These proceedings are essential – not only do they mark the start of a process of closure for the relatives of the victims, they will also put the truth on the record
Nobody really doubts that Russia was responsible for the destruction of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014. All 298 people on board were killed, including 10 Britons.
And nobody really doubts that Russia will never admit its guilt. The time for doing so has long passed.
Nevertheless, the legal proceedings that are starting today in the Netherlands are essential – not only do they mark the start of a process of closure for the relatives of the victims, they will also put the truth on the record.
Overwhelming evidence has long existed that Russia was to blame for downing MH17. This evidence, uncovered by analysts and journalists, has been pieced together by the Joint Investigation Team (JIT), which is comprised of officials from Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine, and forms the basis of the Dutch proceedings. Last week, the Dutch Public Prosecution Service announced that its case file ran to 36,000 pages and was spread over 102 folders.
According to the Dutch-led JIT, MH17 was destroyed by a Buk surface-to-air missile belonging to Russia’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade. The JIT said the Buk launcher was transported to Russia's border with Ukraine from the Brigade's base in the city of Kursk, around 60 miles away. It was held there for several hours before being moved to a position directly under MH17’s flight path. Once in position, the Buk waited for 20 minutes, fired a single shot (see video below), and returned to Russia.
The JIT knows this because dozens of people, in both Russia and Ukraine, shot footage of the Buk’s convoy as it travelled to the launch site. Open-source investigators, including from the brilliant Bellingcat, used Google Earth to match specific locations. Intercepted phone calls show Russian-backed separatists requesting military support from Russian political figures, including — allegedly — Vladislav Surkov, Vladimir Putin’s then-adviser on Ukraine and whom separatist leaders called "our man in the Kremlin". These multimedia files form part of the Dutch case work.
Last June, the JIT identified four separatists – three Russians, Igor Girkin, Oleg Pulatov, and Sergei Dubinsky; and one Ukrainian, Leonid Kharchenko (see image below) – who have since been charged with murder. International arrest warrants have been issued. Although none of the four is accused of firing the Buk, they are said by the Dutch chief prosecutor to have played an "important role" in transporting the Buk from Russia to Ukraine "with the aim to shoot down an aeroplane".
From almost the moment MH17 was destroyed, Russia’s authorities have refused to cooperate with the JIT. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has dismissed the JIT’s investigation as an attempt at "discrediting the Russian Federation in the eyes of the international community". Russia said the investigation was based on dubious "sources of information" including evidence "fabricated" by Ukraine. For his part, Putin maintained that there was "no evidence" Moscow was involved in MH17’s destruction.
None of the four suspects will participate in the Dutch proceedings, and if the proceedings advance to trial it is unlikely that any will participate in that either. It is even more unlikely that any of them will ever go to jail. But under Dutch law the murder charges brought against the suspects are only the beginning. Prosecutors will also attempt to identify the complex chain of command above the men. In particular, they will seek to establish who at the highest levels in Russia approved moving the Buk into Ukraine.
These are not the only legal proceedings involving Russia at the moment. Both Georgia and Ukraine have brought Inter-state litigation against Russia in the European Court of Human Rights, for its actions in 2008 and 2014 respectively. Last month, a Dutch court ordered Russia to pay $50 billion to the former shareholders of Yukos, an energy company illegally expropriated by the Kremlin over a decade ago.
Such proceedings demonstrate that it is possible to hold the Kremlin to account for its crimes — and the West must continue to do this, no matter how long it takes.
Natalia Galibarenko is the Ukrainian Ambassador to the UK. Dr Andrew Foxall is Director of the Russia and Eurasia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society