It didn’t seem like the type of crime anyone could cover up. There were nearly 300 victims, 80 of them children, whose remains were scattered in fields of sunflowers for villagers and journalists to see.
Thousands of fragments of their passenger jet, a Boeing 777 en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, had fallen across nearly 20 square miles of farmland in eastern Ukraine. Dozens of witnesses had seen the murder weapon, a Russian-made BUK anti-aircraft battery, trundling along the backroads of the warzone where the plane went down. There was plenty of evidence for the investigators to build a case.
On Wednesday, when they presented their arguments in Holland after two years of painstaking investigation, what evidence they had was put on display. The investigative team stated that, “without any doubt,” the BUK missile system had come from Russia. After shooting down the plane on July 17, 2014, the weapon was taken back to Russia the next morning. Not everybody agreed the evidence was so clear cut. Asked to respond to these allegations, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin offered this curt phrase: “There is nothing to accept or to deny.”
This followed a familiar pattern. Armed with an array of media outlets, the prime suspect in the investigation – the Russian government – has long been able to maintain an element of doubt, at least enough to shift blame, confuse the facts and delay the dispensation of justice. Rather than addressing the evidence of Russian culpability, the Kremlin and its television stations have introduced a variety of alternative theories, many of them self-contradictory and some patently absurd – such as the claim that a Ukrainian fighter jet was trying to shoot down Putin’s plane when it mistakenly hit MH17 in the same airspace.
Among the Russian public, this strategy of obfuscation has been remarkably successful. Two nationwide surveys conducted in Russia by the independent Levada Center polling agency have found that only 2% of Russians believe that the downing of MH17 was the fault of their government or its military proxies in eastern Ukraine. Despite the wealth of evidence to the contrary, the vast majority of respondents in those surveys blamed the Ukrainian authorities. About a fifth of them accused the United States.
It isn’t hard to figure out why. Right after the Dutch-led team of investigators presented their findings on Wednesday, the Russian government’s official paper of record, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, published a lengthy report rehashing the Kremlin’s various accounts of what happened. That report did not even bother to mention the investigation’s key finding: that the missile came from Russia. A report from the Kremlin’s main news network did at least acknowledge the accusation, but its headline suggested what readers should make of it: “Dutch MH17 investigation: Don’t expect any evidence, but the BUK was Russian.”
In reality there were troves of evidence, including intercepted phone calls, photos and videos of the BUK being transported and thousands of boxes of wreckage and shrapnel collected from the crash site. But in the conference hall where these findings were presented, in the Dutch city of Nieuwegein, reporters for Russian state television were on hand to accuse the investigators of bias. One of them, a journalist for state-run Channel One, suggested that Russia had “at least offered to give your team several documents” as evidence, but the investigators did not accept the Russian offers, he said, “because they did not support your scenario.”
One of the lead investigators, Wilbert Paulissen, replied that Russia had not provided any such material, even though his team had visited Moscow and repeatedly requested information from the Russian side. The head of the investigative team, Fred Westerbeke, added that Russia had only provided “partial answers” to some of the team’s questions.
Earlier that day, Westerbeke had the unenviable job of meeting with the families of the victims and explaining to them that, despite the progress in the investigation, they were still a long way from getting justice. “It’s impossible to state when it will be done,” he said. “So this morning I told the grieving relatives that I can’t make any promises.”
The official mandate of the investigation team – which includes officials from the Netherlands, Malaysia, Australia, Ukraine and Belgium – was extended this week until the beginning of 2018. But the investigators acknowledged on Wednesday that they have no idea when the evidence would be sufficient to name the suspects and bring criminal charges. Nor were they able to say what court might hear the case.
In order for them to make a real breakthrough, the investigators would need Russia to cooperate by addressing the evidence that the BUK missile came from Russian territory, and to explain what happened to this weapon once it was returned to Russia. They would also need to question witnesses or suspects in Russia, including military personnel who may have been involved in deploying that missile system to Ukraine.
But there is no sign that Russia is prepared to meet any of those requirements, let alone extradite potential suspects to stand trial in a foreign court. In his response to the investigators on Wednesday, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the BBC: “We cannot accept as a final truth what they say, and I bet you haven’t seen any proofs of their statements.”
Inside Russia, that would be a safe bet, because the vast majority of Russians get their information from the Kremlin’s media outlets. In order to maintain their cover up of this tragedy, it turns out Russia does not need to hide the facts of the case or the clues that were scattered in those fields of wheat and sunflowers in eastern Ukraine. It only needs to cloud the debate with alternative truths of its own invention.