensively about their route and destination, the court was told. The convoy traveled alongside and separately from a shipment of three tanks belonging to the Vostok battalion of the DNR. By mid-morning on July 17, he had reached a crossroads in Donetsk.
The presiding judge, Hendrik Steenhuis, said several witnesses noticed the anti-aircraft gun, which was being dropped by a white Volvo truck, which the rebels had previously taken from Donetsk. Videos played in court showed the Buk passing Soviet-era apartment blocks under a bright cloudy sky and rolling down a main road. It was also recorded on a dash cam.
All witnesses were anonymous, identified by a letter and a number. Some had uploaded evidence and images to the Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT), which carried out the criminal investigation and concluded that a Russian missile had shot down the Boeing plane. The court was informed that two armed men had threatened a witness and forced him to change his testimony on Russian television.
The trial has progressed through a series of preliminary hearings since its opening in March 2020. Its massive file follows a seven-year international investigation. It includes phone calls, cell phone tower data, satellite images and material from public sources collected from Twitter and Facebook, as well as witness statements, Steenhuis said Wednesday.
The four suspects were not in the courtroom near Schiphol airport and are being tried in their absence. They face life sentences if convicted of murdering the 298 people. Only Pulatov is represented by defense attorneys, who have told the court that he is innocent.
Earlier, the trial heard how the Kremlin presented misdated and altered satellite images as “evidence” days after the MH17 explosion. Moscow has suggested that Ukraine is to blame. Dutch experts said Russia had Photoshopped the images, and the dates changed as well.
The trial continues on Thursday.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism