Last week, the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) probing into the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 crash in East Ukraine released an interim report, saying the airliner was brought down by a Buk missile system, “brought from the territory of the Russian Federation”. However, the investigation did not directly link Russia to the downing of the Malaysia Airlines plane.
“We have determined that the weapons came from the Russian Federation. Having established this, we do not make statements about the participation of the Russian Federation as a nation or people from the Russian Federation,” said Wilbert Paulissen, director of the National Criminal Investigation Division of National Police of the Netherlands, cited by RIA Novosti.
In an interview with valdaiclub.com, Tony van der Togt, Senior Research Fellow at the Clingendael Netherlands Institute of International Relations, praised the investigation as “thorough and professional”.
“The evidence gathered so far includes forensic evidence from the crash site of MH-17, 150,000 intercepted telephone calls, half a million videos and photographs and more than 200 witness accounts. Five billion internet pages have been searched and 60 requests for legal assistance have been sent to more than 20 countries,” van der Togt told valdaiclub.com.
The report was widely criticized in Russia, which believes the investigation reflects a wider western attempt of laying on Moscow the blame for the political crisis in Ukraine that led to a civil war in the country’s east.
So, even before any investigation took place, US President Barack Obama attempted to pin the blame for the tragic accident on Russia. “Evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile that was launched from an area that is controlled by Russian-backed separatists inside of Ukraine,” he said. “We know that these separatists have received a steady flow of support from Russia.”
Although the investigation continues to imply Russia’s involvement in the MH17 crash, something Moscow vehemently denies, Russia was excluded from full-fledged participation in the investigation, while Ukraine was made part of it.
“Besides Malaysia, the JIT comprises investigators from the Netherlands, Australia, Belgium and curiously, Ukraine, a country which should have been regarded as a suspect in the case,” writes M. Veera Pandiyan for the Malaysia-based The Star newspaper.
In an interview with valdaiclub.com, Evgeny Buzhinsky, chairman of PIR Center said the investigation was never going to include a Russian representative. “Why include one, if the blame is assigned in advance? It would be impossible to not allow a team member to acquaint himself with the data that the Americans and Ukrainians provided,” Buzhinsky, a retired general, said.
MH17 Tragedy: Cui Bono?
We gave them primary data from the tracking radar, declassified secret Buk documentation. And what then? Nothing. They said ‘it is being studied’ and ‘it will be in the investigation team archives’. Which for some reason does not have a Russian representative.
Still, Clingendael’s van der Togt says that investigation did not ignore the data provided by Russia. “The evidence is broad-based and comes from a whole range of different sources, including Russian sources,” he said. “As in the earlier investigation of the Dutch Safety Board, Russian information (including from Buk producer Almaz Antey) has been included. The JIT does not base its preliminary conclusions on any single source and all the information was cross-checked against other information available. At last week's presentation only a small part of the evidence was presented; the full range of evidence will only be presented in court. As far as I can see, this has been a thorough and professional investigation with no evidence whatsoever that it was prejudiced or politically motivated.”
Last October, the Russian weapons producer Almaz Antey held two experiments aimed at recreating the MH17 crash, concluding the plane was hit by an older model of the Buk system fired from a Ukraine-controlled area. In its last year’s report, AIVD, the Dutch secret service said the Ukrainian military had a number of “powerful anti-aircraft systems” in the eastern part of the country.
Another missile test was held in Finland, which received the Buk missile system from Russia in 1996 as debt payment. The Finnish government said the classified report was passed along to the Dutch government, but the latter failed to make it available to the JIT.
The JIT report’s reliance on social media has also raised eyebrows internationally. Last week online daily Mashable trumpeted that social media and online journalist groups like Bellingcat had helped the investigation “crack the case”, but critics dismiss such data as amateurish. In an interview with Der Spiegel last year, professional image analyst Jens Kriese said what Bellingcat does is “nothing more than reading tea leaves”.
But Clingendael’s van der Togt says the investigation did not focus on social media data. “Social media were researched for potential evidence, but forensic evidence, telephone communications and all kinds of technical information were all taken extensively into account as well,” he said. “So, it is certainly not true that the JIT bases its conclusions only on some search of the internet and social media. Radar images from both Russia and Ukraine (including primary radar data from a mobile radar in Ukraine) were all taken into account by the JIT, as was included in the JIT presentation last week.”
However, some of the strongest points in the JIT report were not supported by hard data, like the claim that the Buk system which downed the MH17 was brought into East Ukraine from Russia, which was illustrated by computer animation and a murky amateur video.
"I'm a little surprised – what did they do the whole year?” said Alexander Rahr, research director at the German-Russian Forum, in an interview to www.valdaiclub.com, referring to the investigation. “Specific facts are not mentioned, only versions remain. There are no findings in this paper. Any kind of sensation, too. It was expected that perhaps they will mention the names of the people responsible for the downed plane together with absolutely clear photographs and publications from the satellites in the day of the disaster – nothing happened. The paper largely repeats the previous report which we heard a year ago,” he added.
The JIT findings will certainly have an impact on the Dutch-Russian bilateral relations, van der Togt said, as “Russian authorities seem to be deliberately calling into question the professional character and integrity of the international criminal investigation, led by the Dutch Prosecutor's Office.”
According to the Dutch scholar, new sanctions could be applied against Russia if it is not cooperating the way that it should in the eyes of the investigation. “Although so far international sanctions have only been linked to the annexation of Crimea and Russian involvement in destabilising Donbas, I would not exclude the possibility of additional international sanctions, if and when Russia would not live up to its international obligations,” he told valdaiclub.com. “Serious political consequences for the relations with Russia can still be expected at some later stage, when the JIT would come to its final conclusions. So, I am afraid that this whole issue will stay with us for quite some time and will remain a dividing issue in Russia's relations with the rest of the world,” he added.
According to a poll conducted by Russian state-owned public opinion research center VTSIOM by telephone in early October, only one percent of the respondents believe that Russia was behind the Malaysian Airlines disaster that killed 298 people.
Only four percent find it possible that one of the militias of the self-proclaimed Donetsk or Lugansk republics was to blame.