Who took down MH17? With their thousands of hours of research, they probably know more of the Malaysian airliner disaster than all journalists put together. And yet, Dutch MH17-experts Max van der Werff and Marcel van den Berg each come to different conclusions.
This post first appeared on Russia Insider
Up to last year Max van der Werff earned a living as a corporate investigator for a German company. He now sells electric bikes to German delivery services for a Dutch company. Marcel van den Berg is an independent IT specialist. He advises his clients in the field of cloud computing and server virtualisation.
Both men provide a blog, Max van der Werff: Kremlintroll (formerly: May 7) and Marcel van den Berg: What happened to flight MH17? Max van der Werff went to Donbass twice to investigate the crime scene. He speaks and reads Russian, but not well enough to properly understand everything published on the internet about MH17. Both researchers are in contact with Russians and Ukrainians who help translate.
Their names may be non-existent in the Dutch newspaper columns and in the news programmes on radio and television; but the efforts the two MH17 experts have put in their research are valued by various relevant parties. Like members of the Dutch parliament, as well as the detectives of Joint Investigation Team (JIT), and last but not least family members of the 298 victims (most of them Dutch) of this terrible disaster, which took place in Ukraine on 17 July 2014, when flight MH17 of Malaysia Airlines, going from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot from the sky.
Max and Marcel. How did you get interested in MH17?
MARCEL: I've been an aircraft spotter for most of my life. Whenever an accident occurs with a plane, I'm interested to determine the root cause. I found it strange that in the case of MH17 it took so long before the investigation started. Even when it had become clear to everyone the crash site was safe, it took some time before investigators visited it. I started blogging in September 2014. My knowledge of air traffic control and radars helped me in my research on MH17.
MAX: I grew up on the edge of the Iron Curtain. My father worked at a NATO airbase in Germany. This is how I got interested in the Soviet Union and geopolitics. When NATO began bombing former Yugoslavia in 1999, I quickly made the analysis: 'This is only just the beginning. It's a tryout to create problems for Russia.' I foresaw that Georgia and Ukraine would follow.
The story of MH17 is very much connected to the geopolitical conflict that is taking place there. The MH17 disaster would not have occurred if East and West had chosen to reach an agreement on Ukraine instead of seeking a confrontation. I immediately realised: MH17 is used to frame Russia as an inhumane regime which shoots down civilian aircraft without a thought. And as it took longer for evidence to come out, my curiosity grew.
Are there politicians, journalists, official researchers and relatives following your research?
MARCEL: I do no keep a record of that. I'm not very interested to know. In any case on Twitter I have a member of parliament following me, Pieter Omtzigt of the CDA, and a journalist, Jeroen Akkermans of RTL.
MAX: These two are following me on Twitter as well. And the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
And relatives of the deceased?
MARCEL: I speak occasionally with some of them, including Thomas Schansman, who wrote a letter to Putin, Poroshenko and Kerry.
MAX: I met with some of them, but I never contacted them myself.
MARCEL: Nor do I. I came in contact with some of them after they had asked me to give a presentation.
Max, some detectives of the Joint Investigation Team (JIT), which leads the criminal investigation, have visited you several times.
MAX: Yes. The first time they came to pick up items from the Boeing, which I had received from people living near the crash site. I also was interviewed by JIT detectives three times and I handed over some data they asked for. It turned out that they had read my blog and that of Marcel very well. And they asked super-detailed questions.
Marcel, have you been in contact with JIT or Dutch Safety Board (DSB)?
MARCEL: I've contacted DSB several times. But to all my questions I received the same answer: 'If it's not in the report, we cannot say anything about it.' They have cited in their report from a page on my website though.
Could we say that the two of you have a better understanding of MH17 than all journalists put together?
MAX: Each of us knows more about MH17 than all journalists combined.
MARCEL: Certainly so.
MAX: Marcel has more sense of technical issues like radar information. I have a blind spot for that. And his blog is fantastic. It's the MH17 file.
MARCEL: I'm not a radar expert, but I know one that I sometimes consult. Max has visited the crash site, and the area around it, and has spoken to people there. I lack that kind of experience.
Max, you have named your blog 'Kremlin Troll'. Why?
MAX: I was accused by some Dutch journalist of being a Kremlin Troll.
So then you thought: I'll use it as a nom de guerre?
MAX: I have explained it on my blog. I dedicated an article to it, 'Why I'm a Troll.'
There have been two official investigations. The one from Dutch Safety Board (DSB) into the technical cause of the crash has been completed. The main conclusions are: MH17 was hit by a BUK rocket, and Ukraine should have closed its airspace in the Donbass region.
The second investigation, the criminal investigation, of Joint Investigation Team (JIT), aimed at identitying the suspects, is still ongoing. The preliminary conclusions are: It was a BUK, launched from rebel held area, and the installation used for this purpose was delivered by Russia and was transported back to Russia after the disaster.
Max and Marcel, who do you think are responsible for the downing of MH17?
MARCEL: I'm 100 percent convinced that someone from the Russian army has pushed the button. But Ukraine bears responsibility too, for not having closed its airspace. A few days before the disaster, an Antonov transport plane was shot at 6500 meters height. And there were also helicopters taken down.
In addition, Malaysia Airlines was so naive to fly over the area without verifying if it was still safe to do so. On the question if the Dutch state is to be blamed, I'm not sure. There were airliners that had stopped flying over the area, perhaps because they were indirectly warned by intelligence services.
MAX: Airplanes shouldn't have been allowed to fly over the area. You can blame Ukraine for that. But until now I haven't seen any evidence the weapon that took down MH17 came from Russia. Such evidence was not presented by JIT, in fact by no one. At the same time I don't exclude the possibility. It is still open to me.
I'm curious why you think differently about the alleged Russian involvement. But first let's presume, theoretically, there are two possibilities: MH17 was taken down either by accident or intentionally. If it happened intentionally, then the question is: qui bono? Is there a party that benefited or could have benefited from the disaster?
MARCEL: I do not see a motive. Using my imagination, for sure I could come up with the wildest scenarios. But I'm not a conspiracy thinker. I prefer to stick to the facts.
MAX: It has most likely been an accident. But if MH17 was taken down to put the blame on another, then the guilty party must have been Ukraine, or a faction of the private army of Igor Kolomoisky, the Ukrainian oligarch. But that's a hypothesis. There is no proof.
Valentin Nalyvaichenko, former head of the Ukrainian secret service, SBU, claimed MH17 was shot down intentionally. The Russians planned to bring down one of their own Aeroflot planes, so that they could blame the Ukrainians and would have a justification to invade Ukraine. But the Russians screwed up their own false flag by hitting the wrong plane.
This story of Nalyvaichenko is so exotic that it makes me laugh out loud.
This Nalyvaichenko is also suspected of involvement in the theft of the paintings from the Dutch Westfries Museum. And the SBU, led by him, tortures people. It's beyond me the Dutch government is doing business with these kind of people and parties.
You do not believe that MH17 was shot down intentionally?
MARCEL: To me that seems out of the question.
MAX: Not to me.
If MH17 was hit by accident, could it be it was Ukraine that pushed the button? There's this theory the Ukrainians tried to bring down Putin's presidential aircraft, that was to fly over the same area around the time MH17 was brought down.
MARCEL: That's nonsense, because Putin's plane just wasn't there. I have this screen dump from Flightradar. On that you can clearly see: Putin's plane flew over Warsaw, not eastern Ukraine. Even Russia Today indicated that Putin had not flown over Ukraine for months.
MAX: There's more to the story. That day Putin came from Brazil, where he had attended a conference of BRICS countries. He was to fly to a conference in Rostov, southern Russia. His plane and MH17 crossed each other at Warsaw, with half an hour difference. But instead of flying to Rostov via Warsaw, over eastern Ukraine, as planned, Putin decided to refrain from the conference in Rostov and flew directly to Moscow.
MARCEL: I think it's a waste of time to pay attention to these kinds of stories. The MH17 was a Boeing 777. It looks very different from Putin's Ilyushin 96. The colour scheme is completely different, the 777 has two engines, the Ilyushin four engines.
MAX: In 1983 a Korean Kal 007 was taken down, flying over soviet territory, by a Soechoj because the pilot mistook it for a reconaissance plane.
So I can imagine that a fighter pilot flying 10 miles from Putin's aircraft, with the aim to take it down, mistook MH17 for Putin's plane. But just the same, I think it's an unlikely story. The perpetrators would have been tipped off in a timely manner that Putin's Ilyushin 96 took a different route.
If the separatists did it, what about the theory that they shot at Ukrainian fighter jets using MH17 as a shield?
MARCEL: That's out of the question. From what I understand the radar of a BUK Telar is of high precision. It's perfectly able to distinguish a Boeing 777 from a fighter jet flying closeby. Fighter jet pilots probably knew that and would not take the risk either.
Also, there are no reports by for example airline pilots that their aircraft was being chased by Ukraine fighter aircrafts. The TCAS system in the cockpit is able to detect aircrafts flying close by.
Many eyewitnesses say they saw jets just before MH17 came down.
MARCEL: I have no doubt that they were there. There are indeed many eyewitnesses who speak of it.
MAX: One month before MH17 was taken down, Elena Kolenkina, widow of rebel leader Motorola, reported that a Ukrainian fighter jet hid behind a passenger plane. According to her, this happened with the intention to trick the separatists into hitting a passenger plane, so that Kiev could use this in its propaganda war against the separatists.
I have interviewed witnesses who claimed they have seen SU-25s. But these are jets built to destroy ground targets, a sort of anti-tank weapons. They usually fly very low, to prevent them from coming within reach of the radar and air defence.
But this shield theory makes perfect sense. Imagine there are no civil aircraft in the area. Then the people of the air defence do not need to take into account something they see flying could be an airliner. Because they know for sure: 'Everything that flies is military.' So imagine there are civilian aircraft flying over the area. Then you'll have a factor of uncertainty. The air defence crew will have to think twice before they start shooting at every object they see flying. 'Is it civil or is it military? If we doubt, let's not shoot.' In this sense, Ukraine has used passenger aircraft as a shield. They consciously haven taken the decision not to close the airspace.
MARCEL: Yes, I think so too. They have left the airspace open, not to create a physical shield for fighter jets, but to prevent the separatists from getting trigger happy.
It's very possible that an Ilyushin 76 or an Antonov, a transport plane, has flown close to MH17. I do not exclude that possibility. It's a fact that Ukrainian troops were trapped between the border with Russia and the area in Donbas controlled by separatists. Two days before the MH17 disaster there was this dramatic phone call from a soldier with a Ukrainian TV station who said, 'We're stuck here. We have no food and drink anymore. We are being shot at from all sides. And we receive no help at all.' And so it's quite possible that, alarmed by this distress call, the Ukraine military decided to send a transport plane to drop supplies.
Both Russia and Ukraine say: 'There was no other plane on the radar.' But suppose they are lying, and that there was another plane on the radar.' Then both Ukraine and Russia would benefit from not making this public. Because if it became clear to the investigators there was another plane, that could be interpreted as a motive for both parties to have pulled the trigger.
So it could very well be that an Ilyushin or Antonov used MH17 as a shield. The pilot might have thought: 'As long as I keep close to this airliner, the air defence of the separatists will not shoot at us.'
MAX: Ukraine had two other motives to keep its entire airspace open. First of all: The traffic rights amounted to a few thousand euros per airliner. Secondly, they just didn't want to admit that they lost control of the territory. It would have been a disgrace.
The JIT has investigated the possibility that MH17 was taken down by another aircraft. They now have excluded that possibility. You too?
MARCEL: 100 percent. The damage to the plane could not have been caused by anything other than a BUK rocket. If MH17 had been hit by an air-to-air missile, fired from a fighter jet, we would have known. Almost all air-to-air missiles contain 'rods', a kind of metal strips like bullets. They leave a clear fingerprint, a certain kind of holes not found on MH17.
The JIT has also found parts of a BUK rocket in the plane wreck. Then some might argue they could have been planted there. But the investigators found that the paint on the hull of the plane corresponded to the paint on the BUK particles.
MAX: I still do not want to exclude the possibility MH17 was taken down by another plane. But there is no serious party that defends such a scenario.
A Canadian investigator of OSCE was one of the first foreigners who visited the crash site. He declared the holes in the fuselage looked like the holes of machine gun fire.
MAX: Michael Bociurkiw spoke out of turn. It seems he didn't speak on behalf of OSCE.
MARCEL: Everyone who's not a specialist would initially say that those holes in the cockpit look like they've been caused by something like a board gun. One has to be a specialist to know what the damage caused by a BUK looks like.
MARCEL: Last year the Russian Ministry of Defence firmly declared that there were no aircrafts flying close to MH17 that could have been responsible for its destruction.
MAX: That sure was a remarkable press conference of the ministry. Because not only weren't there any aircrafts to be seen on the displayed images, there was no rocket either. Mind you: at the press conference of July 21, 2014 the Russians showed radar images with something that looked like an SU-25. So last year they debunked their own 2014 story. What were they thinking? They made a complete fool of themselves. The information management of the Russians, as far as there is any, is just worthless.
What particles have been found in the physical remains of the pilots?
MARCEL: The JIT and DSB have found two butterfly-shaped particles in the body of one of the pilots. And butterfly-shaped is unique to the BUK rocket.
Member of parliament Pieter Omtzigt revealed earlier this year that DSB mistook the autopsy report of the pilot for the autopsy report of the reserve pilot, and vice versa.
MAX: That's a spectacular mistake. In each airliner you have a pilot, a co-pilot and a spare crew. Halfway during the flight, the reserve pilot goes into the cockpit, accompanied by the reserve co-pilot. So this is essential: the pilot and co-pilot were both in the cockpit, but not the reserve-pilot and the reserve co-pilot. And thus, if you perform an autopsy on the reserve pilot, who was not in the cockpit, it should have been impossible to find any particles in his body.
MAX: Only BUK particles have been found in the cockpit. Not elsewhere in the plane.
Is that right Marcel?
MARCEL: Yes, the passengers did not have any fragments.
MAX: Not even the first-class passengers in front.
Max, you said you have not yet ruled out the possibility that MH17 was hit by an air-to-air missile from another plane. But am I correct you are inclined to think it was a ground-to air missile?
MAX: I have never defended the fighter jet scenario. It has always been an option, like is was for JIT until last year. But probably it was a BUK. Although I find it remarkable that JIT still has not made clear what type of BUK they think was used. They promised to disclose the exact weapon. But they didn't. At last year's presentation they said it was a BUK of the BUK 9M38 series. But there are two different ones: the 9M38 with the 9N314 combat head, and the one with the butterflies, the 9M38M1 with the 9N314M combat head.
Is it important to know the type of BUK that was used?
MAX: It's very important. If the butterflies they found are real then you can exclude the 9M38, because there are no butterflies. Then you can say without hesitation: 'It was the 9M38M1.'
MARCEL: The butterfly-less 9M38 is no longer used by Russia. Only Ukraine is still using it. This tells us JIT has not yet excluded Ukraine as a suspect.
MAX: The 9M38 is an old type, and the Russians say that they still have it, but they do not use it anymore. And they also say they have warned the Ukrainians that their 9M38's have passed the expiration date. Ukraine has never been to Almaz-Altey, the Russian producer of the BUK, for an upgrade. The Ukrainians have modernized their BUKS, via Ukroboronprom.
MAX: I think that is very important.
MARCEL: Me too.
MAX: Not only did JIT not reveal the exact weapon. The exact coordinates of the BUK-launcher have not been mentioned either.
But anyway, the fact that they didn't say 'It was the 9M38M1' indicates they think this is not the weapon that was used. Can you follow that logic?
MAX: They haven't excluded the possibility that it was the 9M38, without butterfly pieces.
They say they are sure they've found butterfly pieces. But they do not conclude from this: 'It was a 9M38M1, because it's the only BUK that contains butterfly pieces.' I think this is telling. Either you do not trust your own proof, or you have another reason not to disclose the type of weapon. What other reasons could there be not to be open about this?
What do you think, Marcel, why are they hiding the info about the exact type of BUK they think was used ?
MARCEL: I do not know. One can only speculate about it. Perhaps it was a missile of a BUK the separatists had stolen from the Ukrainian army.
MAX: That's what the German Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) claims. They've given no proof for it, but still it is an official publication.
MARCEL: But imagine that it was a BUK the separatists had stolen from the Ukranian army. And suppose JIT had revealed that MH17 was hit by an outdated type of rocket originating from the Ukranian army. That would have led to a lot of confusion, such as journalists jumping to the conclusion the Ukranian army had taken down MH17. To prevent his from happening JIT kept silent about the exact weapon that was used.
MAX: Almaz-Antey has done an experiment with a BUK 9M38M1. They detonated that BUK on a plane that was on the ground. The plane then ended up loaded with butterfly-shaped fragments. Why is it so few fragments have been found in and around the wreckage of MH17? There might be a good explanation for this. But why has nobody taken this into the discussion? It is a relevant question.
Do you have an explanation for this Marcel?
MARCEL: I was in contact with an anonymous person who knows very much about BUKs. He told me that at the time of the explosion there's so much pressure on the fragments in the combat head, that when they leave the head, they are so distorted that they have partially lost their butterfly shape.
I do not exclude that technical explanation, although one should be careful with anonymous sources. They can have a hidden agenda. From this person I had the suspicion he was pro-Kiev. But I also do no not rule out the possibility that Almaz-Antey has deliberately put some butterfly shapes in this plane using some kind of device.
It took a long time before the investigators reached the crash site. There must have been plenty of opportunity to remove evidence or to put it there.
MARCEL: Parts of the cockpit roof and business class have never been found. But to be able to plant evidence, parts of the plane must have been taken away first. To me that's an unlikely scenario.
MAX: The bodies of the deceased have been transported in refrigerated trains from Torez to Charkov. Who knows what happened along the way.
Marcel, why are you so sure MH17 was brought down with a BUK installation, delivered by Russia, from an area controlled by separatists?
MARCEL: I'm not sure that the BUK Telar, that was photographed and filmed on its way from Russia to Eastern Ukraine, was used to shoot down MH17. There is simply no proof for that. But we do have two pictures of the smoke plume of the launched BUK. There are also a number of people who have shown that they saw a rocket flying over the area. I have not heard any trustworthy story that a BUK was launched from another location. There are zero indications for that. No pictures, no witnesses, nothing.
I took a close look at this village, Zaroshchenske ....
MAX: It's for certain no rocket was fired from Zaroshchenske. Because I spoke to so many people and nobody there saw anything.
MARCEL: But that's what the Russians say: Zaroshchenske.
MAX: No. That's not what they say. The only thing they do say is: 'There was a BUK unit of the Ukrainian army in Zaroshchenske.' They never said, 'They fired from that location.' See their press conference of 21 July 2014.
Max, for you there is no reason to believe a BUK rocket was launced from rebel-controlled area in Pervomais'ke?
MAX: JIT claims there are witnesses who have seen it there. But these are either anonymous or non-anonymous witnesses. I have interviewed the non-anonymous myself, and they are telling just nonsense. One person told four different stories, to RT, Radio Free Europe, The Daily Telegraph and to me.
In the vicinity of Pervomais'ke it's easy for journalists to get any story they want. 'Here you have a crate of beer, a bottle of vodka and a hundred dollars. Now please tell me this and that.' People living there are inclined do that. I may be exaggerating, but I'm sure things like that really happen.
And something I do not understand: time and again journalists tell us their witnesses want to remain anonymous because they fear for reprisals. Then why is it their sources do not seem to have any problem talking to complete strangers, foreigners, and trusting them with their lives?
The above interview was originally published in Dutch on Novini.nl. The original article is much longer, and delves into the propaganda war surrounding MH17, the dubious role of Ukraine's SBU in the investigation, the radar and satellite data, the geopolitical shadow play of the Dutch government - and the diminishing possibility of bringing suspects to justice. Only one paragraph has been added to the original article for reasons of clarification.
Eric van de Beek studied journalism at Windesheim University in Zwolle, and philosophy at the University of Amsterdam. For years he worked as a journalist for the Dutch leading weekly Elsevier. Now he mainly writes for Holland’s one and only geopolitical magazine Novini.
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