Investigators Conclude Flight MH-17 Shot Down By Missile Brought Into Ukraine From Russia
An investigation into the 2014 downing of Malaysia Air Flight 17 over Ukraine has determined that the passenger jet was brought down by a missile brought into eastern Ukraine by Russia as part of its support for pro-Russian rebels:
A Dutch-led investigation has concluded that the powerful surface-to-air missile system used to shoot down a Malaysia Airlines plane over Ukraine two years ago, killing all 298 on board, was trucked in from Russia at the request of Russian-backed separatists and returned to Russia the same night.
The report largely confirmed the Russian government’s already widely documented role not only in the deployment of the missile system — called a Buk, or SA-11 — but also in the subsequent cover-up, which continues to this day.
The report, by a team of prosecutors from the Netherlands, Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and Ukraine, was significant for applying standards of evidence admissible in court while still building a case directly implicating Russia, and it is likely to open a long diplomatic and legal struggle.
With meticulous detail, working with cellphone records, social media, witness accounts and other evidence, the prosecutors traced Russia’s role in deploying the missile system into Ukraine and its attempts to cover its tracks afterward. The inquiry did not name individual culprits and stopped short of saying that Russian soldiers were involved.
Announcing their findings at a news conference in Nieuwegein, in the Netherlands, the investigators were clear, however, that they planned to identify suspects and to determine who they think gave the orders and what their intentions were, in preparation for bringing criminal indictments.
The evidence presented in the report strongly implicated the Russian authorities in a broad sense. The inquiry was the most detailed investigation to date of the attack on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, a Boeing 777 flying to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, from Amsterdam. It is unlikely that anyone not connected with the Russian military would have been able to deploy an SA-11 missile launcher from Russia into a neighboring country.
The report brought to light intriguing new evidence of the missile launcher’s route from Russia to Ukraine and back to Russia, if not identifying precisely who ordered that journey.
Investigators suggested that a cooperating witness was a rebel soldier who had guarded the missile convoy on its quick return to Russia after the launch.
They published new photographs of the launcher, perched on its flatbed trailer, being towed around eastern Ukraine by a white Volvo truck that had been commandeered from a heavy-equipment rental company in Donetsk.
The investigators said they had found a missile nose cone and fin by sifting through thousands of pieces of debris from the crash scene, listened to about 150,000 intercepted telephone calls and examined half a million photographs.
One of the eeriest pieces of evidence emerged last year and was highlighted again on Wednesday. The pilots had no chance of saving the plane, and were perhaps the first to die, because the missile exploded yards from the cockpit. But one carried to earth in his body a pivotal clue: a butterfly-shaped piece of shrapnel, a trace from a type of warhead installed in Buk missiles in Russia’s arsenal, but not Ukraine’s. Both countries possess Buk missiles, but the model types are distinct.
It would have been a hard piece of evidence to fake. Plastered onto the shrapnel shard, investigators said, were microscopic traces of glass of the type used by Boeing on its airliner cockpits, indicating clearly that it had passed through the plane’s windshield before lodging in the pilot’s body.
In support of its conclusions, the Court provides a timeline:
First, in intercepted telephone conversations from the evening before the attack, separatists in eastern Ukraine were heard requesting the Buk missile system in order to defend themselves from Ukrainian airstrikes. Later, according to the intercepted conversations, they were told they would receive the weapons system that night.
Second, the investigators found that a convoy of trucks brought the missile system, along with a large military vehicle that is used to launch the missiles, from the Russian border to the spot from which the missile was launched. The team said it had used intercepted phone calls, social media posts and witnesses’ testimony to piece together the route that the convoy took. It stopped in Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, where several witnesses saw the trucks, including a white one carrying the missile-launching vehicle.
Third, the inquiry identified a patch of farmland where the missile was launched, about eight miles southeast from where the plane crashed.
Finally, the investigators pieced together what they said was the path the missile system took on its way back to the Russian border. They said they had spoken to a separatist who confirmed part of the return route.
In many respects, of course, this report is merely confirming and providing much more substantial evidence for a conclusion that has seemed rather obvious since authorities began investigating the fate of Flight 17 two years ago. The circumstances under which it disappeared from radar, combined with the ongoing fighting in the area and the fact that pro-Russian rebels had been using increasingly advanced equipment to target Ukrainian aircraft, and the fact that there were no military jets of any kind in the area made it more likely than not that it was a ground-fired missile that brought the plane down and that this missile came from somewhere in the territory controlled by the rebels in the eastern part of the country. Indeed, the theory that it was a Russian missile that brought the plane down has been at the top of the list for investigators. For example, within hours after the crash U.S. intelligence sources had concluded that the plane had been taken down by a surface-to-air missile. Two weeks later, it was reported that an initial investigation of the crash site and the recovered debris indicated evidence consistent with a missile strike. Since Ukrainians did not have any surface to air missiles in the area where the plane went down, the obvious conclusion was that the plane had been downed by a Russian missile fired either by the rebels or by Russians themselves. The Russians, of course, vehemently denied this and also denied that they had given the rebels any access at all to surface-to-air missile technology. Additionally, the Russian people saw regarding the downing of MH17 was quite different from what was being reported elsewhere in the world. It’s not surprising, then, that the Russians are already pushing back on this report quite heavily: Finally, last October investigators reported that preliminary evidence made it more likely than not that the plane was taken down by a missile. Now, we appear to have as conclusive evidence as possible where that missile came from. Of course, what happens next is an entirely different question.
To be fair, it seems likely that the downing of Flight 17 was an accident rather than a deliberate act. For weeks prior to the event, pro-Russian rebels had been targeting Ukrainian military aircraft and, in some cases, succeeded in shooting them down with weapons far less advanced than the missile system brought into the fight just prior to the downing of Flight 17. More likely than not, it’s likely that the operators of the missile system were not well-trained enough to be able to differentiate between a radar signal from a military aircraft and a radar signal from a civilian airliner and that the missile was fired in the belief it was being targeted toward a military aircraft. I suppose its possible that the rebels could have been deliberately targeting a civilian craft, but it seems unlikely simply because there would be nothing for them to gain from such as attack, and a lot to potentially lose if they were caught targeting such a plane. The fact that it may have been a mistake doesn’t reduce their culpability of course, but it does help explain why this may have happened.
The Russians are likely to deny these conclusions and to attack the investigation as having been biased against them. Additionally, given the reality of media censorship inside Russia it’s unlikely that the Russian people will learn anything about this unless they happen to have access to foreign news sources. We can also forget about the Russians cooperating in handing over the pro-Russian rebels who were likely involved in this attack, not to mention the members of the Russian Army or intelligence services who likely provided technical assistance in the operation of the missile system. At the same time, the West would seem to have few real options in acting at this point. There will likely be a call to increase sanctions against Russia because of this, but ever since the seizure of Crimea nearly three years ago now the Russians have shown that they are little bothered by the sanctions that have been imposed. Additionally, given the fact that several European nations remain dependent on Russia for fuel supplies such as natural gas, it’s unlikely that there would be much agreement for the kind of crippling sanctions that might actually have an impact on Russian behavior. Instead, Russia is likely to get away with this notwithstanding the overwhelming evidence in support of their culpability.
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