Russia has yet to admit to its crimes in the MH17 downing

18 July, 01:19 PM
An armed pro-Russian militant stands guard as crash investigation teams examine the crash site of flight MH17 (Photo:REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev)

An armed pro-Russian militant stands guard as crash investigation teams examine the crash site of flight MH17 (Photo:REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev)

A Boeing 777 passenger plane was shot down over the occupied part of Donetsk Oblast on July 17, 2014, a few months after the annexation of the Crimean peninsula and Russia's invasion of Donbas.

The Malaysia Airlines-operated flight MH17 flew from Amsterdam in the Netherlands to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. As proven by numerous further investigations, a missile from a Russian Bus anti-aircraft system hit the plane. All 298 people on board were killed. This is the largest number of casualties in the history of aviation, from all cases of downed civilian airliners.

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NV recaps one of Russia's biggest crimes during its eight years of war with Ukraine, which Moscow has not yet admitted.

Flight crash circumstances

On July 17, 2014, the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 passenger plane operated a scheduled flight from the Netherlands to Malaysia. It took off from Amsterdam at 12:13 pm and was supposed to land at the Kuala Lumpur airport after 16 hours of flight (at about 6:10 am on July 18).

Flight MH17 did not reach its final destination: communication with the aircraft was lost at 4:20 pm, it disappeared from radar after almost three hours of flight. At that moment, the plane was at an altitude of more than 10,000 meters above an occupied portion of Donetsk Oblast and was supposed to soon cross the border with Russia. Ukrainian air traffic controllers leading the aircraft had already received Russian permission to transfer the flight to Russian airspace.

Reconstructed wreckage of MH17 (Фото: REUTERS/Michael Kooren)
Reconstructed wreckage of MH17 / Фото: REUTERS/Michael Kooren

It was at 4:20 pm that the aircraft's "black boxes" stopped working: the flight data recorder (FDR) and the cockpit voice recorder (CVR), which were subsequently found and thoroughly investigated. According to their data, the flight went smoothly, and at the last moment before the crash, they recorded a sound burst – probably an explosion outside. At that time, the plane was above the village of Rozsypne. Most of the aircraft’s fragments fell in the area of the neighboring village of Hrabove (both settlements are located in Donetsk Oblast on the border with Luhansk Oblast). Torez (currently Chystiakove) and Snizhne are the nearest towns from here.

All 298 people on board the aircraft were killed. These are 15 crew members and 283 passengers, including 80 minors. There were at least 20 families of several people on board the Boeing 777, and many of the passengers were flying to vacation destinations or to visit relatives. Two-thirds of the passengers were citizens of the Netherlands (193 people), 43 had Malaysian citizenship, and 27 were from Australia.

Murder weapon: Russian Buk

Later, an investigation established that the plane was hit by a missile from a Russian Buk anti-aircraft missile system in service with the 53rd Kursk anti-aircraft missile brigade.

This is an air defense formation connected to the 20th Russian combined arms army. The Buk was delivered to the territory of Ukraine on the day of the downing of the aircraft and taken back to Russia the very next day, minus one missile – as open-source investigation outlet Bellingcat and the Joint Investigation Team (JIT), which includes Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine, discovered during the course of their investigations. The system’s crew, most likely, was also Russian.

Thanks to numerous photos and videos, investigators managed to establish the full route of transportation of the Buk air defense system from Russia's Kursk Oblast to Ukraine through non-Ukrainian controlled borders. In late June, a large convoy of troops of almost 50 vehicles left a base there, including six Buk missile systems on tractor trucks. On June 25, the convoy arrived in the town of Millerovo (Rostov Oblast) in Russia, from where the systems were transported to various points along the Russian-Ukrainian border.

A Russian serviceman walks past a Buk missile system (Фото: REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov)
A Russian serviceman walks past a Buk missile system / Фото: REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

The system from which flight MH17 was shot down crossed the border of Ukraine on the eve of the crash, overnight on July 17, near the border village of Sievernyi (Luhansk Oblast). Further, on the territory of Ukraine, the Buk was reloaded onto a Volvo tractor and delivered to Donetsk (probably via Luhansk, Alchevsk, Debaltseve and Makiyivka), and then via Zuhres, Shakhtarsk and Torez – on the outskirts of Snizhne.

Most likely, the missile was launched near Snizhne, Donetsk Oblast, about 15 km from the crash site. Later, a witnesses told the court that he saw the Buk in a field near Snizhne on July 17, 2014, and after a short time, he saw the launch of a missile from this area.

The aircraft was shot down by a 9M38 missile. A part of it, containing the engine housing, was found on the territory of Ukraine and demonstrated to the public in 2018.

According to the investigation, most likely, the missile hit the fore-body of the plane, to the left and above the cockpit. In fact, the plane was likely destroyed before it even hit the ground. As a result of explosive decompression, the fore-body fell apart, while the central and rear parts of the fuselage continued to fall forward – that's why the wreckage and the bodies of the dead were scattered over an area of about 50 square kilometers.

Testimony of "DPR" proxy forces confirming Russia's crime

Even before the downing of the Malaysian airliner, the Russian military, who control the armed forces of the so-called "Donetsk People's Republic" (“DPR"), had launched a real hunt for Ukrainian aviation. In May 2014, two Mi-24 helicopters of the Armed Forces of Ukraine were shot down near Slovyansk, and an Il-76 aircraft was shot down in June while landing in Luhansk. On July 14, a few days before the tragedy of flight MH17, an An-26 transport aircraft was shot down from Russian territory by the Buk anti-aircraft missile system in Luhansk Oblast, as well as a Ukrainian Su-25 on July 16.

That is why Ukraine had closed the airspace over the combat zone for civil aviation since July 1, 2014 – first to an altitude of 7,900 meters, and later on July 14, this restriction was raised to 9,750 meters. Flight MH17 flew over the territory of Ukraine at an altitude of more than 10,000 meters, however, conversations between the "DPR" proxy forces and the Russian military immediately after the crash indicate that they deliberately fired on the passenger airliner, apparently considering it to be another military target.

In addition, a few days before the downing of the plane, the SBU Security Service of Ukraine recorded numerous conversations between proxy forces and their Russian supervisors about the expectation and delivery of the Buk anti-aircraft missile system from Russian territory.

Probe into tragedy and MH17 trial

Russia, its leadership and all those responsible for the tragedy could be brought to justice in three ways:

• through the MH17 criminal trial at the District Court of The Hague;

• as part of the collective complaint of the Netherlands and Ukraine against Russia to the European Court of Human Rights;

• as part of Ukraine's lawsuit against Russia to the International Court of Justice, where Ukraine included the downing of passenger flight MH17 in the list of the largest terrorist attacks by Russia.

Most of the world's attention is focused on the first of these three points – the trial, which is being conducted by the District Court of The Hague. The court sessions, which took place in the Schiphol Judicial Complex in the suburbs of Amsterdam, began in March 2020 and ended on June 10, 2022.

The court is expected to make a final decision in November or December 2022.

It is this process that is based on the findings of a large-scale investigation by the JIT. It was created in the summer of 2014 and brought together representatives from Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine to work on a criminal investigation of the crime. In May 2018, the JIT presented its final detailed report as part of the investigation into the tragedy of flight MH17 (the first was made public in the autumn of 2016).

The investigation rejected all other versions of the tragedy that Russia tried to promote. In particular, the Dutch prosecutor's office checked in detail and refuted the following versions due to lack of evidence:

• explosion right on board the aircraft;

• shelling of a Malaysia Airlines flight from a military aircraft;

• hitting a passenger aircraft with an air defense system, but not with a BUK air defense missile;

• hitting the MH17 flight with the BUK anti-aircraft missile system, which belonged to Ukraine, and not to Russia.

At the same time, investigators confirmed that the plane was hit by a missile fired from the Russian Buk anti-aircraft missile system.

The main facts have been established during many years of thorough investigation by JIT specialists, the authors of additional independent investigations of Bellingcat and The Insider, as well as the testimonies of witnesses who were brought to trial in the Netherlands.

Given these facts, in June 2019, the Dutch prosecutor's office filed formal charges against four suspects in the murder of passengers and crew of flight MH17:

Igor Girkin (nom de guerre "Strelkov"), former leader of pro-Russian armed forces in the Donbas;

• the "DPR" commander, Russian Major General Sergey Dubinsky (nom de guerre "Khmury");

• reserve lieutenant colonel of the Russian Airborne Forces Oleg Pulatov (nom de guerre "Gyurza");

• citizen of Ukraine Leonid Kharchenko (nom de guerre "Krot" ("Mole")).

Who was charged and for what exactly

The District Court of The Hague is due to sentence the four suspects charged in the summer of 2019. These are Igor Girkin (Strelkov), Sergey Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov and Leonid Kharchenko.

Prosecutors will ask for each of them to be sentenced to life imprisonment. Not a single one has admitted to their involvement in this tragedy. All of them are on the international wanted list, but reside in Russia, which refuses to comply with international warrants.

The Dutch prosecutor's office is convinced that all four took part in organizing the transportation of the Russian Buk anti-aircraft missile system to the occupied territory of Donetsk Oblast and its export back to Russia (or contributed to these processes). The prosecution does not believe that any of them directly launched the missile. However, investigators are convinced that the suspects planned the transportation of Buk precisely to shoot down planes.

According to Dutch prosecutors, the accomplices in crime cannot be justified by the fact which plane they wanted to shoot down using the Buk anti-aircraft missile system – either military or civilian. They also cannot enjoy combatant immunity under the Geneva Conventions because they did not fight openly on behalf of their country, represented illegal armed formations, and did not comply with the laws and customs of war by participating in torture, murder, looting, and other crimes.

None of the suspects has yet been arrested or attended the trial, and only one (Oleg Pulatov) was represented in absentia by Dutch lawyers.

Igor Girkin (Strelkov) (Фото: NV)
Igor Girkin (Strelkov) / Фото: NV

Russian citizen, retired officer of the Russian armed forces, former FSB colonel

Participated in military campaigns in Chechnya, Transnistria, Bosnia. After the creation of the "DPR" puppet authority, he became the first "defense minister" of the sham republic and performed this function at the time of the downing of the Malaysia Airlines aircraft. He left his post in August 2014 and returned to Russia.

The investigation believes that it was Girkin who "ordered" the delivery of the Buk anti-aircraft missile system from Russia, and since all the "DPR" fighters were accountable to him, he actually supervised the tasks of this system on Ukrainian territory. According to SBU audio intercepts, the day after the downing of flight MH17, Girkin was discussing the return of the Buk to Russian territory.

Sergey Dubinsky (
Sergey Dubinsky ("Khmury") / Фото: NV

Russian citizen, major general of the Russian army

Participated in the wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya, served in the 22nd brigade of the GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate) special forces. In 2014, he allegedly retired and left for Ukraine, where he headed the "DPR" intelligence services.

Taking into account numerous SBU audio intercepts, the investigation concluded that it was Dubinsky who controlled the transportation of the Buk to the launch site and then took part in sending it back. On the morning of the crash, Dubinsky told other proxy forces that the Buk anti-aircraft missile system and its crew had already arrived in Donetsk. It was on July 17, 2014 that he instructed to transfer the Buk toward Snizhne, from where the missile was likely fired on flight MH17.

Shortly after the downing of the aircraft, considering it a military aircraft of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, being at that moment in Marynivka, a village south of Snizhne, Dubinsky said in another telephone conversation: "Constantly shelling with Grads, a break now. Just downed a Su plane. We've got the Buk-M."

Oleg Pulatov (
Oleg Pulatov ("Gyurza," or "Khalif") / Фото: NV

Russian citizen, retired officer of the Russian Airborne Force

He graduated from Kyiv Higher Combined Arms Command School in the early 90s. Later, he fought in Chechnya, was the commander of military unit 85954 in Ulyanovsk. He was early dismissed from the service (supposedly "for health reasons") in 2008. He ended up in Ukraine in the spring of 2014, headed the 2nd department of the "DPR" GRU, which was engaged in military intelligence.

By the time the plane was shot down, he was actually a subordinate of Dubinsky. Dutch investigators have established that it was Pulatov who was probably near the Buk system at the time of the missile launch on the Malaysian passenger plane, and also accompanied the anti-aircraft missile system on the way from Snizhne. Bellingcat investigators believe that Pulatov also found and handed over the flight recorders of the aircraft to the "DPR" leaders.

Pulatov is the only one of the suspects who is represented by lawyers at the trial in the Netherlands, even though he interacted minimally with them.

Leonid Kharchenko (
Leonid Kharchenko ("Krot" ("Mole")) / Фото: NV

Ukrainian citizen, "DPR" fighter

At the time of the downing of the plane, he was a subordinate of Pulatov and Dubinsky, probably was the commander of various intelligence units of the "DPR" GRU.

In the spring of 2015, it was Kharchenko who replaced Pulatov as the head of the 2nd department of the "DPR" GRU. The Ukrainian Air Force Service reported that Kharchenko was detained in occupied Donetsk in 2020, but in a completely different case initiated by the "DPR" puppet authorities. The sources of the Ukrainian Air Force assumed that Russia had planned to "isolate" Kharchenko in this way and prevent his abduction by the Ukrainian special services.

On the day of the tragedy, according to SBU audio intercepts, Kharchenko coordinated other "DPR" fighters, pointing them to the Buk's whereabouts, and then took part in its removal to Russia.

When will the world hear the final verdict on MH17?

Consideration of the criminal case on the merits of the downing of flight MH17 was completed on June 10, 2022. The District Court of The Hague will announce its verdict on the four defendants in the last months of the year. Nov. 17 or Dec. 15 are among the possible dates. The final date will be announced by late September.

The Dutch prosecutor's office is aware that the sentence will be impossible to fulfill if the perpetrators of the tragedy do not fall into the hands of justice. To do this, they must either be extradited from Russia or detained in a third country as being put on the international wanted list.

Relatives of the victims, who spoke in court in the Netherlands in person or through their lawyers, insisted on restoring the truth. Dutch citizen Ria van der Steen, who lost her father and stepmother in the MH17 crash, said in an emotional courtroom speech almost a year ago: "I will never be able to finally say goodbye to them until those responsible for their deaths are found guilty."

And at the beginning of her speech, she turned to the Russian regime, quoting Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the original: "They are lying. We know they are lying. And they know that we know that they are lying."

"I know who is responsible," said the woman, who is awaiting sentencing along with the relatives of the other 296 victims of the disaster and the whole world.

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