The “final” MH17 report shows that there is still a long way to go in determining what actually happened in Ukraine.


Mikhail Malyshevsky, an adviser to the director general of the state-controlled Almaz-Antei consortium, speaks during a news conference in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015. Photo: AP

For a very different take read: "8 reasons why the Dutch got the MH17 report incomplete"

The long-awaited final report of the Dutch Safety Board into the MH17 disaster revealed answers to many important questions. After studying the published materials, no one, for instance, is likely to continue to promote the air-to-air missile theory.

But the report also shows that the final end of this tragedy is still a long way off. Even if the “truth” can one day be established, doubts will linger all the same. 

A never-ending story

The international and political scale of MH17 means that it can never be filed away, no matter how many “final” reports are produced. Its impact on international relations already has been far more serious than all previous incidents of civilian deaths involving military missiles.

The debate surrounding the investigation of the tragedy has long moved on from simple finger-pointing. At stake are the very foundations of the existing world order. Options to circumvent Russia’s veto on the UN Security Council and to grant new powers to the International Court of Justice are on the table.

According to the Dutch Safety Board, there is still no answer to the key question of the precise location of the BUK launch site, which means that a further “criminal” investigation is needed.

No doubt at this stage the topic will become even more sensitive and require not only expert but also “strong-willed” political decisions. If the political will is there on all sides, it will not be too difficult to explore the suspected regions and gather the necessary evidence.

Experts assert that even in the war-scorched earth of Donbas soil samples could help locate the launch site. But will forensic experts be allowed to take them?

The Russian view of MH17

On the same day as the Dutch Safety Board published its report, the Almaz-Antey joint stock-company, which manufactures the BUK missile system, announced the results of a repeat experiment to recreate the conditions of the catastrophe.

Also read: "The MH17 tragedy has become a geopolitical game"

In contrast to their Dutch colleagues, Russian experts considered the available data to be sufficient to determine the launch site with reasonable accuracy. Using mathematical modeling techniques, they pinpointed a small area that in July 2014 was under the control of the Ukrainian Army.

Moreover, based on the damage to the hull of the downed Boeing (in particular, the shape of the entry holes), Almaz-Antey's team of experts concluded that the missile that destroyed the plane was long ago decommissioned by the Russian Armed Forces (but oddly enough is still in use with the Ukrainian military).

It was a repeat of what has happened on countless occasions since July 2014: In response to the disclosure of evidence pointing to Russia’s guilt, the Russian side produces its own evidence that shifts the blame onto Ukraine.

Some have grown utterly weary of this tug-of-war, yet many participants in the debate in Russia continue to believe that the country is being tried in absentia, with global public opinion as the presiding judge.

That being the case, the final verdict will depend on the persuasiveness of the parties’ arguments. Let the trial continue for as long as necessary, since everyone is interested in the same thing — establishing the truth and punishing the guilty.

What’s wrong with the Russian version of the MH17 story

But the logic of a trial in which the judge is public opinion differs from traditional cases, even those involving juries. It is evident that the MH17 disaster has caused great damage to Russia’s international reputation already.

And it will continue to inflict damage until the headlines disappear from the pages of the world’s newspapers. It is not the verdict, but the trial that is the real penalty. But it seems that much of the Russian political elite and expert community would prefer to flatly reject any accusations.

What makes people remember one tragedy and quickly forget another? Why in some military conflicts are mass civilian casualties written off as collateral damage, and the attention of international observers diverted elsewhere, while other tragedies, such as MH17, remain on the political agenda for years on end?

For many Russian experts today, the answer to this question is obvious: Russophobia. Hostile forces in the West have seized the opportunity to humiliate Russia and once again present the country in a highly unfavorable light.

The only way to resist, as they see it, is to persistently defend their position by providing persuasive evidence that Russia is being slandered and attacked by foes on all sides.

But it turns out in practice that each new “irrefutable” argument put forward by overconfident and politically motivated Russian experts only prolongs the proceedings, which have long since acquired the traits of a political spectacle.

If one seriously considers Russia’s national interests in the MH17 case, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that chief among them should not be to prove the country’s innocence, but to bring the process to an end whatever the result.

There is no doubt that if on July 17, 2014, the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine had acknowledged that they had mistakenly shot down flight MH17, believing it to be a Ukrainian military transporter, Russia would have been spared one of worst episodes of international condemnation in its history.

Recommended: "A year after MH17: The lessons for Russia"

Of course, Russia’s reputation would have suffered anyway — but who in 2015 would still be debating the issue and dreaming up ways of bypassing Russia’s UN Security Council veto?

But it is too late to start back-pedaling now. The war of words has to be waged to the bitter end, and to gain the upper hand it seems that less talk about entry holes and a more resolute and even more adventuresome foreign policy is required.

The Kremlin seems to be counting on its operation in Syria to resolve MH17.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.