The trial of four men accused of causing the fatal July 2014 crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine and the deaths of its 298 passengers and crew could ultimately prove another vicious battle in the ongoing information war between Russia and the West, some observers believe.
Three of the accused are Russian citizens who had served in the Russian military; the fourth, a Ukrainian, is believed to have worked for Russian military intelligence. Prosecutors have linked the suspects, all fugitives, to a Russian-made, Buk surface-to-air missile system believed to have shot down the Boeing-777 on July 17, 2014 over Ukrainian territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists.
If convicted, the four absentee defendants face potential life sentences in prison.
But for one Ukrainian, the trial, which opened on March 9 near The Netherlands’ Schiphol Airport, the site of Flight MH17's takeoff for Kuala Lumpur, has far larger significance than these defendants’ guilt or innocence.
“[T]oday, in the judicial sense, there are four defendants on trial, but, politically and morally, Russia is on trial,” Ukraine’s foreign minister at the time of the catastrophe, Pavel Klimkin, commented to Current Time.
In a sense, Moscow appears to recognize that perception, even if it does not agree that it is justified.
On March 6, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova charged that a “media campaign” against Russia about the trial had picked up “unprecedented momentum.” Terming this “unacceptable,” Zakharova claimed that this alleged campaign aims to conceal gaps in the Dutch prosecution’s case and to “predetermine the verdict."
Russian mainstream media has followed this line, largely sidestepping the trial’s start and, instead, focusing on other controversies, such as the March 9 plunge in financial markets or responses to the coronavirus.
On March 9, for instance, the state-run Channel One’s morning news brief led with coverage of Russia’s warm weather and ended with an extensive report on popular actor Larisa Golubkina’s 80th birthday.
The government-financed RT and Sputnik outlets, aimed at international audiences, provided cursory coverage of the trial, but emphasized the Kremlin’s point of view that the procedure is “biased.”
Meanwhile, the influential Rossia-1 TV talk show host Dmitry Kiselyov, known for his criticism of the West, opted for total silence: The March 8 broadcast of his weekly Vesti Nedeli made no mention of MH17.
Kremlin-financed or influenced outlets staying quiet on topics that cast a negative light on the Russian government is routine.
But one aspect of Russia’s mediascape has changed what information is publicly available about Flight MH17, noted Ruslan Leviyev, founder and head of Conflict Intelligence Team, an independent Russian investigative group that dug into causes of the crash.
In 2014, Leviyev recalled, witnesses and soldiers serving with the Russian armed forces in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas conflict zone posted “an enormous amount” of information about the crash in social media. That made getting leads “significantly easier.”
Today, the Russian Defense Ministry, and the Russian government in general, understand how social media can impact the aftermath of such events. “Now, they’re trying to clean up social networks in various ways,” Leviyev said. “It’s more complicated to investigate information.”
Two questions still dog Leviyev about the MH17 catastrophe: what happened to the Buk missile system believed to have shot down Flight MH17 and who made up the team manning the system when the fatal missile was fired?
As yet, he commented, no definitive proof exists that Russian service personnel, rather than separatist militia, made up that team.
None of the four defendants are suspected of having pushed the button that launched a missile into MH17. Rather, they are believed to have played roles in the Buk’s delivery to the Donbas conflict zone and its return to Russia.
The four men include:
*Former Russian Federal Security Service Colonel Igor Girkin (also known as Igor Strelkov), 49, who, at the time of the crash, headed the military forces of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic. Investigators allege that Girkin helped facilitate the transfer of the Buk system to Donbas from Russia.
*Sergei Dubinsky (also known as Khmury), 57, allegedly a former employee of Russian military intelligence, who ran the Donetsk separatists’ military intelligence operations, which are believed to be completely or partly under the control of the Russian military’s GRU, or Central Intelligence Administration. Bellingcat has released a recording of an alleged phone conversation on July 18, 2014, the day after the crash, in which Dubinsky and Girkin discuss the removal of the Buk to Russia.
*Former Russian Airborne Forces Lieutenant Colonel Oleg Pulatov (also called Gyurza and Khalif), 53, a veteran of Russia’s Afghan and Chechen wars, who was the deputy commander of the Donetsk separatists’ military intelligence. Investigators believe he carried responsibility for guarding the Buk.
*Ukrainian citizen Leonid Kharchenko, 48, a member of the Donetsk separatists’ military intelligence unit who is a suspected go-between with Russia about the Buk.
Former Foreign Minister Klimkin has no doubts that the ultimate chain of command “should lead to the (Russian) military leadership for sure.”
“I believe that sending the Buks (to eastern Ukraine), organizing this logistically, giving the relevant commands would have been impossible without (the involvement of) Russia’s senior military leadership,” he said.
Declining “to speculate,” he did not name specific individuals, but expressed confidence that the international MH17 investigation will pinpoint who specifically took part.
Ukrainian political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko, however, questions whether such evidence will surface during the trial.
“[I]n my view, considering the specifics of the Russian political system, how it controls its perpetrators [those who carry out government commands], it will be extremely complicated to prove legally, completely, the participation of one or another individual” in any decision to deliver the Buk missile system to Donetsk separatist forces, Fesenko said.
None of the accused will attend the trial, nor have they been detained. Russia refused a request from The Netherlands for their extradition. Their whereabouts are unknown.
Pulatov is the only one of the defendants with representation in court:
Sabine ten Doesschate and Boudewijn von Eick from the Rotterdam law firm Sjöcrona Van Stigt Advocaten. Also involved is attorney Yelena Kutina from the Moscow law firm Kovler and Partners, which counts the Russian Interior Ministry and Prosecutor General’s Office among its clients.
Neither firm appears to have a background in criminal cases related to military conflicts.
Fesenko contends that the Russian government, which unsuccessfully attempted to have the trial moved to Russia, “stands behind Pulatov and his legal team” in a bid to exert influence on the trial, pass blame onto Ukraine, and shape international public opinion.
There will be, he predicted, both “a legal fight” and “a propaganda-information fight” during the trial.
In their March 9 remarks, Pulatov’s defense questioned, as had the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Zakharova, why Ukraine had not closed its airspace in July 2014, given the armed conflict with separatists in its east.
In remarks to Current Time, Klimkin countered that Ukraine had no legal obligation to do so.
The Joint Investigative Team found that a missile launched by the Russian-made Buk, located not far from the separatist-controlled city of Snezhnoe in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region, shot down the flight. The system belonged to Russia’s 53rd Antiaircraft Brigade, based in the western Russian city of Kursk, a few hours from the Ukrainian border. The non-profit investigative group Bellingcat determined that the launcher was transferred to the Snezhnoe area not long before the Boeing’s crash.
The Russian Defense Ministry maintains that none of its Buk surface-to-air systems crossed the border with Ukraine around the time of the crash, and, instead, has insisted Ukrainian artillery shot the plane down. It continues to deny that Russian military units played any direct role in the Donbas conflict
For now, most Russians appear to agree that Moscow is not to blame for the MH17 crash.
A recent poll by the independent Levada Center found that 53 percent of 1,600 surveyed Russians instead blame Ukraine. Only 10 percent of the group considered Russia holds responsibility.
If Russia’s guilt is proven, however, 55 percent of the respondents favored some payment of compensation for the plane crash.
The trial is expected to last more than a year. Hearings have been scheduled for March 9-13; March 23-27; June 8 – July 3; August 31-November 13; and February 1 – March 26, 2021.