MH17 still divides the West and Russia, one year on
Moscow rejects calls for international court to examine fatal Malaysia Airlines flight
The site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 air crash near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region. File photograph: Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters
Most were Dutch tourists, but there were also dozens of Malaysians and Australians heading home, and delegates travelling to an international Aids conference in Melbourne. In all, passengers from 10 countries were on the aircraft, 80 of them children.
Just over three hours into the journey, with flight MH17 cruising at about 500 knots (926 km/h) at an altitude of 10,060m, air traffic control in Dnipropetrovsk, eastern Ukraine, sought to hand over monitoring of the plane to colleagues in Rostov, southwestern Russia.
At 4.21pm local time the crew of MH17 failed to reply to a message from Dnipropetrovsk, which contacted Rostov to ask if it was following the flight on its radar screens.
“No,” Rostov replied. “It looks like that object’s started to break up.”
The aircraft and its passengers landed in the tiny villages and towering sunflower fields of eastern Ukraine, scattered across an area of some 15km in territory controlled by a motley rebel militia of local men and fighters from Russia.
The villagers, already rattled by weeks of artillery fire between the militants and government forces, heard bodies hit their roofs, saw them fall into their dusty, potholed streets and found them lying in their verdant allotments and orchards.
“I heard a noise and thought shells were hitting us, but it was people landing. One hit an electricity line and cut off power to the street,” Vasily, who found two bodies in his garden, told The Irish Times in the village of Razsipnoye.
His neighbour Larissa described what she had witnessed.
“I saw the plane coming down over the village and, as it fell, people poured out of it as if from a bucket,” she said.
“The plane was falling above me, spinning, and bodies were dropping all around. They dropped like bombs, but they were bodies.”
Ukraine and the West had no doubt that the rebels shot down the flight, using a surface-to-air missile either seized from a Ukrainian military base or brought over the open border – along with vast quantities of other weaponry – from Russia.
Local people were quick to repeat theories about the disaster broadcast by Russian state television and militia leaders: that a Ukrainian jet had shot down MH17; that the airliner had been filled with dead bodies and intentionally crashed to discredit the rebels; that it had been spying on rebel territory or had been hit by a missile fired by Ukrainians who mistook it for Vladimir Putin’s presidential plane.
In the minutes after the Boeing was brought down, however, Russian television broadcast a report that would come to haunt the Moscow-backed rebels.
It quoted Igor Girkin, a former Russian intelligence agent who was then head of the rebel armed forces, proudly announcing that his men had destroyed what they thought was a Ukrainian Antonov military transport aircraft.
“We have just shot down an An-26. We warned them not to fly through our airspace,” wrote Girkin, who goes by the nom de guerre “Strelkov”.
When the true identity of the aircraft became clear, the post was removed from social media and Girkin claimed his account had been hacked.
An ashen-faced Putin did not say who he thought shot down MH17, but placed responsibility on Ukraine because the aircraft was hit in its air space; to sceptics, it sounded like an evasion typical of a former KGB agent and lawyer.
Today’s anniversary of the disaster sees pressure again building on Russia and its proxies in eastern Ukraine.
Leaks from a report by Dutch accident investigators suggest that it will show that MH17 was destroyed by a Buk surface-to-air missile fired from rebel-held territory.
It is not clear whether the report will establish where the Buk came from, but investigative journalists have used social media posts and other open-source material to create a compelling timeline that suggests it came from a military base in Kursk, Russia, and quickly returned across the border after July 17th last year.
Moscow denies any involvement and state media have presented various accounts using “evidence” that has quickly been debunked; a state weapons firm that makes Buk missiles claims that a rocket now only used in Ukraine hit the aircraft.
Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop said such a court “would send a clear message that the international community will not tolerate acts that threaten international peace and security. . . and would maximise the prospects of securing international co-operation, which will be necessary for an effective prosecution”.
Amid reports that relatives of MH17 passengers are filing a $900 million (€824 million) US civil suit against Girkin and his allies, Russia remains steadfast in opposition to what it fears would be a biased, western-dominated criminal court.
Such a proposal, Russian deputy foreign minister Gennady Gatilov said this week, was “untimely and counterproductive”.