This week (September 28), a Dutch-led group of investigators from the Netherlands, Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and Ukraine published the preliminary results of their more-than-two-year investigation into the crash of flight MH17. The Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 was shot down, on July 17, 2014, over territory of Ukrainian Donbas controlled by Russia-backed separatists. The crash killed all 298 people on board, most of them Dutch. The international investigation team gathered forensic evidence and witness accounts that prove MH17 was downed by a surface-to-air BUK M1 missile, known in the West as the SA-11 Gadfly. The investigators established the missile was fired from rebel-controlled territory south of Snizhne, from a field outside the rebel-held village of Pervomayskoye. Wilbert Paulissen, chief investigator with the Dutch national police, told reporters: “This BUK came from the territory of the Russian Federation, and after the launch it was returned again to the territory of the Russian Federation” (Kommersant, September 29).
The international investigators say they have a list of about a hundred suspects involved in the transfer of the BUK missile launcher from a Russian military base, apparently in the Kursk oblast, to Pervomayskoye. Names of the suspected individuals, which include Donbas rebels and Russian military personnel, were not announced; and the Russian state was not directly indicted as the guilty party, since it is not yet officially established that Russian military personnel moved and fired the BUK missile, either on orders of superiors or by acting independently. The Dutch authorities apparently hope some of the suspects will come forward and provide key evidence in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Additional evidence is needed to help clarify exactly what happened on July 17, 2014, who gave the orders, who actually pressed the firing button and, most importantly, what was the chain of command that sent the BUK and its Russian launch crew into Donbas (Interfax, September 28).
When the extent of the Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 tragedy became evident in July 2014, the Moscow-backed rebels in Donbas as well as the Russian military and civilian authorities went into full denial mode. They blamed the Ukrainian military for either accidentally shooting down MH17 or doing so intentionally in order to implicate Russia. The Russian military put forward several different scenarios, implying either a Ukrainian BUK M1 was involved or a Ukrainian military jet blasted the passenger plane out of the sky. In any case, the Russian military denied and continue to adamantly deny any complicity in the face of mounting evidence. The Russian military and the Kremlin firmly deny any BUK M1 launchers or missiles ever crossed into Donbas from Russia. Moscow insists the war in Donbas, which began in April 2014 and has continued intermittently since then, is exclusively an internal Ukrainian matter. Against all odds, Moscow denies any weaponry or ordinance has ever been supplied over the border. The latest findings of the MH17 crash investigators were welcomed by Kyiv, which, from day one, has blamed the rebels and Russia for using a BUK M1 to shoot down the Malaysian jet. Moscow, in turn, has rejected the results of the investigation, calling them shallow, inconclusive and lacking any strong evidence (Interfax, September 28).
Despite the remorseless spin coming from Moscow, the overall picture of what happened on July 17, 2014, seemed rather obvious long before the Dutch-led group of investigators produced their compelling case. During the summer fighting in Donbas in 2014, the Ukrainian military was using jets and helicopter gunships to attack the Russia-backed rebels. The Ukrainian side was also air-dropping supplies to its military units attempting to take back control of the Russian-Ukrainian border to stop the flow of combat supplies and fighters coming in to fuel the rebellion. The rebels were losing the fight and pleading for anti-aircraft capabilities—more or less like the Syrian rebels today, in and around Aleppo. Moscow intervened by supplying potent anti-aircraft weapons systems. Thus, since August 2014, the Ukrainian military stopped using its depleted air force in the Donbas fighting. In effect, Russia has imposed a no-fly zone over Donbas, with only reconnaissance drones in the air for over two years. Flight MH17 was apparently shot down erroneously: It was probably mistakenly identified as a Ukrainian military transport plane on a supply mission (see EDM, July 24, 2014). The relatively primitive radar targeting equipment of the BUK M1 launcher did not allow the Russian crew to recognize the difference between a transport An-26 and the Malaysian Boeing 777 (see EDM, July 16, 2015).
The Russian authorities and military could have acknowledged this tragic mistake early on without actually accepting full legal responsibility by, say, pushing part of guilt on the unruly rebels. Indeed, no one seemed to have wanted the international passenger jet destroyed. Instead, Moscow staged a clumsy premeditated cover-up of the MH17 shooting, which is legally worse and politically much more damaging than a tacit admission of involuntary manslaughter in the course of military activities.
At the same time, Moscow and the West are using conflicting vocabularies, which makes meaningful discussions difficult if not impossible. The best Russian-made propaganda pitches fall flat outside its borders, while Western arguments are dismissed in Moscow. The tradition of public lying is institutionalized in Russia, additionally enhanced by decades of Communist totalitarian rule characterized by double speak and mind policing—especially severe within the career military and the ruling elites. Russian military cadets know early on that constant lying is smart and when addressed to outsiders is absolutely acceptable. This attitude may be one of the reasons the present Russian leadership is gravitating to United States presidential candidate Donald Tramp.
Illustratively, on September 28, the ruling United Russia party’s Alexei Pushkov—who was chair of the Foreign Relations Committee in the outgoing State Duma (lower chamber of parliament) and has now been moved by the Kremlin to the Federation Council (upper chamber)—slammed CNN for “falsely” handing Hillary Clinton a victory over Trump in their first presidential debate (held on September 26). According to Pushkov, the US media is not independent, but part of Clinton’s campaign (TASS, September 28). Trump, on the other hand, is seen in Moscow as a smart cynic, not restrained by facts or ideology, with whom game-changing deals could perhaps be struck, re-dividing the globe into spheres of influence—while squabbles like the one over MH17 could be put aside or papered over.