Nearly 300 people, most of them Dutch nationals, were killed when a civilian flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down over Ukrainian airspace in 2014. Kyiv and its Western allies believe pro-Russia rebels shot down the plane, but Moscow and the militant leaders have rejected these claims and pointed the finger at Ukrainian forces instead.
After years of tense investigations, the Dutch-led Joint Investigative Team (JIT) announced in late June the names of four suspects, all of them pro-Russia militants, who they claim played a key part in the destruction of the jet. The JIT is confident the plane was brought down by a Russian BUK surface-to-air missile fired from the rebel-controlled territory.
Fighting between Ukrainian troops and separatist forces erupted in spring 2014, and had been raging for months when the Malaysia Airlines plane left the Amsterdam airport on July 17, 2014.
Rebels had already shot down multiple Ukrainian military jets above eastern Ukraine. Several international airlines had refused to fly above the conflict zone ahead of the tragedy. However, many others, including Malaysia Airlines, continued to cross the border region, directing hundreds of passenger planes through the airspace in the week before the crash.
Just days before MH17 was destroyed, pro-Russia separatists brought down a military cargo plane flying at an altitude to 6,000 meters (19,700 feet). In response, Ukrainian authorities banned civilian airliners from flying lower than 9,750 meters. International passenger planes usually fly at an altitude between 10,000 and 12,000 meters.
The Malaysia Airlines flight was heading to Kuala Lumpur with 283 passengers and 15 crew members on board, flying at around 10,000 meters, when it abruptly lost contact with flight control around 4:20 p.m. local time. The pilots did not send any distress signal.
According to international investigators, it was shot down by a Russian military BUK missile system, which had previously been transported from Russia’s Kursk region. The missile apparently detonated outside the plane, pelting the cockpit and the fuselage with shrapnel.
It went down into territory controlled by the pro-Russia rebels.
The immediate aftermath
A social media account linked with senior rebel leader Igor Girkin, also known as Igor Strelkov, who at the time served as “defense minister” of the self-proclaimed Donetsk republic, soon posted a social media update with videos showing a plane crash site.
The author boasted about downing another military cargo aircraft and said no civilians were harmed, also referring to “information about another downed plane, most likely a Sukhoi” fighter jet.
“We have already warned you not to fly in our sky,” the message read. The post was deleted not long after.
According to rebel communication intercepted by Ukrainian security service SBU, who also published the audio online, the separatists believed they were targeting a Ukrainian military jet and only realized their mistake after reaching the crash site.
Russian and rebels’ response
In the days and months following the crash, the rebels rejected this version of events and accused Ukrainian troops of bringing the airliner down. Initially, the Russian Defense Ministry claimed a Ukrainian Sukhoi was detected approaching the MH17 before the blast.
Later, Moscow published satellite photos which allegedly showed Ukrainian BUK missiles in the region at the time of the crash. The pictures’ authenticity was disputed by Bellingcat investigative research group.
The Kremlin-controlled weapons’ manufacturer Almaz-Antey, which manufactures BUK missile systems, published the results of its own probe. In it, the company said that if the passenger plane had been destroyed by a BUK rocket, it could only have been fired from the Ukrainian military’s position and with a warhead that the Russian military was no longer using.
Russia denied it was supplying the rebels with weapons and claimed that no BUK missile systems were transported to Ukraine. It has also disputed the authenticity of SBU recordings that allegedly showed Sergey Dubinsky, a senior rebel intelligence official, talking to his subordinates about deploying the missile system into the rebel-controlled region of Pervomayskoe, from where the missiles were allegedly fired.
Five years after the tragedy, the Dutch-led investigators have named former rebel “defense minister” Igor Girkin and former GRU operative Dubinsky among the first group of suspects to face charges over MH17. The remaining two suspects are Dubinsky’s subordinate, Oleg Pulatov, and rebel commander Leonid Kharchenko. The investigation is expected to continue with more names potentially being released to the public.
Investigators have said that none of the four men “press[ed] the button” to launch the rocket but instead “formed a chain” which caused the Russian military missile battery to be moved across the Ukrainian border and deployed against the Malaysian Airlines flight. They also presented audio recordings of rebel conversations and photo evidence allegedly showing the movement of the Russian BUK platform to the site.
Girkin, Dubinsky and Pulatov are Russian nationals, while Kharchenko has a Ukrainian passport. Dutch authorities have issued international arrest warrants for the four men ahead of the murder trial, which is expected to start next year in the Netherlands. However, with the first three believed to be in Russia and Kharchenko in the rebel-controlled territory in Ukraine, the trial is most likely to be held in absentia.