There was never much doubt
about what brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine on 17 July 2014, killing all 298 people on board: a Russian BUK Telar 17 surface-to-air missile
, fired from territory controlled by Russian-backed “separatists.” In recent weeks, word leaked that a Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT) would confirm that fact. Indeed, on 28 September, the formal JIT report did so, presenting its “irrefutable” findings based on photo imagery, video, forensic evidence, radar and satellite data, intercepted phone calls and eyewitness interviews. The team left open the critical question of whether the order to shoot came from “separatists,” Russian troops or Russian officials higher up the chain of command. But the findings support a conclusion of extensive Russian participation and at least indirect complicity.
The Kremlin must now decide how to deal with a report that strongly implies Moscow was ultimately responsible for the tragedy. Four possible responses present strategic risks, each likely to further undermine Russia’s official claim that its troops are not in Ukraine. First, Moscow could deny Russian involvement and invent alternative “evidence” that is unlikely to be credible. Second, it could claim that the report’s conclusions are dubious and argue that no one knows the capabilities of the weapons system used and the troops manning it. That might mean, however, that the Kremlin is not in control of everything that happens, and that local commanders sometimes exercise their own authority. Third, the Russians could present convincing technical and tactical data about military operations in Ukraine showing that it was not their BUK missile that shot down the airliner. Finally, the Kremlin could cooperate with the investigation—as Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi eventually did in the aftermath of the 1988 Lockerbie tragedy, hand over suspects and pay compensation. Under this scenario, the Kremlin well might try to negotiate concessions from the West for its participation (for example, a relaxation of sanctions or a settlement in the Donbas). However, here the political cost for Russian President Vladimir Putin also would be high, as neither the Russian elite nor public opinion would easily allow him to climb down from the Kremlin’s adventure in eastern Ukraine.
From the first day of the tragedy, Moscow used—albeit defensively, partially and inconsistently—several of these responses. But it has also relied heavily on spreading disinformation. As a recent German TV program
pointed out, the Kremlin quickly issued media guidance to the rebels to blame the Ukrainian government for the tragedy, refer to the Kyiv government as fascist and compare it to other alleged U.S. puppet regimes. Russian advisors even insisted that media handlers in the so-called “People’s Republic of Donetsk” provide a daily count of how many stories featured the phrase, “It’s worse in Ukraine.”
As CEPA’s Lithuania brief this week shows, Russia’s reaction to the JIT report unconvincingly continues these crude practices today. Russia’s Ministry of Defense released radar data that purportedly showed the missile was launched from Ukrainian territory. Putin’s press secretary dismissed the JIT report as based on “speculation, unqualified and unprofessional information.” Why the editors of the pro-Moscow Lithuanian media thought the Kremlin spin would have resonance in that country is unclear.
Investigators say they have a list of 100 potential suspects, but identifying the perpetrators will be a “matter for the long haul.” There is little sign Moscow wants to reach a settlement, as did Gaddafi. Russia has vetoed attempts at the UN to set up a tribunal. The purpose of Kremlin propaganda is often said to be not so much to offer an alternative point of view, but rather to sow cynicism and confusion. But thanks partly to the JIT report, what happened in July 2014 is now much more clear.