A Buk anti-aircraft missile has been considered the most plausible culprit in bringing down MH17 since the first hours after the crash, so the conclusion of the Dutch safety board report comes as little surprise.
With the report issued on Tuesday failing to point the finger of blame, however, there are still questions about exactly what kind of Buk system, and under whose control, was used to bring down MH17.
Most evidence appears to point to a missile launched from separatist-controlled territory, possibly by a Buk brought across the border from Russia. But the Russian manufacturers of the Buk pushed their own account on Tuesday, claiming the warhead was an older version not in service with the Russian army but still used by the Ukrainians, and putting the launch site in a place nominally under Ukrainian control.
The critical piece of evidence taken from the MH17 crash site were two butterfly-shaped metal shrapnel fragments about 13mm wide, which the Russians deny could have been found.
The Dutch safety board report states that two such fragments, which it describes as bowtie-shaped, were recovered from the cockpit of the plane and from the body of the plane’s captain.
In a rival press conference in Moscow, Almaz-Antey, the manufacturer of Buk anti-aircraft systems, denied that any of the fragments were found at the crash site. “It is known that the Malaysian jet was peppered with diamond rather than butterfly-shaped holes,” the company said in a press release.
Their absence, Almaz-Antey said, showed that it was an old type of Buk missile, the 9M38, which was used. This was last produced in the Soviet Union in 1986, they said, and was no longer in service in the Russian army.
The Dutch report insists butterfly fragments were indeed found, and were proof that a certain kind of warhead, the 9N314M, was involved.
“Accounting for deformation and abrasion due to explosion and impact, the bowtie fragments found in the wreckage of flight MH17 match the 9N314M warhead bowtie preformed fragments in shape, size and weight,” an appendix provided by the Dutch National Aerospace Laboratory said.
The Dutch report said that kind of warhead could have been used in two variants of Buk missile, the 9M38 or the newer 9M38M1.
More evidence on the precise model of the missile used may emerge later in the criminal investigation. The safety board published pictures of three missile parts that could be from both the 9M38 and the 9M38M1 variants, but noted that it had not published all the images of the recovered fragments from the missile “in order to not risk impeding the criminal investigation”.
With the Dutch and Russian reports unable to agree even on which warheads and missiles would cause which kind of damage, the evidence and counterclaims are difficult to analyse.
What is known is that the Russian claims have changed on numerous occasions since the downing of the plane. Initially, the defence ministry said MH17 had been shot down by a Ukrainian fighter jet; when it became clear that Buk fragments had been found at the scene, this story was modified and Almaz-Antey’s version of a Ukrainian Buk was floated.
There is also a lack of clarity over who controlled the launch point that Almaz-Antey says the missile was launched from. It was close to the frontline but much of the area was under rebel control. Thus the eventual purpose of the counter-claims may not be to absolve the separatists fully, but to suggest they may have used a seized Ukrainian Buk system, rather than one sent across the border from Russia, thus formally absolving Moscow of blame.