MH17 downed by ‘Russian military’ missile system
Investigation team says it has evidence Buk system that fired missile came from Russia
Members of the Joint Investigation Team with part of the Buk rocket that was fired on flight MH17 in 2014. Photograph: Robin van Lonkhuijsen/AFP/Getty Images
In a significant step towards laying the blame for the shooting-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 at the door of the Russian state, international investigators say the Buk missile that destroyed the jet in July 2014 was supplied by a Russian military unit.
An interim report by the investigators, published in the Netherlands, traced the missile to Russia’s 53rd anti-aircraft missile brigade, based in the western city of Kursk, and added that “all the vehicles in the convoy carrying the missile were part of the Russian armed forces”.
Wilbert Paulissen, head of the Dutch national crime squad, said this was based on “convincing legal evidence that will stand up in a courtroom”, though he said there was “still work to be done” before charges could be levelled against those responsible.
This is the first time the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) – made up of crime experts from Australia, Malaysia, Ukraine, Belgium and the Netherlands – has come close to suggesting Russian complicity in downing the airliner, even to the extent of providing the missile system.
Even so, Dutch prosecutor Fred Westerbeke remained wary of going further than the evidence warranted, acknowledging only that it prompted new questions, “such as how actively involved the brigade itself was in bringing down Flight MH17”.
However, there’s no doubt that the report poses real political problems for the countries most affected by the disaster – in which 298 passengers and crew died, including 80 children and three infants – not least in terms of how they deal with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Those concerns are best illustrated by the fact that shortly after the contents became public, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte announced he was cutting short a trade visit to India in order to return to The Hague for a cabinet meeting on Friday.
As expected, the JIT analysis confirmed the findings of a report by the Dutch Safety Board in October 2015, which concluded that Flight MH17 had been shot down using a Russian-made Buk 332 missile system fired by pro-Russian separatists from territory they controlled in eastern Ukraine.
It goes somewhat further in that it identifies the suppliers of the Buk missile and missile launcher as a specific Russian military unit, and says that particular unit had control of both before the missile was fired from a farm near the village of Pervomaisk, in eastern Ukraine.
However, it’s significant too that the JIT is still calling on members of the 53rd anti-aircraft brigade or their relatives, or anyone with information, to come forward.
“Who formed part of the Buk crew?” asked Mr Paulissen. “What were their instructions? Who was responsible for its operational deployment on July 17th, 2014? We are convinced that many people have this information.”
The Russian defence ministry, in a statement carried by state media, rejected the JIT report, saying it had “brought the relevant evidence to the Dutch investigation team”.
It said that from the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe, and subsequently, it had categorically denied “the insinuations of the Ukrainian side about the involvement of Russian servicemen”.
And it added that, contrary to the evidence presented by the JIT, “not a single anti-aircraft missile system from Russia has ever crossed the Russian-Ukrainian border”.
Even if Thursday’s report does ultimately lead to criminal charges against named suspects, those suspects are expected to be tried in absentia in the Netherlands.
That is both because Russia used its veto last year to block a UN Security Council resolution calling for a special international tribunal, and because it is inconceivable that Moscow would agree to extradite anyone charged.