Dutch investigators dissect a tragedy

Photographer: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

MH17 Crash Report Shows No Side Was Innocent

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The Dutch report on the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was not supposed to apportion blame. Yet the report released Tuesday by the Dutch Safety Board clearly shows that no side is innocent in eastern Ukraine's now-frozen conflict.

The July 17, 2014, plane crash killed 298 people, causing endless grief in several countries and catalyzing Russia's international isolation. It was after MH17 that Europe agreed to meaningful economic sanctions, including restrictions on the access of Russian state companies to European Union debt markets. Though Russia has vetoed a proposed United Nations-mandated tribunal, it is paying for the incident every day, and even without official findings, its guilt is assumed, despite the Kremlin's ham-handed attempts to deflect blame. The logic is clear: Pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine were the only party to the conflict that needed to defend itself against a threat from the air, and they were -- and still are -- armed and aided by Moscow. 

In that sense, the Dutch report changes little, showing -- without saying it in so many words -- that the Buk missile that destroyed the plane must have been launched from rebel-held territory. Yet it stresses a point that Russia has repeatedly made in its defense: Ukraine, a country responsible for safeguarding its airspace, failed in its duty by allowing passenger jets to fly over the conflict area. While there can be no moral equivalency between arming or protecting the perpetrators of that crime, and failing to close the skies, the uncomfortable truth laid bare by the report is that both sides in the conflict were glaringly incompetent.

After ascertaining that MH17 was brought down by a Buk, the Safety Board did a thorough job of pinpointing the location from which it was fired. It ordered three different simulations of the missile's trajectory, one independent, one from a Ukrainian research institute and one from Almaz-Antey, the Russian producer of Buk systems. The resulting spots fell within an area of 320 square kilometers:

Dutch Safety Board

The data match reports by journalists who traveled to the area and citizen journalists working with the Bellingcat blog. They indicate that the Buk launcher was loaded onto a truck from a rental company taken over by the separatists in Donetsk, driven to the small town of Snizhne, then offloaded and driven south of town on the day of the MH17 crash. Snizhne is located in the top left-hand corner of the broad area on the Safety Board's map. According to conflict maps published at the time, pretty much the entire area specified in the report was in rebel hands.

Almaz-Antey must have realized it had submitted data that didn't match the Russian propaganda line. On Tuesday, before the Dutch report was released, it gave a press conference to insist that, according to its simulation data, the missile was fired from the area of Zaroschenskoye, then held by the Ukrainian military. The village lies to the west of the area highlighted in the report. The Safety Board wisely ignored that attempt to rewrite the story.

If anyone needed proof that the Buk was launched from rebel territory, the Safety Board's data are unequivocal on that count. Determining who manned the Buk and what happened to it afterward lay outside the scope of the technical investigation, but the latest Bellingcat report uses social media data to show the launcher had been moved to Russia after shooting down MH17. Whether that indicates it had been supplied and manned by the Russian military or that Russia merely helped the rebels hide the hot weapon is not particularly important. The names of specific Russian or pro-Russian fighters who brought down the airliner would add little to the story of a terrible mistake, the kind that makes war indiscriminately, senselessly cruel. I find it hard to believe these people are still alive, anyway.

When a criminal investigation run by the affected countries presents its results sometime next year, it will probably also pin the catastrophe on the pro-Russian side: The evidence is by now overwhelming.

The Dutch report goes beyond the obvious, however, when discussing why MH17 was allowed to traverse the sky over the conflict zone. As many as 16 Ukrainian planes and helicopters had been shot down between April and July 17, 2014, and yet Ukraine let passenger traffic continue above a certain altitude. The Dutch investigation established that the Ukrainian authorities had figured the only threat to civilian aircraft in the area came from its own warplanes, not from the ground, so they banned civilian flights at altitudes below 26,000 feet. MH17 was 33,000 feet above ground when the Buk hit it. That, in the eyes of the Dutch investigators, was not a sufficient excuse. "Management of the airspace above a country is an exclusive right of the sovereign state," the report said. "From this exclusive right, the Dutch Safety Board also derives a large responsibility borne by the state concerned." It went on:

It is plausible that decisions related to the airspace were primarily taken from the perspective of the military's interest, in which a potential risk to civil aviation was not the subject of any implicit consideration.

In other words, Ukrainian authorities were so preoccupied with their military operation against the rebels -- which was stepped up to include heavy airstrikes after Petro Poroshenko was elected president -- that they never really thought about any danger to passenger planes.

The governments of South Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo have also failed to close their airspace during recent civil wars, though Muammar Qaddafi's Libya did. These countries are hardly examples for aspiring European Union member Ukraine.

The Safety Board's conclusions provide support to lawyers such as Elmar Giemulla, who represents the families of German MH17 victims, in suing the Ukrainian government for damages. "It is not clear at this point what role Russia has played," he said in an interview a year ago, "but it is at least clear that Ukraine has failed in its responsibility to ensure the safety of its airspace."

Giemulla's lawsuits, filed in the European Court for Human Rights, are as fruitless as was the attempt to establish a tribunal to punish Russia. For such efforts to have a sobering effect on post-Soviet states mired in their ethnic and cultural conflicts, these states' leaders must truly understand the primacy of human lives, regardless of citizenship or political views. Until they do, neither Russia nor Ukraine will truly be part of the civilized world. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net