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Cool heads needed as investigation into downing of MH17 points blame at Russia

Evidence appears to implicate Russia in the downing of MH17 in 2014. EPA/Jerry Lampen

The findings from the Dutch-led investigation into the downing of Malaysian Airways flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014 offer a compelling case that the missile used was fired from territory controlled by pro-Russian rebels, using a missile system that came from and was returned to Russia.

The Dutch-led joint investigation team (JIT) said there was “irrefutable evidence” that a Buk 9M38 missile downed the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 on July 17, 2014, killing all 298 people on board. The missile, it said, had been fired from a field about 6km south of the town of Snizhne, which was under the control of separatist pro-Russian fighters.

The report quoted witnesses from a nearby village who said they heard “a very loud noise” and “a high whistling sound”, and saw a plume of smoke.

The lead investigator, Wilbert Paulissen, said the JIT had examined, and rejected, other possible scenarios such as a potential attack by terrorists on board the aircraft, or a shooting down by a Ukrainian jet, as had previously been claimed.

There are few surprises in these findings which are in line not only with the information that was already available, but also coincident with the initial suspicions of many security analysts.

From the outset, Russia protested its innocence – and noticeably, both throughout the investigation and ahead of the release of the report on September 28, sought to muddy the waters as much as possible. Inevitably, then, the immediate reaction from Moscow has been dismissive, claiming that the investigation is both biased and politically motivated.

Escalating tensions

Aside from attempts to establish the truth, the release of the report comes at a time of escalating tensions between Russia and the West in general and the US in particular. Sanctions against Russia by the European Union and others following the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and the unrest in eastern Ukraine; the severe frostiness between Russia and Turkey over the shooting down of the Russian SU-24 in November 2015, and increasingly undiplomatic exchanges at the UN over Syria are raising the diplomatic temperature on all sides. It is hardly surprising that many commentators are talking of a new Cold War.

With events in Syria going from bad to worse, with Aleppo being reduced to Grozny-style destruction, and the humanitarian crisis growing more pressing by the day, the International Community in general – and the United Nations in particular – seem powerless to intervene. We are, however, seeing increasingly severe condemnation. The accusation has been levelled that what is happening in Aleppo amounts to a war crime. There has also been a hardening of attitudes on both sides – John Kerry is threatening to suspend talks with Russia and the Russian foreign ministry is digging in its heels over support for the Assad regime.

Russia presented its own version of events at a press conference in Moscow. EPA/Sergei Ilnitsky

Against this background, there seems little hope that the full truth and any acceptance of blame or responsibility for the downing of MH17 will emerge soon. Indeed, the response from Moscow is entirely in line with Russian responses to all recent criticism – as we have seen over the Crimea, Ukraine and the SU-24 shooting down, Russia is always the victim, never the perpetrator.

Time for cool heads

There are real concerns about such a belligerent, even bellicose, stance from Russia: how easy would it be for the situation in one part of the world to cause a knock-on effect which could escalate out of control? History is replete with such examples – not least the aftermath of the actions of one Gavrilo Princip who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.

This is the time for cool heads and measured statements from diplomats and politicians, but both are noticeably absent. The report into the downing of MH17 has been thoroughly researched and offers clear and compelling evidence of the chain of events – despite continuing efforts by Moscow to offer alternative evidence, including, supposedly, a radar trace that shows a different missile flight path (that has yet to be fully released).

These are troubling times and against a backdrop of accusation and counter-accusation, truth becomes the victim. Don’t hold your breath waiting for real progress on the MH17 issue – or for any advance in legal prosecutions – for neither will appear soon. Amid growing world unease, the plight of those on board the downed aircraft is in danger of becoming lost amid wider tensions.

Any suggestion of justice, and thus greater closure, for the relatives of the MH17 victims appears as far away as ever.

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