“Five years might have passed but our resolve for accountability and justice will not wane,” read a statement by Malaysia’s Ministry of Transport released on the fifth anniversary of the unresolved shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over the skies of eastern Ukraine, taking the lives of all 298 people on board.
Malaysian authorities vowed to “remain resolute in our pursuit” and “leave no stone unturned until justice is served,” adding that it would continue to work with the other members of the multinational Joint Investigation Team (JIT) and international community to pursue the those responsible for the plane’s downing.
“We sincerely hope that this will bring some measure of comfort and solace to the families and the next of kin of those who were lost in this tragedy,” the statement said.
Conflicted narratives and contested facts about what actually happened above the sunflower fields of eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, however, means there will be no near-term closure for what may be the most politicized aviation disaster in history.
Dutch prosecutors tasked with assigning criminal responsibility for the downing announced last month the names of four suspects, three Russian nationals and one Ukrainian, who are due to face murder charges in proceedings set to start in the Netherlands next March.
None of the four are in custody, however, and will almost certainly be tried in absentia.
Malaysia is a member of the Dutch-led multinational probe and has formally endorsed its findings. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, however, has taken a different and controversial position by publicly questioning the objectivity of the international investigation and claiming it to be politically biased.
“Even before they examined the case, they have already claimed it was done by Russia,” he said last month after Dutch prosecutors named the suspects. “As far as we are concerned, we want proof of guilt. But so far, there is no proof, only hearsay. This is a ridiculous thing. Someone shoots a gun and you are not able to see who, but yet you know who shot it.”
According to the Kremlin’s top diplomat in Malaysia, the 94-year-old premier’s remarks demonstrate “that not only Russia has doubts over impartiality and true objectives of the ongoing investigation” into what may be the most politicized aviation disaster in history.
Valery Yermolov, Russia’s Ambassador to Malaysia, told Asia Times in an interview that the main reason for Malaysia’s skepticism of the probe “is the absence of solid evidence” and international investigator’s “obsession to make Russia responsible” at any cost.
“It does not mean that there is no reliable data at the disposal of investigators. There is, but it is being neglected for political reasons [and] substituted with fabricated video clips, dramatic images and photographs from dubious information sources, ill-quality fragments of intercepted telephone conversations of alleged perpetrators,” he claimed.
“Judging by the official statements of the Malaysian Foreign Ministry, Kuala Lumpur as a member of the JIT supports the international investigation led by the Netherlands. At the same time, Malaysian diplomats continuously call for a more comprehensive and transparent scrutiny of existing evidence and search for additional data, which can shed more light on the tragedy,” Yermolov said.
“It is clear that Malaysia seeks truth and justice for the sake of the deceased and their families. There is no ‘hidden agenda’ here. Sadly, other countries represented in the JIT place politics above justice.”
In 2016, international investigators concluded that the Boeing 777-200ER was hit by a Russian-made Buk-9M38 missile fired by separatist fighters as it flew directly over conflict-ridden areas of eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists and government forces were engaged in fierce combat.
JIT believes a Soviet-era surface-to-air missile system was supplied by the Russian military’s 53rd Air Defense Missile Brigade, a charge the Kremlin has strongly and consistently denied. It is said to have been brought across the Russian border into eastern Ukraine to aid separatist fighters and quickly rolled back after the MH17 disaster to avoid detection.
Moscow has put forward various findings of its own over the years that suggest Ukrainian forces targeted the Malaysian jetliner in a false flag attack, evidence that it says has been ignored by the international probe.
Dutch authorities claim Russia has not cooperated with legal requests from the JIT inquiry.
Yermolov counters those claims, saying Moscow has been “most cooperative to the probe” and that Russian agencies carried out “unprecedented work” relating to the technical investigation of the incident.
That included a 2015 experiment by Almaz-Antey, the manufacturer of the Buk anti-aircraft missile system, which helped identify the type of missile used to down MH17.
Findings by the state-owned arms manufacturer point to the use of a 9M38-series missile – a claim not disputed by the Dutch-led probe – rather than the newer 9M38M1 model currently in use by the Russian armed forces.
Yermolov claimed that Russia “does not possess” the 9M38 missile, which was phased out of use in 1999. Ukraine, he said, does possess such a missile.
In September 2018, the Russian Defense Ministry declassified a set of Soviet-era documents that, it claims, traces the serial number of the missile fired at MH17 to the 223rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Regiment of the Ukrainian armed forces, which is stationed near the western city of Lviv.
“Primary radar data, submitted by Russia to the Netherlands in October 2016, disproved the possibility of a missile launch from the spot on which the JIT was insisting,” Yermolov told Asia Times. Independent investigators, however, have raised flags over the 2016 radar data, not because of what it showed but rather what it did.
When Russia’s Defense Ministry held its first press conference on the downing of MH17 four days after the tragedy occurred, then Lieutenant General Andrei Kartopolov said Russian radar systems had detected a Ukrainian Sukhoi Su-25 fighter jet equipped with air-to-air R-60 missiles was gaining altitude within a three-mile firing range of the Malaysian commercial aircraft.
Prior to 2016, arguments made by Russian defense officials and experts interviewed in state media supported the theory that MH17 came under gunfire from aircraft cannons and was downed by an air-to-air missile.
A television segment aired on Russia’s Channel One even showed an experiment involving live-fire from a Su-25 fighter jet on a stationary plane fuselage in a bid to demonstrate how the pattern and consistency of shrapnel damage matched that of MH17.
Eyewitnesses from various towns and villages in separatist-held eastern Ukraine have appeared in various international media clips and documentaries, some of whom claim to have seen fighter jets on the day the incident occurred.
But two days before the JIT was due to publish its interim findings in September 2016, Russia’s Defense Ministry produced radar images purporting to show that a Buk missile had been fired from Ukrainian-controlled territory. That radar data, however, left out the presence of the earlier reported Ukrainian fighter jet, investigators told Asia Times.
“This radar data could be accurate, but the reason why they published it is because it doesn’t show a Buk missile [in separatist-held territory]. But, they contradicted the radar data they presented two years prior,” said Aric Toler, lead Eastern Europe researcher with the open-source investigative group Bellingcat.
“They haven’t mentioned the air-to-air cannon [theory] in any state news or diplomatic releases for about three years, so they have completely abandoned that [and] made a hard turn and for the last three years or so, they have been all in on the Ukrainian Buk surface-to-air missile idea.
“We’ve looked at the [Russian Defense Ministry’s findings] and there is a lot of pseudo-science to it…They run with a bunch of things at once and hope something gets shared into Western media as something legitimate,” he claimed.
Max van der Werff, an independent Dutch filmmaker and co-producer of a newly-released MH17 documentary, told Asia Times he was branded a “Kremlin troll” by online critics for questioning the impartially and conclusions of the Dutch-led probe.
But he is no less critical of inconsistencies between the various claims made by the Russian government.
“The Russian information strategy from the beginning was very flawed and, in my opinion, shameful. How can Russia claim there is a fighter jet and then claim there is no fighter jet? It never gave any explanation as to how this discrepancy could occur,” he said.
“Moscow never came forward with a congruent chain of events and a complete counter-narrative. There’s no Russian version, that’s a main piece of criticism. They have not helped to clarify the entire picture,” van der Werff told Asia Times.
“I’ve asked this to at least ten different Russian officials and they never have an answer. I’m not asking what did not happen, I’m asking what happened according to their version of events [but] I don’t get proper answers.”
The Dutch filmmaker and investigative journalist maintains, however, that evidence brought forward by the multinational JIT has been difficult to verify, “totally unconvincing” and heavily reliant on low-resolution images and videos from mobile phones that surfaced on social media in the hours and days after MH17’s downing.
“I have more questions than answers and I don’t favor a specific scenario for what occurred, but I am sure the official narrative by the JIT isn’t what really happened,” said van der Werff. “I cannot give you a counter-narrative that is more credible, unfortunately.”
Dutch prosecutors have made their case using various photos and clips of a truck convoy carrying what it claims to be a Buk missile system bearing markings unique to the 53rd Air Defense Missile Brigade, an anti-aircraft unit based in Russia’s western city of Kursk, as it crossed the border from Russia to Ukraine and returned on July 18, 2014, with one less missile.
According to Yermolov, these video and images are “a bad-quality fabrication.” He said Russian defense ministry experts had examined the clips in detail and determined in 2018 that “the truck and the missile system had been deliberately and falsely put together on the same video” with the aim of drawing a link between MH17 and Russia.
“In reality, both vehicles had never met,” he told Asia Times.
To determine a clip’s authenticity, one would “have to work with the most primary source of video footage,” according to German image forensics expert Jens Kriese. “If it was published over social media, any user could resize it, then the next could save and [re-upload] it, another could add comments into it, and so on. It becomes harder to find the primary material.
“If you don’t work with the primary sources, it’s like reading tea leaves,” he said, adding that he could not personally determine the authenticity of the footage used by Dutch prosecutors without access to their raw data. “It is very hard to say whether Party A or Party B is telling the truth because this is like an information war,” noted the expert.
“I can’t tell if the Dutch investigation team works properly or if it’s more a question of politics to blame the Russians,” said Kriese, who believes various countries likely possess hyper-spectral imaging data that would definitively determine which party was behind MH17’s downing, though such evidence could be withheld for official secrecy reasons.
At present, Dutch prosecutors hold four individuals responsible for the downing of MH17: Russian nationals Sergey Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov and Igor Girkin, and Ukrainian, Leonid Kharchenko. Girkin, a former Russian FSB security service colonel, is the most prominent figure named. He served as the minister of defense of Donetsk’s self-declared breakaway republic at the time of MH17’s downing.
Prosecutors claim Dubinsky was employed by Russia’s military intelligence agency (GRU) and was in regular contact with Russia as head of Donetsk’s intelligence service. Pulatov is said to have been a former soldier of GRU special forces and a deputy head of the same intelligence agency. Kharchenko is believed to have commanded a pro-Russian separatist combat unit.
“Although they did not push the button themselves, we suspect them of close co-operation to get the [missile launcher] where it was, with the aim to shoot down an airplane,” Dutch chief prosecutor Fred Westerbeke said as he announced charges against the men last month.
Toler, Bellingcat’s lead Eastern Europe investigator, described the four suspects as “the lowest hanging fruit” for prosecutors.
“Girkin himself probably didn’t have a lot to do with all of this. He was probably aware and made a call or two, but he wasn’t involved in the day-to-day, nitty-gritty of… organizing the convoys and all of that. That was done by Dubinsky. Kharchenko and Pulatov are important because they were actually there [at the launch site],” he told Asia Times.
“Pulatov was almost certainly with the Buk when the shoot-down happened and Kharchenko was the guy who helped get it out to Russia, so these are people who were the most directly involved.”
None of the four named suspects were crew members of the vehicle from which the missile was fired. The Dutch-led probe has appealed to members of the public to come forward and offer help in identifying members of the crew said to have operated the missile.
Prosecutors previously determined there were at least 100 individuals of interest in relation to the case, though it is unclear how high up the Russian military’s chain of command any order to covertly deploy a Buk missile system would have originated.
“The next set of indictments will be the trickier ones, the higher hanging fruit, which are people who actually have political and military positions in the Russian armed forces. It gets really geopolitically messy once these people start to get named,” Toler said.
Russian and Ukrainian law prohibit extradition. Olexander Nechytaylo, Ukraine’s Ambassador to Malaysia, however, told Asia Times that his country’s existing laws provide for defendants to be examined by a video link and for the enforcement of prison sentences to be transferred between jurisdictions.
Moscow’s ambassador to Malaysia said any crimes committed by its citizens abroad would be prosecuted in accordance with domestic law.
Yermolov told Asia Times that the Dutch-led probe should “conduct an impartial analysis of all the data it possesses” and that the way in which the investigation has been conducted so far “could not guarantee its independence and politics-free nature.”
When asked what he believed actually occurred on the day those aboard MH17 had their lives tragically ended, Toler’s estimation was that it was an accident.
“The number one conspiracy that has spread in the West is that this was done on purpose, that this was a purposeful thing that Russia did to achieve goal X, Y or Z. There is really no reason to think they were targeting a civilian plane. They tried to shoot down a plane, but they tried to shoot down a Ukrainian plane,” he said.
“They didn’t want to shoot down a civilian airliner, that’s for sure.”
The first installment in this two-part investigative series may be read here.