It was just an ordinary flight, the sort that many of us take regularly. There were 80 children among the 283 passengers and 15 crew members who boarded the Boeing 777 aircraft in Amsterdam on a scheduled flight to Kuala Lumpur on that fateful day, 17 July 2014. Two thirds of them were Dutch nationals, with most of the other passengers Malaysians and Australians. None of them made it to their destination. Their body parts were scattered along with children’s toys and baggage over an area of more than 50-square kilometres. Some bodies landed inside houses, demolished by debris from the aircraft. Flight MH17 was struck by a Russian surface-to-air missile as it flew over the eastern part of Ukraine, a region where the Ukrainian armed forces had been in battle with Russian armed separatists for four months. The 298 slaughtered civilians number among the 13,000 killed to date in President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to maintain some form of influence over the future of Ukraine.
The sudden departure of Putin’s puppet President of Ukraine, Victor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia in February 2014 after the “Maidan” protests in Kiev, was both a set-back and opportunity for President Putin. The Kremlin’s disinformation machine described Maidan as a movement of fascists, anti-Semites and right-wing extremists, a line heavily propagated in all Russian media. Following the protests, Russian soldiers without insignia suddenly appeared in Crimea on the southern border of Ukraine. The Kremlin claimed that ethnic Russians, who made up a significant proportion of the population of Crimea, were at risk, portraying the soldiers as “freedom fighters”. A rushed election, which the international community announced to be illegal and rigged, took place, which enabled the Kremlin to annex Crimea.
This claim was repeated in the Eastern part of Ukraine, the Donbass and Luhansk region, where Russian convoys of troops, heavy weapons and tanks moved across the porous border to assist the local rebels, all of whom were said to favour integration with Russia. The armed “volunteer” groups and militias call themselves the “United Armed Forces of Novorossiya”, a term coined by President Putin for the unification of Ukraine and Russia under the control of Moscow. One vehicle in the convoy of heavy weapons contained the SA-11 Bukmissile system, the type confirmed to have shot down the MH17.
There is no doubt that it did, although Russia has persistently denied any involvement. The Novorossyia rebels claimed possession of the SA-11 in a tweet, since deleted, on 29 June 2014. Using witness testimony, intercepted phone calls, photographs and satellite imagery, a Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT) tasked with investigating the tragedy, was able to track the course of the missile trailer from Russia to the launch site in rebel-held territory and immediately back into Russian territory following the downing of the plane. Later in June 2016 the JIT published a photo of a large Buk missile component found at the MH17 crash site.
Days before the downing of MH17, the rebels had shot down two Ukrainian military aircraft. There is damning evidence from voice recordings that they thought they had shot down a third, not realising that it was a civilian airliner. Video evidence also shows pro-Russian rebels sifting through the wreckage and finding to their surprise that the aircraft was civilian rather than military. Taken on mobile phones by the rebels themselves, the sickening video shows the rebels holding guns and dressed in army camouflage as they wandered around the still-smouldering wreckage, expressing surprise and dismay as they find dismembered bodies of civilians with luggage tags showing they were from Australia and Malaysia. Despite their macabre discovery, the rebels are seen rummaging through luggage and gathering phones, wallets and other items of value.
Following the detailed JIT report in May 2018, Australia and the Netherlands announced that they were holding Russia responsible for the downing of MH17. A year later, the JIT identified four men whom it alleged were involved in bringing the Buk missile into eastern Ukraine, charging them with the murder of the 298 passengers and crew. Three of the men are Russian citizens, all linked to Russian intelligence services. Igor Girkin is a former colonel in Russia’s FSB, the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation. According to the prosecutors, Girkin was given the title of Minister of Defence in Donetsk. A second Russian, Sergei Dubinsky, is a former soldier of the military intelligence service, GRU. He is said by the prosecutors to have been Girkin’s deputy and intercepts indicate that he was in regular contact with Moscow. The third Russian, Leonid Pulatov, is also a former GRU officer, given the title of deputy head of the intelligence service in Donetsk. The fourth suspect is Leonid Kharchenko, a Ukrainian member of the pro-Russian militia. The Dutch chief prosecutor, Fred Westerbeke, said that “the 4 suspects were seen to have played an important role in the death of 298 innocent civilians. Although they did not push the button themselves, we suspect them of close cooperation to get the missile where it was, with the aim to shoot down an aeroplane.”
None of these suspects will appear in the Dutch court tomorrow, as Russia does not extradite its own citizens and Kharchenko remains at large. The three Russians will join the long list of agents wanted in the West for murder but who are unlikely to appear in court. The former FSB officer Andrey Lugavoy, honoured by President Putin with a medal “for services to the fatherland”, was charged for the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. Colonel Anatoly Chepiga and Dr Alexander Mishkin, both holders of Hero of Russia, the highest state award bestowed by a special decree by President Putin, are the two Russian military intelligence officer suspects who carried out the novichok attack in Salisbury UK, two years ago. All are being protected by the Kremlin from legal action in the West. Tomorrow’s trial will nevertheless be carried out with the four MH17 suspects “in absentia”.
Russia has always furiously denied any involvement in the MH17 atrocity, with its disinformation systems operating full blast. Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement that it rejected the findings of the JIT, which were “aimed at discrediting the Russian Federation in the eyes of the international community”. It went on to accuse the JIT of using “dubious sources of information, including evidence fabricated by Ukraine, while ignoring evidence offered by Russia”. It is telling that President Putin vetoed a UN Security Council resolution in July 2015 that sought to set up a special tribunal to prosecute those responsible for the downing of MH17. If Russia has nothing to hide, the obvious question is why did Putin veto the resolution?
Tomorrow’s trial will cause blood to boil in the Kremlin, so expect an explosion of propaganda and disinformation.