MH17: The deadliest attack against EU citizens

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

A photograph made available on 17 May 2016 showing the reconstructed front of the Malaysia Airlines plane that was downed by a missile over Ukraine, killing 298 people, Gilze-Rijen Air Force Base, The Netherlands, 13 October 2015. [Lloyd Jones/ EPA]

Today (17 July) is the anniversary of the attack that claimed the largest number of EU lives since a united Europe emerged from the rubble of WWII, when 298 civilians were killed, including 80 children, on flight MH17. Juraj Mesík looks back, three years on.

Juraj Mesík is a climate and energy advisor at the Slovak Foreign Policy Association.

Among the dead were 193 Dutch, 10 Germans, four Belgians, and four UK citizens.

An investigation by the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) painstakingly reconstructed the tragedy. Investigators heard from more than 200 witnesses, reviewed half a million photos and videos, analysed 150,000 phone conversations, and submitted conclusions to the court in 2016.

They were unambiguous: flight MH17 was shot down by a Buk missile. The rocket launcher was brought from Russia to Ukraine one day before and returned to Russia shortly afterward, with its crew – minus one rocket.

The JIT determined that the Buk belonged to the 53rd Russian Air Defence Brigade, and uncovered the names of nearly 100 Russian personnel who participated in, or had to approve the firing, although the specific allegations have not yet been made.

Names and photos of the 53rd Air Defence Brigade commanders, their superiors as well as the foot soldiers who participated, were identified by Bellingcat in the summer of 2016.

In July 2015, a proposal to set up an international tribunal to prosecute those responsible for the attack was submitted to the UN Security Council but was vetoed by Russia. In early July 2017, the Dutch foreign minister announced that JIT countries had agreed to prosecute suspected perpetrators in the Netherlands.

But a number of questions remain open, most importantly, what was a Buk even doing in Ukraine? Did Russia send an expensive anti-aircraft battery to Ukraine to shoot down a Malaysian passenger jet, or was it there for a different purpose?

Three options are possible but two can be reliably excluded.

Version one:  The Buk ‘got lost’ and ended up in Ukraine by coincidence. Just like the hundreds of Russian tanks, armoured vehicles and army units during the three years of war in Donbas. Accepting this account would mean admitting that the Russian military is in an even bigger mess today than in 1987, when a young German pilot, Mathias Rust, landed in Moscow’s Red Square without detection. The “lost Buk” explanation can be excluded.

Version two: Moscow sent Buk missiles to Donbas to fight against Ukraine. In July 2014, Ukrainian forces liberated most of occupied Donbas, and frequently used planes and helicopters. Several of them were shot down, without any need for Buk missiles. Why send the Buk, when there are several other, much cheaper types of rockets suitable for destroying low-flying aircraft and combat helicopters? The Buk is in a completely different price category, with a range of up to 22km, far beyond the needs of the fighting in Donbas that summer. Using a Buk against a helicopter or a fighter is like shooting a mosquito with a cannon. The Buk was clearly not sent to Donbas to fight the Ukrainian military.

The third remaining option is, that the job of Buk was to do exactly what it was designed for and what it did: to shoot down an aircraft flying more than 10km up. The question is what kind. The sky over Donbas offered a number of targets in addition to the MH17. Some analysts argue that the real target was Russian airliner SU 2074, filled with passengers flying from Moscow to Larnaka over the Donbas just a few minutes apart from MH17. Blamed on Ukraine, the shooting down of a Russian civilian aircraft would serve as an excellent pretext for an invasion by the Russian army aimed at ‘restoring the order’ and occupying in the process a corridor linking Russia with the Crimea, and possibly Odessa.

No international investigation would be organised to investigate the crash of a Russian airliner in occupied Ukraine. Russian investigators would quickly, reliably and unambiguously confirm that the plane had been shot down by the Ukrainians. No one would ever learn who actually did it, and the international community would not likely seek further clarification.

In this respect, it would be helpful to compare the response of the Russian government to the MH17 tragedy and the bombing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai in October 2015.

It took the Kremlin 7 hours 20 minutes to respond to MH17. No Russians were killed in the Ukraine attack.

224 Russians died in the Russian airliner bombed over Sinai. Yet, it took the Kremlin 55 hours 45 minutes to publicly respond. Clearly, the Kremlin was much more eager – and much better prepared – to respond to the MH17 being shot down.

Were the 298 passengers of the MH17 victims of a botched plan, or was the downing of the Malaysian airliner deliberate? Those who lean towards the latter account argue that the purpose of the downing was to exert pressure on Europe to restrain Kyiv in its efforts to defend itself from Russia.

But the 211 Europeans killed in the attack were not sufficient to inspire pan-European participation in the investigation of the aircraft’s downing. Berlin and London opted out of appointing prosecutors to the JIT and public opinion did not push for either country to do so, either. France was similarly reluctant to join the investigation.

What is equally disturbing is what the MH17 tragedy tells us about ourselves. When you check the lists of the terrorist attacks in Europe, you will not find the MH17 among them.

We apparently pretend that the deaths of 298 people, including 211 EU citizens, was not an act of terror but rather ‘an accident’. An accidentally shot anti-aircraft missile mistakenly hitting an airliner.

The absence of Germany and the UK from the MH17 investigation is another warning sign. The price of avoiding the search for those responsible for the deadliest terrorist attack against civilians in the EU’s history will only encourage more such aggression.

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