Russia must co-operate with investigation of MH17 or risk wearing the blame

A train carrying the remains of crash victims is guarded by pro-Russian separatists. EPA/Robert Ghement

US Secretary of State John Kerry has left the rest of the world in no doubt as to who America blames for the downing of MH17, appearing on several Sunday talkshows to point the finger at pro-Russian separatists who, he said, had even “bragged” about the incident on social media.

“We have enormous input about this that points fingers,” Kerry said. “It is pretty clear that this was a system from Russia, transferred to separatists. We know with confidence that the Ukrainians did not have such a system anywhere near the vicinity at that point of time.”

Kerry also made it clear that the US expects Russia to put pressure on separatists to co-operate with the investigation. So far this co-operation has not been forthcoming and when it comes to playing the blame game, Russia has so far taken pains to try to divert attention from any part it may have played in the tragedy. Vladimir Putin’s initial response was that:

This tragedy would not have occurred if there were peace in that country, or in any case, if hostilities had not resumed in southeast Ukraine. And certainly, the government over whose territory it occurred is responsible for this terrible tragedy.

Putin is right about one thing: the 298 who died on that flight are victims of Ukraine’s war. Few agree with him on the point of Ukrainian responsibility, although there are questions to be answered about whether Kiev should have done more to prevent flights over the eastern borders of its territory.

In the few days since the crash, more and more fingers have been pointed in Russia’s direction. Britain, France and Germany have come together to insist Russia do more to end the conflict and to assist in securing access to the crash site. They have threatened deeper sanctions if this does not happen.

This is significant. Russia expects the UK to condemn it, these two states have difficult relations. France and Germany are a different matter, these relations have generally been more favourable and all sides have much to lose if they deteriorate. This united European front follows impassioned statements last Friday by the Ukrainian prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and the US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, to the effect that Russia bears a good deal of responsibility.

Few appear to disagree and the arguments are not without foundation. On the other hand, at Friday’s UN meeting, it was agreed that an “immediate, credible investigation” should take place. The immediacy has already been lost. It is vital that credibility is not lost either.

Blaming Russia for everything before that investigation has really begun will give Putin the chance, no matter how disingenuously, to occupy some of the moral high ground. It is also important not to dismiss everything Russia says. It cannot always be the case that it is always wrong. Establishing the degree of certainty in respect of claims against Russia is therefore very important.

Russia’s war?

We know that Russia has actively undermined the Ukrainian government in its attempts to solve the problems on its own territory. We know that pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine took heart from Russia’s “annexation” of Crimea and that Russia has done little or nothing to dissuade them from their pursuit of secession.

We are as certain as we can be that Russia has moved Russian troops over the border into Ukraine and also supplied the separatists with military equipment. Whether that certainty comes with evidence that would convict Russia in a court of law is another matter, but there is undoubtedly a case to answer.

On these bases, Russia bears some responsibility for the continuation of Ukraine’s conflict. Therefore, when Putin attributed the loss of the 298 lives to Ukraine’s conflict, he himself brought Russia into the circle of blame.

Mourning for MH17 victims took place in many countries. EPA/Ahmad Yusni

In respect of the shooting down, there are three points on which the blame game really turns. First, who launched the surface-to-air missile that brought down the airplane. It is still too early to say categorically. But the evidence so far all points clearly in the direction of the rebels, who have control over the area from which the missile was launched, rather than towards official Ukrainian military forces.

On June 19, the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, tweeted:

Evidence that MH17 was brought down by missile launched in areas held by #Russia backed rebels in Eastern #Ukraine is becoming irrefutable.

The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) has released transcripts of telephone conversations between separatists. The exchange clearly reveals that the separatists shot down the plane mistakenly, not realising it was a commercial flight.

The separatist commander, Igor Girkin, aka Igor Strelkov, is also implicated, by his own hand. A former Russian military officer, Strelkov is widely deemed to be leading operations in eastern Ukraine. On the day the plane was downed, he posted on a local social media site that they had shot down a “bird”.

Details were consistent with the time and place that MH-17 was downed. The post was removed very quickly but not before screenshots had been taken. This came in the context of two Ukrainian military planes having been shot down earlier in the week.

The second point relates to what was used to bring the plane down. There is consensus that a Buk-M1 launcher was used to fire the surface-to-air missile. Ukrainian forces also use these Soviet-era systems, hence Russia’s statement that Kiev is involved will be credible for some. Flight MH17 was flying at 33,000 feet, 1,000 feet higher than that deemed “safe” in this area of Ukraine by civil aviation authorities.

The Buk missile system, however, can reach up to 70,000 feet. Thus, establishing this is what was used is important for understanding legal proceedings and consequences later but it does not in and of itself establish direct responsibility.

The third point is therefore who supplied the system. Separatists had previously boasted that they had captured a Ukrainian military installation, the equipment of which included the Buk missile system. This has been denied by Kiev but it is one of the reasons the Kremlin is asking Ukraine to allow independent investigators to inspect their missile inventory. If the launcher is found to be captured equipment, Kiev has questions to answer about why it denied the fact, since this might have affected the advice given to airlines.

Beyond that, the separatists would still be responsible and expert opinion is that the system requires trained personnel to operate it. This is one of the charges – not yet proven – against Russia. On the balance of probability and what can really only be seen as circumstantial evidence, opinion is weighing in favour of the Russians having first, supplied the missile system and second, supervised or at least given training on its use.

If this can be proven, the situation is as serious as it can be for Russia and would see it being isolated on the world stage.

Putin must help investigation

Aside from the crash itself, there is the question of what has followed. The independent, international investigation that should be well underway now has been prevented by the rebels who control the large territory of the crash site.

Their price for access is a truce with Kiev. However abhorrent it may seem to sue for peace over the bodies of innocents, they know they have nothing more to lose. The same cannot be said for Russia. It has a clear role to play in terms of aiding the investigation and so far it has simply not done what it could – or should.

Putin is in a very difficult situation here. If he has influence over the pro-Russian separatists, it is past time that this was brought to bear in terms of ensuring full and unhindered access is given to investigators. Playing politics with the bodies of 298 innocent civilians simply does not play well in the world’s media.

Blame for the disappearance of the black boxes and of a number of bodies, reports of looting and general disregard for either evidence or dignity is, whether fairly or not, being laid at the Kremlin’s door. If Putin does not have control over the separatists this will cause him a loss of face with some at home – but far better that he admits it now, condemns actions to date and stands firmly in support of any measures necessary to ensure the crash site can be secured. What’s preventing this from happening?

The calculation will surely be that this will turn the tide the way of the Ukrainian government, end the conflict and weaken further Russia’s influence in Ukraine. Seen from Putin’s perspective, Russia stands between a rock and an extremely hard place.

Seen from an external perspective, the path is clear: Putin has to swallow the immediate negative impact and think about Russia’s position and reputation in the longer term. Things look grim for Russia just now but they can look a lot grimmer.