Five years after Moscow launched operations in Ukraine that were aimed at dismembering the country and leaving its existence in doubt following the overthrow of a pro-Russian oligarchic regime, the international community revisited the darkest episode in a war that has killed in excess of 13,000 people since the fighting first began.
All out warfare had consumed Eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region in July 2014 when a passenger plane flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur flew over the sunflower fields and rolling steppes where Ukraine’s beleaguered armed forces were locked in deadly World War II style combat with regular Russian military units and several thousand local pro-Russian separatists.
The fighting had been raging for nearly three months by that mid-July day when the MH17 flew overhead. Already by that time in the war, the sophisticated surface-to-air mobile missile batteries that the Russians had deployed to Eastern Ukraine had brought down several Ukraine military planes and killing hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers in the process.
Both the Russian and separatist forces had shown little in the way making an effort to avoid shelling or even targeting civilians as the territory that the pro-Moscow forces began to rapidly shrink as Ukraine’s hastily cobbled-together volunteer combat units began to recapture the dozens of towns that had been overrun by the separatists in the early days of their uprising when they hoped to join Eastern Ukraine with the Russian Federation to create a sort of Stalinist interpretation of a neo-Soviet Union for the 21st-century.
All of this was playing out thousands of metres below MH17 as it made its way over the war zone and when the doomed passenger plane when, with 298 souls on board, was brought down by a Russian BUK missile not far from the small village of Grabovo where the smouldering wreckage of the plane and the remains of the passengers sat for days in the sun as the Kremlin and its supporters openly lied about what happened to MH17, and openly mocked foreign journalists and international aid workers who tried to ascertain exactly how a passenger jet had been shot down.
The Kremlin and separatists would spend the next several weeks destroying evidence and spinning yarns so obviously dubious and untethered to any semblance of reality that it was only a matter of time before journalists and open source investigators to piece together enough unimpeachable evidence that linked the separatists to a BUK missile system brought across the border.
The fact that a BUK, a self-propelled, medium-range surface-to-air missile system that was first developed by the Soviet Union, was in the separatist-controlled areas of the Donbass wasn’t much of a surprise when thinking about it five years after the incident occurred. For those of us reporting from the Donbass throughout 2014-2015 in quickly became apparent that unintended tragedy could occur considering the amount of highly sophisticated combat equipment that had flooded into the region in the months since the two sides first engaged in firefights.
What was even more obvious, in hindsight, was that the overwhelming number of shady individuals who had taken command of the pro-Russian units were largely unhinged and cold-blooded, each with a vengeful streak that would manifest itself through their obsessive attempts to turn the areas of the Donbass that were under their control into veritable hearts of darkness of forced disappearances, Marshall law, and arbitrary arrests.
Four of the individuals who were responsible for blowing up Eastern Ukraine will now be tried for murder for having been responsible for MH17’s shoot down. The Dutch-led international team tasked with assigning criminal responsibility for the plane’s downing has opened criminal cases against Russian nationals Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov, as well as Ukrainian national Leonid Kharchenko.
The Joint Investigation Team will not seek extradition because the constitutions of both Russia and Ukraine forbid extradition of their nationals, but it will ask Moscow to arrest and question Girkin, Dubinsky, and Pulatov.
Dubinsky was head of the military intelligence agency of DNR, the Russian-language acronym used by Moscow and the separatists for the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, while Pulatov was head of a department of the DNR’s military intelligence agency. Ukrainian national Kharchenko was head of a reconnaissance battalion.
Of the four, Girkin was by far the most notorious and best known. A former FSB colonel, he fought on the side of the Serbs in Bosnia in the early 1990s after briefly joining pro-Russian separatists in Moldova’s breakaway Transnistria region and was later accused of war crimes for carrying forced disappearances during the Second Chechen War in 2001.
While he served as the DNR’s Defence Minister throughout the spring and summer of 2014, he introduced Stalin-era laws that included curfews and executions.
The Dutch-led investigation reached its conclusions after interviewing witnesses, analysing satellite images, and sifting through intercepted phone calls, one of which included a conversation between Girkin and Sergey Aksyonov, Moscow’s handpicked leader of Crimea following its annexation by Russia. In an 11 July 2014 conversation, Girkin, who went by the nom de guerre “Strelkov”, reportedly asks for heavy weapons deliveries from Russia. The call took place just days before the BUK that brought down MH17 was secretly shipped across the border.
In another intercepted conversation reportedly used by the investigators to seal an indictment, Vladislav Surkov, Vladimir Putin’s personal adviser, speaks with Alexander Borodai, the Kremlin-appointed prime minister of the DNR. Borodai specifically requests from Surkov anti-aircraft missile defence batteries to fend off Ukrainian aerial attacks.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called upon Russia to «ensure that any indicted individuals currently in Russia face justice». Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s new president, welcomed the Dutch-led inquiry’s conclusions, saying he hoped “those who are guilty of this brazen murder of innocent children, woman and men will be put in the dock”.
UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Russia «must co-operate fully with the prosecution and provide any assistance it requests» in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 2166, which was passed in response to the downing of MH17. «The international community stands together against the impunity of those responsible for the despicable murder of 298 innocent people,» he added.
Most likely, however, the perpetrators of the most heinous crime in Europe’s bloodiest war since the 1990s will escape punishment. Girkin lives openly in Moscow and appears regularly on ultra-nationalist radio shows where he criticises Putin for abandoning the ideals of reconstituting the Russian Empire.
The others’ whereabouts are unknown.