MOSCOW—It’s been nearly five years since Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was blown up in the skies over eastern Ukraine, but witnesses to the catastrophe will never forget the day human bodies were raining from the sky on their fields, streets, and on an orphanage near the town of Torez.
Two days after the disaster, a 15-year-old orphan, Christina Shevts, told me the victims’ bodies looked like “big birds flying to us from the sky.” There were 298 crew and passengers aboard that Boeing 777 blasted to bits above war-torn eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014. All died.
One of the orphanage teachers, Larisa Zvereva, remembered the sound of the 777 cockpit hitting the ground. Two bodies landed in the garden where a group of teenagers were at play with their teachers at 4:15 p.m., and all over the field outside the gate.
Zvereva found eight more bodies just up the street outside the orphanage gate—all of the victims were naked, stripped by the force of the explosion and rushing air as they were “falling right from the clouds on us.”
As one of the orphans said, simply, “I want to know why.”
This week they and the families of the victims can read the names of four suspects, and even though it does not look like the accused are ever going to see the Kremlin allow the Russian suspects to stand trial—indeed, the Kremlin is mocking the report—the information it provides takes us a few steps closer to answering the question: “Why?”
Most of the passengers aboard the flight from the Netherlands to Malaysia were Dutch, and the investigation has been lead by the Dutch Joint Investigation Team, JIT.
It named three Russians and one Ukrainian involved in downing the plane: Igor Girkin (nickname “Strelkov”), the former officer in Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and defense minister of a self-proclaimed Russia-backed rebel republic; Sergey Dubinsky, from the rebels’ military intelligence service; Oleg Pulatov, a former Russian military officer; and Leonid Kharchenko, a Ukrainian national who commanded a rebel unit.
The JIT said Russia provided the Buk Telar surface-to-air missile system that shot down the airplane.
From day one after the catastrophe, the pro-Russian rebels, Russian officials, and propaganda media came up with all sorts of versions of what happened, denying any involvement in the mass killing. They claimed that a Ukrainian plane shot down the Malaysian Boeing; and then in a different version said it was a Ukrainian missile that downed the plane.
The militia we interviewed in pro-Russian Donbass in 2014 and 2015 were convinced the United States had first orchestrated the anti-Russian revolution in Kiev, then supported Ukrainian military forces fighting the war against pro-Russian separatist troops, and finally fabricated the accusations about who shot down MH17.
In a similar vein this week, anticipating the JIT report, Russian media talked up Washington’s financial help for Ukrainian forces, supposedly amounting to $1.5 billion in the past five years.
“This is not an investigation but global NATO’s provocation against Russia,” pro-Kremlin analyst Yuriy Krupnov told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “JIT took the four names from nowhere, they just threw something out, in an effort to hide the fact that they lacked real evidence.” Krupnov insisted that “Russia supplying rebels with weapons” could not be considered evidence. Krupnov and a few dozen Russian public figures have been working on their own investigation, he said. Krupnov and his colleagues insisted that the West deliberately blamed Russian authorities for downing the plane to start a new Cold War.
In fact, the Russian coverup started on the ground in Ukraine from day one.
In the first week after the catastrophe, pro-Russian militia did not want journalists to ask doctors questions about the victims at the local morgue. Armed men detained every reporter looking for the remains of the victims there. It was Girkin-Strelkov who personally ordered the detentions of all Russian and foreign journalists (even Russia Today) who showed up at the morgue on July 21 and 22, 2014.
One of the rebel commanders interrogating journalists at the prison complex in Donetsk said: “America hates us, they want to destroy us.”
In the days that followed the crash, rebel militia collected their own “evidence” to “prove” that it was a Ukrainian and not a Russian missile that shot down MH17 and that Ukraine was backed up by the United States.
Earlier this month, the Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta got hold of official documents from July 2014 that revealed “more than 170 units of the Russian defense forces were present near [Ukraine’s] border in the Rostov [Russia] region on the day when the Buk attacked the MH17 flight.” The paper’s investigative journalist, Pavel Kanygin, spent several years looking into the catastrophe, speaking with the JIT team and Russian officials.
Kanygin’s reporting helped to identify one of the four suspects named by the JIT, Sergey Dubinsky, suspected of involvement in the Buk missile’s transportation. For Kanygin’s story published in April 2017, he interviewed Dubinsky’s friend Sergey Tiunov. Together, they listened to a recording of a tapped phone conversation provided by Dutch investigators. Tiunov confirmed that it was Dubinsky’s voice.
Just a few hours after the JIT published its report Wednesday, Russia-1, the country’s leading television channel, mocked journalist Kanygin in a political talk show. The channel’s presenter, Vladimir Solovyev, suggested that Kanygin was a drug user.
Kanygin’s colleagues, journalists of Russian leading publications, were shocked at this “disgusting” display, not least because Russians learned recently how police frame independent journalists for their work by planting drugs on them or in their homes.
Even at the formal diplomatic level, Moscow is mocking the report. The JIT connected the Kremlin’s ideologist, Vladislav Surkov, to the catastrophe, providing a wiretapped phone conversation between Surkov and Alexander Borodai, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk republic. Borodai has said it was not his voice.
Surkov, a political and PR strategist, has been called “Putin’s Rasputin,” with power in the Kremlin that far exceeds whatever title he holds at the moment.
The Dutch investigators believe that on the tape, allegedly recorded a week before the crash, on July 11, 2014, Surkov, whose official job was to be the Kremlin’s point man for Ukraine, was promising the rebels’ commander to provide “breakthrough military aid”—which could well have included antiaircraft missiles.
Immediately after the JIT published its report, the Kremlin announced that Surkov might be Russia’s representative at a meeting with Ukrainian, German and French officials next month.