Who brought down MH17? To the Dutch government it is certain that the Russian military is to blame. But according to researcher Max van der Werff there is every reason to doubt. “Based on the evidence that has been made public, I still cannot reach any definitive conclusion.”
The disaster of flight MH17 was caused by a Buk missile that was launched from an agricultural field in Eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian rebels. Thus the official investigators of the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) announced in September 2016. The installation that launched the fatal Buk missile is believed to be transported from Russia to Ukraine. In May 2018 the JIT added that the Buk installation came from the 53rd Brigade of the Russian army, but it is still unclear whether that brigade itself was actively involved in the shooting down of the Malaysian passenger plane. Subsequently, the Netherlands and Australia accused the Russian Federation of complicity for the disaster.
It appears that few in the Netherlands still doubt the official position of the JIT. If we are to believe the Dutch government and media, Russia is the major culprit. MH17 blogger Max van der Werff, however, stubbornly maintains that essential parts of the JIT investigation are flawed. Van der Werff’s name may be missing in the Dutch newspaper columns and from current affairs programs on radio and television, his findings are valued by mayor players concerned, not in the least by researchers from the JIT. Van der Werff was interviewed extensively by JIT investigators on three separate occasions. He has also submitted to them items from the plane that he received from people living in the disaster area. Van der Werff has traveled twice to eastern Ukraine to conduct his own research. He speaks Russian, has a background as a corporate investigator and has spent thousands of hours trying to find out the true cause of the disaster. His findings can be read on his blog Kremlintroll. Before the start of his investigation on MH17 Van der Werff made a name for himself as an independent investigator of war crimes commited by the Dutch military during the Indonesian War of Independence.
In June 2017 Dutch online magazine Novini published a comprehensive double interview with Van der Werff and another MH17 blogger, Marcel van der Berg, who claims he is confident about Russia’s involvement in the disaster. A part of this interview was published in English on Russia Insider. Novini invited both experts to follow up on their dialogue, but Van den Berg was unwilling to participate this time.
Max, last year we examined in great detail the first three years of MH17. In your opinion, what are the most important events and developments over the past year?
Without a doubt, the formal accusation of the Russian Federation by the Netherlands and Australia, followed by the first real firm denial by President Vladimir Putin. The positions on what really happened can no longer be reconciled and neither party can go back.
Has your view on the disaster changed since last year? Are there any scenarios that you have eliminated? Or maybe there is a scenario that you want to defend?
Everyone seems to know exactly what happened. However, on the basis of what has been publicly disclosed as evidence, I still cannot draw any definite conclusion. If you find that strange, then examine my article MH17 – 1448 Days before making a judgment. In that article, I analyze all of the evidence which the JIT has presented, ranging from the first press conference on September 28, 2016 until the present.
I do not exclude the possibility that MH17 was shot down by rebels with a BUK installation supplied by Russia. However, I remain definitely open to scenarios that differ from the JIT finding due to the fact that not everything is known about the exact cause or all of the relevant circumstances. For example: the possibility that the rebels brought down MH17 with a weapon captured from the Ukrainian army. Or that an exercise by a brigade of Ukrainian air defenses got out of hand. The latter is a real possibility. Ukraine is capable of such a thing. In 2001, during a military exercise, a Russian charter aircraft was shot down over the Black Sea. Kiev initially denied being responsible.
On the raw radar images that Russia delivered in 2016 and 2017, no other aircraft can be seen in the vicinity of MH17. Would this by now be a reason to exclude the scenario that MH17 has been shot down by a fighter jet?
On the raw radar imagery supplied by Russia, not only are there no other planes seen, but there is also no missile seen. It is certain to me that fighter planes have flown just before MH17 came down. There are simply too many people who have seen that. That they flew at a low altitude is probably the reason that they cannot be seen on radar images. I am not an expert; therefore, I will not make any statements about that. However I did speak with dozens of people in the disaster area who have seen or claim to have seen something. One of those persons is Lev Bulatov from Petropavlovka. Lev saw fighter jets flying over at low altitude: not one, not two, but three! During the interview I did with him, he was standing in the same spot where parts of the wreckage of the Boeing fell into his garden.
How do you know if Lev Bulatov speaks the truth?
Of course I am not sure if he is telling the truth, but to me he seems very credible. He is willing to make a statement under oath and with a lie detector. Unfortunately, to date the JIT has not interviewed him.
If Lev speaks the truth, and all of those many others who have seen fighter planes just before or during the downing of MH17, of course it is no proof at all that a fighter plane is the murder weapon. However, Kiev is lying about the fact that the air force that day was grounded. Hence, you can ask yourself: why would Kiev lie about its Air Force remaining grounded on July 17th 2014 if fighter jets were not involved in the incident in any way, not even indirectly?
Russia blames Ukraine for having brought down MH17. Has Russia ever provided serious evidence for that claim, apart from the fact that Ukraine has kept its airspace open in the middle of a war zone?
Russia has not presented any congruent scenario about what has happened. Russian information management concerning MH17 is embarrassingly bad. That is why I recently wrote a letter to Dmytri Polyanskiy, the Russian representative at the United Nations. And I even received an answer from him.
Minister Stef Blok of Foreign Affairs has accused Russia in the UN Security Council of a lack of cooperation in the MH17 investigation. Is it clear to you what he meant by that?
It seems that Blok meant that Russia does not send the JIT any information which would confirm that Russia is guilty.
I have asked the JIT about this lack of cooperation from Russia. The reaction I received showed that Russia is being accused of not admitting that Russia has deployed a BUK-Telar in the east of Ukraine and was involved in the downing of MH17.
Is that a legitimate accusation?
Minister Sergej Lavrov of Foreign Affairs states that Russia has responded to all requests for legal assistance from the JIT and the Dutch Safety Board. He did so during a joint press conference with Minister Stef Blok in Moscow. Blok did not contradict that at the time.
On the Russian side, several objections have been raised that the JIT did not include all data supplied by Russia in its research. Is that right?
I think so. Chief investigator Fred Westerbeke of JIT pointed out in an interview that he did not include in the research the report from BUK manufacturer Almaz Antey. He literally said: “Their conclusion is the total opposite from our own conclusion. We disagree with it. However, I am not going to judge whether their conclusions are wrong or right.”
I found it rather disconcerting to read this, because Westerbeke actually says: The only information we want from Russia is information that would demonstrate their guilt, the rest does not interest us and we will not bother falsifying data that would benefit Russia.
The Netherlands holds Russia liable for the demise of MH17. Do you have any idea why the Netherlands doesn’t also hold Ukraine liable? After all, Ukraine had kept its airspace open after military planes had been shot down earlier.
According to journalist Pieter Klein of RTL Nieuws, the government has told the surviving relatives that holding Ukraine responsible for the open airspace might disrupt cooperation with Ukraine inside the JIT. That could in turn damage finding the perpetrators. The word ‘blackmail’ comes to mind when I read that the Netherlands is afraid of offending Ukraine.
Malaysia and Belgium have not joined the liability claim of the Netherlands and Australia. Do you think that’s because they really believe there is insufficient evidence, or is there something else at work?
The newly appointed Malaysian minister of transport, Loke Siew Fook, stated after the JIT press conference of 28 May 2018 that there is ‘no conclusive evidence’ of Russian responsibility for the taking down of MH17, and that for that reason, Malaysia did not join the liability claim from the Netherlands and Australia.
Of course there are other things going on as well. This has everything to do with geopolitics. The countries that are working together against Russia in the investigation into the MH17 disaster are the same ones that are working together in the case of the poisoning of the Skripals. I call these countries ‘the Yellow Team’, in the same veign as the picture that the British Ministry of Foreign Affairs distributed displaying the countries that expelled Russian diplomats because of the poisoning of the Skripals. These 26 countries claim to be ‘the international community’, but the fact is that over 80 percent of the world’s population is excluded.
Malaysia does not belong to this group of countries, so they can afford to hold a different view in the MH17 investigation?
Certainly. Their interpretation of international law is also very different. What hardly anyone knows in the Yellow Team area is that a Malaysian court in 2011 convicted former US President George W. Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair for war crimes and genocide committed in Iraq.
Also, do not forget that Malaysia was initially not admitted to the official investigation. I can imagine how that must have been unpalatable to the Malaysians. Imagine that a plane from KLM with 43 Dutch on board was shot down above Burma and the Dutch were not allowed in the investigative team. How would that feel?
Another important factor and possible game changer is that the 92-year-old Mahathir bin Mohamad recently became prime minister of Malaysia. In 2015, when he was still in the opposition, he voiced strong criticism of the official investigation.
There’s a reason the Netherlands and Australia only informed Malaysia at the last minute that they were going to hold Russia legally responsible. Malaysia is not being trusted. The Netherlands and Australia suspect Malaysia of leaking to Moscow.
Why did Belgium not join in holding Russia liable?
RTL Nieuws has submitted this question to the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs but has received no answer.
The role of Belgium is interesting. Why is Belgium part of the JIT at all? They lost four citizens, as much as Germany. Other countries that are not on the team, Indonesia and Great Britain, lost more citizens, twelve and ten respectively.
You have been researching the MH17 disaster for four years now. To what extent is it possible as a citizen to falsify any claims of the JIT? You cannot gain access to all the evidence they submit, such as anonymous eyewitnesses and the remains of a BUK missile.
Falsifying is indeed difficult if you do not have access to the underlying data. However that the MH17 research is faulty remains clear to me. The suspicions went to Russia and the rebels from the very beginning. Just look at the composition of the JIT, where Ukraine is part of but not Russia. Of the five countries included in the JIT, four belong to the Yellow Team. Add to this the fact that the JIT ignores evidence provided by Russia and that it does not make any statements about the liability of Ukraine in connection with the non-closure of the airspace. Also telling: all telephone taps that the JIT presented as proof of the guilt of the rebels and the Russians come from the Ukrainian secret service, SBU. No serious court would value any evidence provided by this organization.
The telephone taps delivered by the SBU to the JIT, have you been able to falsify those?
Immediately after MH17 was shot down, the Ukrainian secret service, SBU, released an audio tape in which rebels allegedly admitted to shooting down MH17. Virtually all media in the world presented the audio as authentic, without reservation. Analysis of the audio clearly shows that the voices have been tampered with and that there has been all kinds of cutting and pasting. I have extensively covered this forgery in November 2015 in my article ‘MH17 – Lying for Justice’.
The SBU is not just the supplier of counterfeit tap calls. It is also the organization suspected of the robbery of paintings in the Westfries museum. They have spread fake news about an attack on former minister of Foreign Affairs, Bert Koenders, and recently they have staged a murder scene with a journalist.
In a response to a broadcast from Zembla, the JIT has stated that two former SBU executives have never been involved in providing any evidence. How do you see that? Does the JIT indirectly disqualify the telephone taps supplied by the SBU?
I think so. The two former SBU top people are Valentyn Naleyvaichenko and Vasyl Vovk. They left the SBU in 2015. However in 2014, during the shot down of MH17, Naleyvaichenko was at the head of the SBU and Vovk was head of investigation. Hence, they were responsible for the evidence that was delivered to the JIT.
Nalyvaichenko is the man who in August 2014 lied about rebels in Eastern Ukraine having tried to shoot down a Russian passenger aircraft in order to provide Russia with a casus belli. The SBU removed that lie from its own website, but it has been archived and there is also a video from the press conference.
It would also be good to understand that the JIT does not want to be associated with Vovk, the former MH17 principal investigator of the SBU. He said that Jews are not Ukrainians and that they must be destroyed. He also said that JIT researcher Wilbert Paulissen is a friend of his and that he stayed at his house. His view of the disaster is also different. According to Vovk, MH17 may have been shot down with a BUK which the rebels had captured from the Ukrainian army.
With the new SBU head, Vasyl Hrytsak, the Dutch authorities won’t feel comfortable either. That is the person responsible for the murder of a Russian journalist, which was staged with pig’s blood, and yet Hrytsak was still present at the last press conference of the JIT. You can see him sitting to the right of leader of the investigation, Fred Westerbeke.
I think the Netherlands made a big mistake when they became so close with Ukraine. People have underestimated how corrupt and criminal the current regime is. It now even appears that Kiev has spied on the Dutch MH17 mission.
The British investigative collective Bellingcat plays a remarkable role in the MH17 research. Many of their findings have been taken aboard by the JIT. They have severely attacked you several times. You would be a “useful idiot” of Putin; you criticize only Western research but not Kremlin propaganda.
You forget the word truther. The word is mainly linked to people who question the official version of 9/11.
Eliot Higgins, founder of Bellingcat, again recently called me a truther and idiot. That was because of my correspondence with the Russian representative at the United Nations. I asked Polyanskiy why Russia does not provide satellite data and other data to support its claim that Ukraine had BUK installations in the vicinity of the crash site.
Polyanskiy replied that Russia has done this and will add data, but that the JIT ignores it. Higgins then completely twists Polyanskiy’s words. Higgins turns “delivering satellite data” into “Russia admits it submits MH17 Truther websites and blogs about #MH17 to the JIT as evidence.” And then he adds: “Russia admits to supplying conspiracy blogs to the JIT as #MH17 evidence. If they have to resort to that then they really are totally fucked.”
When I challenge Higgins on this, he tweets: “I don’t deal with idiots like Max who still think MH17 was a false flag.” Here I still get off easy. “Suck my balls” is how Higgins addresses Russian diplomats. Shortly after the publication of an article about this vulgarity, Higgins quietly removes three tweets, but fortunately they were archived online.
Obviously, the rough language of Eliot Higgins cannot be justified. However, it was a reaction to an allegation from Polyanskiy. He said that Bellingcat and JIT based their claims on counterfeits. When Higgins asked him to prove this, he did not respond. That is not good, is it?
Not good indeed.
You have followed the route which, according to the JIT and Bellingcat, the Volvo low-loader with the BUK installation would have taken. You came to a place near a bridge, and you asked yourself if the low-loader would fit underneath. Does that or any other findings from you, demonstrate that the route indicated by the JIT can not be correct?
Higgins reacted almost immediately. Again, the slur truther was made with the reprimand that the Buk could have driven via ‘the really obvious turn’ if it wouldn’t have fit under the bridge.
After the tweet from Higgins, I went back to the spot and made a video that shows that the ‘really obvious exit’ cannot be used at all because of concrete blocks which have been there for years.
The issue here is not whether the Buk fits under the bridge or not, because the Telar can be driven from the low-loader before the bridge, and after having passed the bridge drive back on the low-loader again. The issue here is that Higgins from his sofa claims something with absolute certainty, and when a refutation of his claim is made by someone who does research on the location, he does not withdraw his claim.
It is typical of Bellingcat. It is also worrying, given Bellingcat’s large influence on journalists who do not perform any investigations, not even into the financing of that group.
Bellingcat states that you have never faulted and corrected MH17 investigative results from the JIT and Bellingcat. What is your reaction to that?
This is a typical Bellingcat approach. They make the frame and others have to respond. I now set my own frame for this: The Ukrainian intelligence service, SBU, is the main supplier of the evidence to the JIT, and Bellingcat acts as a conduit. I’m doing an article on this. Get ready.
The original Dutch language version of this article was published July 11th 2018 on Novini
Eric van de Beek studied journalism at Windesheim University of Applied Sciences and philosophy at the University of Amsterdam. He works as a journalist for Dutch geopolitical magazine Novini.