The unyielding response of Russian officials to the results of the new Dutch investigation into the MH17 tragedy is only going to increase confrontation with the West.
Ukrainian Emergency workers carry a victim's body in a body bag as the rebels from the Donetsk People’s Republic stand guard at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 near the village of Hrabove. Photo: AP
Last week the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) presented the results of its probe into the downing of the Malaysian Boeing MH17 over Eastern Ukraine, the tragedy that worsened Moscow’s relations with the West and led to the imposition of extensive sanctions on Russia.
According to the JIT report, the downing of the plane resulted from a Russia-produced Buk missile. The authors of the report claim that the launch of the rocket took place from the town of Snezhnoe in Eastern Ukraine, which was controlled by the pro-Russian rebels from the Donetsk People’s Republic at the time.
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While announcing the release of the report, Dutch prosecutor Fred Westerbeke said that the commission has a list of about 100 names of people who could have been responsible for launching the missile. According to him, it is too early to make certain conclusions and the investigation into who fired the missile and who gave the order will continue.
However, the response of the Russian authorities was predictable. It indicates that Moscow remains intransigent and is not ready to accept its guilt. As Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov noted, Russia does not consider the results of the report as the final truth, because there has been no persuasive evidence.
“We have to be accurate in this situation,” he said. “It is a serious tragedy. And we should not rely on allegations without evidence and details.”
At the same time, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov refused to apologize for the death of the MH17 passengers, when asked by a BBC reporter. Meanwhile, Russia’s Ministry of Defense spokesperson Igor Konashenkov continues to deny any Russian blame whatsoever. He says that, “No missile system from Russia has ever crossed the borders of Ukraine.” According to him, the data presented by the Dutch Joint Investigative Team are based on two sources — the Internet and the Ukrainian Special Forces. That is why Russia questions the objectivity and reliability of the JIT probe.
The denial of its complicity in the MH17 downing is the same response that came from Moscow to the previous investigation by the citizen journalist outfit Bellingcat and other attempts to hold Russia accountable for downing the plane. However, such reaction from the Kremlin puts into question the possibility of lifting sanctions, which were toughened after the downing of the MH17 Boeing.
On Sept. 22, U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden said that at least five European states were ready to lift sanctions against Russia. Yet the publication of the Dutch report affects Russia’s image, which hampers its attempts to persuade the EU to cancel sanctions. In short, the Kremlin’s response doesn’t have a positive impact on Russia’s reputation.
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It just confirms that Moscow remains as intransigent as possible, that it is a very difficult negotiator, one that is reluctant to come up with a compromise. All this affects Russia-EU relations at a time when they seemed to be improving. In fact, some EU officials, including German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, hinted at the possibility of lifting sanctions against Russia, with the EU tired of the economic confrontation with Russia.
Valery Khomyakov, head of the National Strategy Council, is very pessimistic in his assessment of the future of Russia-EU relations in the context of the MH17 tragedy. He expects the sanctions to be toughened after the Kremlin’s denial of the results of the Dutch investigation. The sectoral sanctions “will be expanded” and affect the defense industry and financial sector, he told Russia Direct.
At the same time, he adds that Western authorities take into account public opinion, which might demand that they take measures to hold Russia accountable for the MH17 downing, now that the results of the Dutch investigation have been announced. So far, these measures are symbolic, with the Russian ambassador in the Netherlands asked by the Dutch authorities to account for the Kremlin’s response to the probe.
However, Valery Solovey from the Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO University) argues that the EU is not interested in blaming Russia for the downing of the MH17 plane — “both politically and legally,” given the fact the Dutch prosecutor made it clear that he was not going to put the finger on Russia as a country.
Meanwhile, Kira Sazonova, an associate professor at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), argues that there won’t be significant legal implications for Russia, because the results of the probe “are preliminary” and there are no grounds to hold Russia legally accountable for the MH17 tragedy.
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In contrast, Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy head of the Institute of CIS countries, is more pessimistic. To quote him, the announcement of the results of the probe “is objectively hampering the Minsk Agreements,” which in turn is worsening the general state of Russian-European relations.
At any rate, Moscow is faced with a serious challenge. On the one hand, accepting its guilt would have a positive impact on its image and probably improve its relationship with the West. On the other hand, the Kremlin cannot do it for political reasons.
If Moscow agrees that the MH17 tragedy resulted from a fatal mistake of the rebels, it means that Russia would see itself as a side in the Ukrainian conflict. Thus, the Kremlin is trapped now: It cannot legally resolve the Ukrainian conflict, burdened with the MH17 incident. After all, it is the tragedy with the Malaysian Boeing that brought about a great deal of outcry in the West and affected Russia’s image throughout the world.
With the failure of the U.S.-Russia Syrian ceasefire agreement and Moscow and Washington increasing their differences in the Middle East, the publication of the Dutch report might aggravate the crisis in the Kremlin’s troubled relations with the West. Moscow is trapped with its undeclared hybrid wars, which were used in an attempt to win political dividends tactically. Instead, Moscow appears to be losing strategically.
Clearly, the response of the Russian officials to the results of the Dutch investigation into the MH17 does not alleviate tensions with the EU. It will either protract the confrontation with the West or – at worst – will exert additional pressure on Russia’s weakening economy. So far, there are no reasons to be optimistic.