Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 over the skies of eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. From the moment this tragedy occurred, and some would say even before it, Russia has been doing everything in its power to obstruct the investigation, while at the same time completely denying its responsibility. And Russia is not just denying its own responsibility, but the responsibility of the so-called pro-Russia “separatists” or “rebels” who controlled the territory where the Boeing 777 came crashing down. They are “so-called” because we now know they are in fact Russian-led forces, with many active Russian soldiers among their ranks.
Just as it tried to control the Ukraine narrative during and especially after the Euromaidan protests succeeded in establishing a new government, Russia has tried to control the MH17 story, often cynically, with far-fetched and deliberately misleading propaganda. Unfortunately for Russia, and fortunately for the sake of historical truth, plane crashes produce an enormous amount of tangible data and material. Despite all of Russia’s efforts to delay or hide this evidence, from removing one meter of soil from the purported BUK launch site to denying investigators access to the crash site, Russia has lost this important battle in its information war.
In our instant information age, where ordinary citizens have access to cameras and upload their photos and videos to social media sites within minutes, there is now a wealth of data that overwhelmingly points to Russian responsibility. Every credible investigation, from Bellingcat, The Interpreter, The Nemtsov Report, Novaya Gazeta Investigation, and now the Dutch Safety Board (as reported by CNN) has concluded the likely deadly scenario: Russia’s militants in east Ukraine had obtained a sophisticated BUK missile system from Russian forces and used it to shoot down the Malaysian airliner on July 17, 2014. Certainly Russia’s “rebels” didn’t know they were shooting down a civilian airliner carrying women, children, doctors, grandparents, vacationers.
There are generally complex issues of legal responsibility related to criminal “mistakes of fact” in the law, which may be complicated further by the conflict itself. In an “ordinary” criminal act, where Person A intends to shoot to kill Person B but mistakenly kills Person C, A is no less responsible for murdering C, and in fact could be charged with intent to murder B. Person A would be liable for murder because the intent to kill is an essential element of the offense, and certainly A had the requisite intent. Even in wartime, this general principle of criminal liability remains in international law, especially regarding civilians. Acts of violence against civilians are criminal acts under international law.
Therefore even though Russia’s “rebels” may have shot down MH17 by mistake, it was a mistake of fact and therefore they would be nonetheless criminally responsible for killing the 298 persons on board. Not only those who “pulled the trigger” are responsible, but every single person who assisted in the chain of command leading up to the missile exploding the airplane, and even after those who may have aided in hiding the evidence, bears criminal responsibility. This isn’t really complicated. It has been made to look complicated by Russia because we now know that Russia is definitively within that chain of command. There is no getting around this devastating conclusion.
But that hasn’t stopped Russian officials from trying. This morning Russian ambassador to the UK, Alexander Yakovenko posted remarks reiterating Russia’s official opposition to an international UN tribunal as “premature and counterproductive,” words echoing Vladimir Putin’s remarks earlier this week. Yakovenko claims Russia is committed to a transparent investigation, yet jumps from complaint to complaint to justify its ultimate refusal (and veto) to have an international tribunal investigate MH17. He states that Russia has been excluded from the investigation, excluded from presenting its “data,” and Russian specialists were denied “full and equitable access to the materials which were in the possession of the Joint Investigation Team.” He further complains “the Ukrainian side has refused, up to this moment, to make public the recording of the air-traffic controllers radio exchange with the pilots of Flight MH-17.” Instead of a UN tribunal, Yakovenko calls for a return to the framework of a previous UNSC Resolution 2166. Yet he later says Resolution 2166 doesn’t qualify the downing of the plane as a threat to international peace and security. “The tragedy, though horrifying and tragic, was an isolated act of a criminal nature. Thus a trial could be organized on the basis of either national, international or mixed law. In any case, this matter does not fall within the Security Council’s purview.” [emph. added]
Obstruct, delay, divert, confuse, exhaust. These tactics have become a favorite form of propaganda in Russia’s contemporary arsenal of information war weapons.
Yakovenko’s statement is another in a long line of Russian officials’ obstruction and obfuscation, as if everyone will throw their hands up and leave Russia alone. Obstruct, delay, divert, confuse, exhaust. These tactics have become a favorite form of propaganda in Russia’s contemporary arsenal of information war weapons. And we’ve seen that Russia is not beyond adding outright lies to this arsenal. Such a potent and sinister combination was used against Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests and continues to be used against Ukraine’s new government. Every time you hear about a coup in Kyiv, or fascists threatening Russian-speakers in Ukraine, you are witnessing this propaganda.
It is this propaganda that delayed much of the western world in recognizing the true nature of the conflict in Ukraine as a Russian invasion. Even after the shocking appearance of thousands of Russia’s “little green men” soldiers in Crimea and the peninsula’s subsequent hasty annexation, Russia had controlled the narrative about Ukraine. In the eyes of mainstream media, Ukraine was a a distant land somewhere near Russia that broke out in “civil war”; “separatist rebels” had taken up arms to defend themselves against the new “fascist government in Kyiv.”
The MH17 tragedy was the beginning of the end of Russia’s controlling the narrative.
The MH17 tragedy was the beginning of the end of Russia’s controlling the narrative. After July 17, 2014, the world was forced to wake up and start paying attention to the “Ukraine crisis.” The year subsequent to this disaster has been disastrous for Russia. As the world began looking more critically at Russia’s behavior at home and abroad, the grim reality of Putin’s regime or Putinism–corruption, repression, violence, murder, war–was now visible to everyone, scattered throughout the sunflower fields of Ukraine, and certainly beyond.
Issues that had been simmering on the back burner started to come to the forefront, warranting a second look. The UK began a public inquiry into the horrific radiation poisoning of Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko. The European Union brought an antitrust suit against Russian energy giant Gazprom. An international court declared judgments against Russia in the Yukos Oil case. Even FIFA corruption is being taken seriously, with indictments in the US against several officials. And Russian corruption and money laundering in London’s high-end real estate market is getting attention like never before.
Russia has no one to blame for the glare of public scrutiny but itself. One commentator has called the year since the MH17 tragedy, Russia’s “year of self-incrimination” because Russian officials have done nothing but shamelessly sling mud at any and all attempts at an honest and fair investigation into the downing of MH17. From its ridiculous conspiracy theories of empty planes to today’s opposition to a UN tribunal called for by member nations, Russia has shown it will go to any extremes to protect itself and its narrative. However, in the case of MH17, Russia has lost that battle. There is hope now that justice will be done for the victims of MH17. And with that, let’s hope the page on Russia’s information war against Ukraine and the West has turned as well.