Five years ago today, Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was destroyed over eastern Ukraine. All 298 people on board were killed. The downing of MH17 took place in the early stages of Russia’s proxy war in Ukraine, which rages to this day and has claimed more than 13,000 lives. It revealed to the wider world one of the defining traits of Vladimir Putin’s time in power in Russia — his regime’s disregard for human life.
Immediately after MH17 was downed, suspicion fell on the Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Soon, however, overwhelming evidence began to emerge that regular Russian forces were to blame. This evidence, uncovered by journalists and analysts, has been pieced together by the Joint Investigation Team (JIT), which is composed of officials from Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine.
According to the Dutch-led JIT, MH17 was downed by a Buk surface-to-air missile belonging to the Russian 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade. The Buk was held near Russia’s border with Ukraine for several hours before being moved to a position directly under MH17’s flight path. Russia cleared the skies on its side of the border to stop aircraft straying into the flight path. Once in position, the Buk waited for 20 minutes, fired a single shot, and immediately returned to Russia.
Last month, the JIT identified four men — three Russians and one Ukrainian — who have now been charged with murder. International arrest warrants have been issued. Although the four are not accused of firing the Buk, they are said to have played an “important organising role” in transporting the Buk from Russia to Ukraine and allowing it to be fired. They will be tried in a Dutch court — Dutch, because 193 of the passengers were from the Netherlands — beginning on 9 March, 2020.
From almost the moment MH17 was destroyed, the Kremlin’s media outlets have spewed out all kinds of outlandish theories: the Ukrainian military downed the plane in a botched attempt to kill Putin; the CIA were responsible; the plane was full of corpses when it took off from Amsterdam for Kuala Lumpur. According to journalists at the Dutch weekly De Groene Amsterdammer, in the two days after the downing Russian trolls posted at least 65,000 tweets denying Moscow’s involvement.
Unsurprisingly, Russia’s authorities are refusing to cooperate with the JIT. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has dismissed the investigation as “biased” and “one-sided”, and Mr Putin maintains that there’s “absolutely no proof” Moscow was involved in MH17’s destruction. Russia is unlikely to surrender the suspects, as it does not extradite its own citizens. Yet the suspects are not the only ones who will be on trial — the Kremlin, and its lies, will be too.
The murder charges brought against the four suspects do not account for the whole story and should only be the beginning. Considerable effort now needs to be devoted to unravelling the complex chain of command above and below these four men. There are important questions that need to be answered. Who at the highest levels in Russia approved moving the Buk into Ukraine? What are the names of the crew members who actually accompanied the Buk?
The destruction of MH17 is inextricably linked to other acts of Russian aggression that show contempt for the rules-based international order. From the attempted assassination of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in 2018 to meddling in the 2017 French presidential election and 2016 US presidential election, the Kremlin clearly believes — despite the imposition of sanctions by the West since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 — that it can act with impunity. It is for the West to demonstrate that it cannot.
Natalia Galibarenko is the Ukrainian ambassador to the UK and Dr Andrew Foxall is director of the Russia and Eurasia studies centre at the Henry Jackson Society