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29 September 2016

How will the MH17 report impact Russia’s relations with the West?

  There is now little doubt that Moscow is responsible for handing over the missile to its separatist proxies in eastern Ukraine.

By David Patrikarakos

I was stood among the tents and makeshift huts in Independence Square on 17 July 2014 in central Kiev when I heard that flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kula Lumpur had been shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board.

Ukraine was already in turmoil. Remnants of the protestors that had gathered in Independence — or Maidan — Square during the popular uprising that overthrew former President Ukrainian Viktor Yanukovych in February of that year still remained there. A hardcore of people, some of whom had nowhere else to go, others who claimed they would not leave until Ukraine had fully reformed its corrupt political system.

Worse, the war in eastern Ukraine between the Ukrainian army and Russia-backed separatists was raging. Ukrainian soldiers were coming home in body bags; Russia (though it officially denied any involvement) continued to send troops and weaponry across the border.

MH17 changed everything. It sent the Ukraine crisis global. Whoever had shot down the plane — and in the immediate aftermath social media was ablaze with competing theories — had killed almost 300 civilians, most of them EU nationals. The US and the major European powers, which had condemned Russia’s March 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and swiftly introduced a first round of sanctions following the staged “referendum” that formalised it, introduced yet more just over a week after the MH17 tragedy.

The debate around who shot down MH17 has raged for two years — though despite Russian propaganda, which has consistently attempted to shift blame onto Kyiv, claiming, that a Ukrainian fighter jet shot down MH17 — it has long been clear that the plane was downed by pro-Russia separatists with a Buk (surface-to-air) missile given to them by a Russian army division. Indeed, Washington made such a claim just days after the event.

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But now, just over two years on from that horrific day, the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) has officially concluded the same. The team, which consists of prosecutors from the Netherlands, Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and Ukraine (countries whose nationals died onboard plus Ukraine), amassed such a wealth of evidence that it has been able to apply standards of evidence admissible in court in building a case that has directly implicated Russia. The report, which was released on 28 September, concluded that the Buk missile was delivered into Ukraine from Russia at the request of pro-Russia separatists and crossed the border back into Russia the same night.

The JIT also officially located the missile’s launch site — long known anyway — to a field just east of the village of Chervonyi Zhovten (Red October), and south of Snizhne — territory controlled by Russian-backed rebels, thus contradicting Russian claims that the missile was launched from Ukrainian controlled territory.

The report’s finding are unequivocal and the chief Dutch police investigator Wilbert Paulissen said as much: “Based on the criminal investigation, we have concluded that flight MH17 was downed by a Buk missile of the series 9M83 that came from the territory of the Russian Federation,” he told a news conference on Wednesday

The question is: what happens now? Russia has, naturally, rejected the report’s findings and has already used its UN Security Council veto to stop a Dutch request to establish an international tribunal into MH17. And while the report did not name any suspects, prosecutors say that will come in time. But the Russian Constitution prohibits the extradition of Russian nationals abroad for trial and in any event, Moscow would likely see any extradition as an intolerable admission of guilt.

As adamant as the report’s findings are Moscow is equally adamant of its innocence. “This whole story, unfortunately, is couched in a huge amount of speculation, unqualified and unprofessional information,” said Russian President, Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov. “If any missile had existed, it could have been fired only from another territory. I do not say which exactly territory it could be. It is specialists’ business,” he concluded. 

The report is not the final stage of the investigation. More work is yet to be done on identifying specific suspects but the route of the Buk missile from Russia into Ukraine and back is now officially established. There is little doubt that Moscow is responsible for handing over the missile to its separatist proxies in eastern Ukraine.

This may bring some comfort to the families of those that died onboard, but closure will be hard to come by until the culprits are identified and tried. The chances of that, alas, remain as remote as they were two years ago. And in the meantime, from Ukraine to Syria, Russia marches on.