TIME Ukraine

MH 17 Report Fumbles for Clarity Among Ransacked Wreckage

A Pro-Russian rebel looks at pieces of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 plane near village of Rozsypne, eastern Ukraine, Sept. 9, 2014.
A pro-Russian rebel looks at pieces of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 near village of Rozsypne, eastern Ukraine, on Sept. 9, 2014 Sergei Grits—AP

Pieces of the downed Malaysian airliner were pillaged after the crash, contaminating the work of investigators who published their preliminary findings on Tuesday

The callous disregard for the wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines flight shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17 would have been clear to anyone who visited the crash site. By the time foreign investigators were able to access the scene of this crime, it had not just been contaminated; it had been picked apart like a macabre giveaway on the lawn of a foreclosed house.

Chunks of the fuselage were stacked in a pile at a separatist checkpoint near the village of Rassypnoye, just a few miles from the main crash site, seemingly intended to reinforce the rebel barricade of sandbags and concrete that stood just a few steps away. Gawkers from nearby villages climbed atop the vertical tail of the plane, which had landed in a field of wheat, and took photographs like tourists. Locals and rebel fighters were free to take souvenirs from among the wreckage or from the scattered belongings of the 298 people, most of them Dutch citizens, who died in the catastrophe. So it was little wonder on Tuesday that the preliminary report on the causes of the crash was largely inconclusive.

According to the crucial part of the report from the Dutch Safety Board, “The pattern of damage observed in the forward fuselage and cockpit section of the aircraft was consistent with the damage that would be expected from a large number of high-energy objects that penetrated the aircraft from the outside.” This could be consistent with the West’s prevailing theory of what brought down the plane, namely a BUK surface-to-air missile launched by the pro-Russian separatists over the territory they control. Some versions of the payload mounted on a BUK missile can explode on impact with the target or just before, causing pieces of shrapnel — “high-energy objects,” in the words of the report — to shred the fuselage.

But the wording of the 34-page report [in pdf format here] was also vague enough to leave room for one of the more common theories among the rebel fighters in eastern Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed the disaster on the Ukrainian government on the night of the crash; and in the days that followed, some of the separatists claimed in interviews with TIME that a Ukrainian fighter jet had, for some reason, intercepted the airliner and sprayed it with chain-gun fire. As evidence, they pointed to the many small holes in the fuselage, suggesting that these looked like the work of a machine gun shooting another type of high-energy object — bullets.

This hypothesis, a favorite on Russian state television, does not fit well with the audio recordings taken from the cockpit of the plane. According to the Dutch Safety Board, the recording ended abruptly, with no sign that the plane was hit with gunfire or that the pilots had any warning of an approaching missile. Yet the report also makes no mention of any missiles or missile fragments found at the crash site.

That kind of solid evidence — such as a chunk of a projectile with a serial number or chemical signature that could identify its source — could easily have been removed from the crash site by the time investigators arrived. Pro-Russian rebels have had control of the area ever since the plane went down, and in late July, when forensic experts from the Netherlands, Australia and Malaysia were allowed to inspect the wreckage, it was only at the whim of the rebel commanders.

“If we can’t negotiate our entrance, we’re stuck,” the Dutch commander of the search operation, Colonel Cornelis Kuijs, told TIME on Aug. 4, at the mission’s base of operations in eastern Ukraine. “We have no freedom of movement whatsoever.” Two days later, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte suspended the search operation, citing concerns for the safety of the police officers and experts involved.

With much less gear and no police escorts, journalists around the crash site generally faced fewer roadblocks from the rebels, and a BBC investigation seems to have turned up a curious lead. In a program aired Monday on the channel’s Panorama program, a reporter interviewed an alleged witness who claimed to have spoken with one of the fighters who launched the fatal missile. The soldier’s accent, the witness told the BBC, was distinctly Russian, not Ukrainian, leading the witness to believe that the culprit may have been a Russian soldier.

But this does not seem like the kind of evidence that would hold up in a court of law, nor even the court of public opinion. Many Russian citizens have joined the separatist militias fighting in eastern Ukraine, and they are usually military veterans with various types of weapons training. So the presence of a Russian accent would not necessarily prove that a fighter was a Russian soldier. It would merely be another detail to add to the piles of evidence supporting one theory or another. But as seems clear from the pile of wreckage stacked up near that checkpoint in early August, the truth about Flight MH 17 will likely remain elusive, even after investigators publish their final report next year. If there was a smoking gun to be found at the crash site, the rebels had every opportunity to quietly snuff it out.

Tjibbe Joustra, chairman of the Dutch Safety Board, clarifies that the MH 17 report does not use the word missile.

TIME Malaysia

Malaysia Still Yearns for Closure as the First MH 17 Bodies Return

MALAYSIA-RUSSIA-UKRAINE-CRISIS-AVIATION-REMAINS
Soldiers carry a coffin with the remains of a Malaysian victim from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which crashed in Ukraine, during a ceremony at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Aug. 22, 2014 Manan Vatsyayana—AFP/Getty Images

The country has declared Aug. 22 its national day of mourning, but some are already focusing on the next step: seeking justice

Malaysia came to a standstill Friday morning as the first remains of its nationals killed on the downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 were received with a minute of silence.

Relatives gathered with political dignitaries on the tarmac of Kuala Lumpur International Airport for a solemn reception of the caskets. Others waited at domestic airports across the country, to which some of the bodies would be forwarded.

They were also waiting a little over a month ago, when the ill-fated jetliner was scheduled to land, but the difference was that then their loved ones were alive, and they were expecting to be reunited with them for the Eid al-Fitr festivities.

“Although we are sad, we thank God that the government has taken care of this process in such a good way,” says Zulrusdi bin Haji Mohamad Hol, who was waiting for the remains of his cousin Ariza Ghazalee and her son in the city of Kuching. “We hope maybe the remains of the rest of the family will arrive on Sunday.”

For a long time, it was not sure whether they would get them back at all.

On July 17, when MH 17 was shot down over Ukraine, 298 people were killed. Two-thirds of the passengers were from the Netherlands, where the flight originated, and 44 were Malaysians — the second largest nationality. But the horror in Malaysia was aggravated by the fact that the incident occurred only four months after another Malaysia Airlines aircraft, MH 370, disappeared without a trace over the South China Sea.

People demanded an immediate recovery of the bodies, not least because of the Islamic requirement of prompt burials. Instead, they were shocked to hear that the crash site was being raided and international investigators obstructed, by the same pro-Russian rebels who were widely blamed for the missile strike.

“I’m very angry,” Zulrusdi said at the time. “They’re inhumane, they don’t understand. First they murder our relatives, then they keep the corpses with them.”

It therefore came as a great relief when a Malaysian delegation to Ukraine managed to negotiate with the separatists for the safe removal of bodies from the scene. And yet: “There is no feeling of closure, since people still don’t understand how two planes could be lost in only a few months,” says James Chin, professor of political science at Monash University Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur.

He says that Aug. 22, declared the country’s “national day of sorrow,” will at least be an opportunity for people to pay their respects to the victims. “Now we can move on to the second stage,” he adds, referring to the criminal investigation led by a Dutch team. “Everyone is looking forward to the release of their interim report at the end of this year.”

Ten Dutch prosecutors and 200 police officers are currently piecing together the case. It’s the biggest criminal investigation ever conducted in the Netherlands, although it hasn’t been confirmed what the exact charges are.

“Of course murder, but we also have the crime of ‘wrecking an airplane’,” Wim de Bruin from the Dutch prosecution service told BBC. “And we could use international criminal law — that would mean possible charges of war crimes, torture and genocide.”

When a Pan Am plane was blown up over Lockerbie, in Scotland, in 1988, it took three years to finish the investigation and another seven for the trial. In contrast to MH 17, that incident didn’t take place over a region wrecked by war — a fact that considerably complicates the current probe.

While the recovery of the black box, photos from the scene, satellite images and information from air-traffic control have made them optimistic of publishing a preliminary report already within two weeks, the international team of 25 air-crash investigators still hasn’t been able to access the crash site. Counterterrorism experts fear that doing so might put the effort of retrieving the bodies at risk.

Meanwhile, a second aircraft carrying caskets is expected at Kuala Lumpur International Airport soon. But several Malaysian victims remain unaccounted for, since only 30 have been identified so far. Zulrusdi says he will keep praying that they will all return, and that peace and justice can be found.

“Of course justice must be done,” he says, “not only for us, but for our country and for the world.”

TIME Ukraine

Experts: MH17 Victims Could Have Remained Conscious During Fall

A firefighter and an armed man look at the remains and the corpses of passengers aboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 that was shot down over eastern Ukraine, July 17, 2014.
A firefighter and an armed man look at the remains and the corpses of passengers aboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 that was shot down over eastern Ukraine, July 17, 2014. Jerome Sessini—Magnum

A forensic analysis of the disaster

In the aftermath of the downing of a Malaysia Airlines jet, it has been widely assumed that death—or at least unconsciousness—came quickly for the 298 people aboard when the Boeing 777 came apart in the oxygen-thin, cold air at 33,000 feet. But some medical and aviation experts who spoke to TIME are questioning this assumption.

As photos from the MH17 debris field near Gravobo, Ukraine, have shown, many of the victims’ bodies appeared completely intact after falling from a great altitude. TIME asked experts to review photographs from the scene and found a minority view: some victims may have survived the aircraft’s disintegration and even experienced consciousness during the fall to Earth. The images were taken by French photographer Jerome Sessini, who was among the first at the crash site, and they focused on plane debris and victims’ bodies. (Some of Sessini’s work was recently published by TIME, but the photos reviewed by the experts also included images of human remains considered inappropriate for publication.)

The intact bodies are not out of the ordinary, according to Dr. Michael Baden, the former chief medical examiner of New York City and chief forensic pathologist for the New York State Police. Baden has investigated high-profile plane disasters like the TWA 800 crash in 1996 and the 2010 crash of a Polish government jet near Smolensk, Russia, that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski. As Baden explained, objects falling through the air reach what is called terminal velocity, an upper limit on speed dictated by such variables as air density and the falling object’s surface area—but not the height from which it is dropped. For a human body, terminal velocity is about 120 mph (193 k/h). Impact at that speed inflicts devastating internal injuries, but the skin tends to remain intact.

Baden says that many of the victims did exhibit minor burns and shrapnel wounds, most of which appeared non-lethal. He says this suggests that some of the passengers could have been alive and even conscious during their descent.

“The cause of death in the great majority of these people would have been impact with the ground,” he said. Unless they were affected by the initial explosions or shrapnel, and absent some pre-existing condition like lung or heart disease, they would have remained alive and even been conscious at some point during the approximately 3-to-4-minute fall.

“Even if there’s no oxygen, you’d catch your breath in four minutes,” he said. “You might have some brain damage, but you’d be alive, and you could be conscious,” he said. Autopsies, at least when there is such extensive damage to the head and brain, cannot allow doctors to pinpoint when exactly consciousness was lost, so it might never be possible to know for sure if Baden is right.

The deceleration that occurred as a result of the attack—which could have been the equivalent of driving into a wall at 500 mph—might have been less sudden than has been assumed. The Russian-made SA-11 suspected to have been used in the attack is designed not to strike the aircraft directly, but to explode before impact, instead releasing a cloud of shrapnel.

“The deceleration itself wouldn’t be rapid, it would almost be like someone pulling back on the throttles perhaps,” says Robert Benzon, a former Air Force pilot and veteran accident investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, now retired. Benzon speculated based on the nature of the missile that the decompression may have been somewhat gradual, and could have been survivable in the short term. “In my estimation what you’d have is a lot of small holes in the airplane,” he says, “so the decompression itself would be pretty slow.”

Several bodies were found still strapped into their seats. Robert Goyer, who is editor-in-chief of Flying magazine, said that airliner seats are designed to withstand tremendous G-forces, sometimes more than a human body can sustain. Even when the seat itself is torn from the surrounding structure of the plane, people are likely to remain belted in. He cited Juliane Koepcke, who in 1971 survived a two-mile fall into the Amazon rainforest, strapped to her seat all the while.

Photographs indicate that those who did stay in their seats tended to retain all of their clothing, but other passengers were found in states of undress. While Goyer said that it was common to see bodies stripped of clothes after falling a long distance through the air, Baden suspected other causes.

“You can lose a shirt or a headband or maybe even a jacket, but not pants and underwear and shoes and socks. It would seem to me, given the situation, that looters came,” he said. As further evidence, he noted indications in the photos that some of the bodies appeared to have been moved around, based on lividity—the dark discoloration of the skin that occurs in the lowest parts of the body, as blood settles due to gravity. (When this discolored skin is seen facing up, it suggests that a part of the body previously low to the ground was shifted from that position.) Baden also observed that none of the bodies pictured appeared to be wearing watches or jewelry.

The investigation into the tragedy was initially hindered by strife in the region, with some reports suggesting that rebels have threatened investigators, tampered with the plane debris, and moved bodies around. The Dutch government has since succeeded in negotiating the release of some of the passengers’ remains, which were kept on refrigerated train cars and eventually flown back to the Netherlands for a more thorough forensic examination.

TIME Pictures of the Week

Pictures of the Week: July 18 – July 25

From rising death toll on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict and the return of MH17 victims to the Netherlands, to wildfires in Washington and the fight to protect flamingos, TIME presents the best pictures of the week.

 

TIME Ukraine

MH17: Eyewitness Accounts of Horror and Confusion at Crash Site

The author of this week's TIME cover story and an acclaimed Getty photographer paint a raw image – through words and photographs – of their reactions to the wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines crash in Ukraine

Last Thursday, a flowered wheat field in eastern Ukraine became the scene of an unconceivable tragedy when Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was brought down by a surface-to-air missile.

A week after the disaster, TIME reporter Simon Shuster and Getty photographer Brendan Hoffman – both on site within hours of the disaster – give an inside perspective of the aftermath of MH17’s crash.

From the challenges of photographing unimaginable scenes of sorrow on the ground, to the questions surrounding the men who took control of the site, Shuster and Hoffman paint a unique picture of the legacy of Flight MH17.

 

TIME foreign affairs

Malaysia Flight 17: The Unique Way the Dutch Mourn

With their innate distrust of ideology, the Dutch are strikingly different from Americans in their gut reactions.

A cultural conundrum that I struggled to comprehend during my six years of living in Amsterdam concerned the Dutch attitude toward celebrities. They are passionate about their own celebrities – far more than about Hollywood stars, which is fair enough – but in the midst of intensely gossiping about a homegrown film or sports personality, they will suddenly turn blasé, as if the celeb were a mere family member who had started to become uppity.

The explanation is in the size of the nation. When you’ve got a total population of 16 million crammed into a country smaller than most individual U.S. states, everyone is within a couple of degrees of separation of everyone else. Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie, and the other stars of the country’s World Cup team are brought down to Earth by the fact that, chances are, you know them, or your uncle does.

That thought came to mind as I’ve watched somber memorials unfold like dreams in cities all over the country this week. Roughly two-thirds of the 298 people who died on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 were Dutch. I asked several Dutch friends how they were doing. As I more or less expected, every one of them knew at least one person who was on the plane. One, who lives in The Hague, said her daughter was friends with a girl whose entire family was on the flight: they were going on vacation to Borneo. “They were in primary school together and took the same ballet lessons,” my friend said of her daughter and the girl who died. “When you think of their empty house, it is all very unreal.”

A few people want to lash out, saying the country should strike out against Russia. Someone posted the address of Vladimir Putin’s daughter, who lives in the Netherlands, on the Facebook page of the Netherlands-Russia Center. There are some vicious tweets.

But in the main the reaction to the sudden loss of a cross-section of Dutch society – the proportionate loss of life for a country the size of the United States would be about 6,000 people – has been muted. The government declared a national day of mourning, but events were already taking place everywhere, in a natural, non-official way. A mountain of flowers in front of a restaurant in Rotterdam. A pall of silence descending on the “Rose Kermis” gay festival in Tilburg. The deaths were evenly spread all over the country, and the memorials are localized.

The Dutch are strikingly different from Americans in their gut reactions to things. When hit with a national shock, Americans will almost instinctively reach for ideology or ideals. People saw 9/11 as an assault on “freedom.” The Dutch have an innate distrust of ideology. You could relate that to World War II and their experience under Nazism, but it goes much farther back. It has something to do with being a small country surrounded by larger countries that have had long histories of asserting themselves.

It also stems from the fact that Dutch society grew not out of war against a human foe but out of the struggle against nature. Living in low lands on a vast river delta, the Dutch came together to battle water. Building dams and dikes and canals was more practical than ideological. For better or worse, the Dutch are more comfortable with meetings and remembrances than with calls to arms.

Geography has defined destiny throughout Dutch history. The little country has reached outward, and prospered thanks to its ability to trade and engage with others; it also has proven a safe for refugees from less tolerant lands. Even before its 17th century golden age, Holland had become an intensely polyglot hub for goods and ideas, intricately connected with farflung places.

Flight 17 reflects and updates that history. Of course, by definition the plane was packed with travelers. But this tragedy gives an inadvertent indication of how racially mixed the country has become. Among the Dutch passengers listed on the flight manifest were a Vietnamese family who lived in Delft, the city of Vermeer; a Chinese couple from Rotterdam; a Dutch-Israeli student; a Dutch-Malaysian family; a Dutch-American; people born in Curacao and South Africa; and others with German, Indonesian and British backgrounds.

We hear about the growing multiethnicity of the country mostly through the screeching of right-wing fanatic Geert Wilders, member of parliament and leader of the Freedom Party, who riles up some elements of society by declaring that newcomers (read Muslims) are torpedoing Dutch traditions and turning the land of windmills into a giant mosque. The international media is a sucker for Wilders because he seems to give the lie to what the Dutch are most famous for (besides tulips and marijuana cafes): tolerance. The Dutch pioneered the concept in the 16th century, enshrining it in their de facto Constitution two centuries before “all men are created equal.” America’s history–especially New York’s–was deepling influenced by it, via the Dutch colony of New Netherland and its capital of New Amsterdam on Manhattan.

Wilders knows that the media always glom onto a counter-narrative, and he has used that fact repeatedly to his own advantage and to the detriment of his country’s image abroad. But one truth revealed by this tragedy is that the country is quietly becoming a melting pot, a place intricately connected to other parts of the world. The Dutch people who died on MH17 mirror their own rapidly evolving society, and remind the rest of us that our futures don’t lie in tribalism, but in expanding our connections.

Russell Shorto is the author of Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City. This piece originally appeared at Zocalo Public Square.

TIME eastern Ukraine

Ukrainian Pilots Missing After 2 Jets Shot Down in East

Two Ukrainian military jets shot down
A file picture dated September 17, 2007 shows Ukrainian Su-25 attack planes during manoeuvres at the landfill in Rovno, Ukraine. Pro-Russian separatists have shot down two Ukrainian military jets in the east of the country, Defence Ministry spokesman Oleksiy Dmytrashkivskiy said on July 23, 2014. Sergey Popsuevich—EPA

Both pilots ejected safely but their whereabouts are unknown

Pro-Russia separatist rebels shot down two Ukrainian military planes over eastern Ukraine Wednesday, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s National Defense and Security Council told TIME. Both pilots ejected from their aircraft but remain missing.

An aide to separatist leader Alexander Borodai, told CNN that the two jets had been shot down by rebel fighters using a shoulder-fired missile system. However, Yarema Dukh, the Council’s press secretary, says that the jets were shot down from an altitude of 17,000 feet, an altitude she says is too high for those systems to reach. The aircrafts’ altitude, Dukh says, is instead a sign that “the planes may have been shot down by another plane.”

On top of that, though, it’s widely believed that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, a Boeing 777 which crashed in eastern Ukraine on July 17, was shot down by a surface-to-air missile, which most likely originated from rebel-controlled territory. Flight 17 was traveling at 33,000 feet at the time of the suspected shoot-down — much higher than the Ukrainian jets.

The two jets shot down Wednesday, both Soviet-built Sukhoi Su-25 attack aircraft, were among four fighter planes returning to base after supporting Ukrainian government forces along the Russia-Ukraine border, the Council said in a press conference Wednesday. They were hit over the Savur Mogila area close to the border around 1:30 p.m. local time.

The Ukrainian aircraft were flying in the same area as where Flight 17 crashed, killing all 298 people on board. On Wednesday, 40 of the 200 MH17 passengers’ bodies thus far recovered arrived in the Netherlands for identification. The flight’s two black boxes also safely reached investigators in Britain Wednesday.

In the days before the MH17 disaster, a Ukrainian An-26 transport plane and another Su-25 jet were also shot down. A second Su-25 was fired upon, but the pilot managed to land his plane with minimal damage.

TIME Ukraine

Malaysia Airlines Ukraine Crash: ‘No Evidence’ Black Boxes Tampered With

A pro-Russian separatist shows members of the media a black box belonging to Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, before its handover to Malaysian representatives, in Donetsk on July 22, 2014.
A pro-Russian separatist shows members of the media a black box belonging to Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, before its handover to Malaysian representatives, in Donetsk on July 22, 2014. Maxim Zmeyev—Reuters

"A thorough analysis of the information obtained will take time"

A team of investigators led by the Dutch Safety Board said in a report Wednesday there’s “no evidence” that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17’s cockpit voice recorders had been manipulated after the crash.

The Dutch Safety Board requested that the Air Accident Investigation Branch of the United Kingdom (AAIB) analyze Flight 17’s data recorders, also known as “black boxes” despite their typically bright orange color.

Many observers were concerned the black boxes — which include a cockpit voice recorder as well as a flight data recorder — were somehow tampered with by pro-Russia Ukrainian rebels who control the scene of the crash. Speculation that said rebels may have been responsible for shooting down Flight 17, some say, was a potential incentive for the rebels to damage or destroy the devices to hinder an investigation.

Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, a Boeing 777, crashed July 17 in eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 on board.

TIME Flight MH17

Ukraine Says 2 Military Jets Shot Down Over East

As UK investigators began analysis of MH17 black boxes, and the bodies of Dutch victims were flown home

Ukraine said that two of its fighter jets were shot down Wednesday over eastern Ukraine, the Associated Press reports, less than a week after a passenger jet was downed in the same region. The news came as the two black boxes from the downed MH17 jet arrived in Britain and 40 of the recovered 200 bodies were being flown to the Netherlands.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said in a statement Wednesday that two of its military fighter jets were downed over eastern Ukraine. The two jets, both Sukhoi-25 planes, were shot down at 1:30pm local time over the Savur Mogila area. It is not yet known whether those on board have survived. A spokesperson for the ministry said the planes could have been carrying up to two people each.

Whilst the Ukrainian government tries to ascertain what has happened, the U.K. Air Accidents Investigation Branch has begun to investigate the two flight recorders from flight MH17, the BBC reports, which were handed over to Malaysian experts by Ukrainian rebels late Monday.

Aviation experts from the organization will try to download data from the black boxes in accordance with a request from Dutch authorities heading up the investigation. The data should be downloaded within the next two days and will then be sent to the Dutch investigators. It is hoped that the flight recorders will be able to confirm whether a missile hit flight MH17.

The black boxes’ arrival comes as the first 40 bodies of the 298 victims were being flown to Eindhoven in the Netherlands. It is expected that they will arrive at 4pm local time.

They will be met by members of the Dutch royal family and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte as part of a national day of mourning for the deceased. 193 of the 298 passengers onboard flight MH17 were Dutch nationals.

All 200 of the recovered bodies arrived in Kharkiv, Ukraine in a refrigerated train carriage Tuesday, following repeated international demands for their safe return.

Following a solemn ceremony attended by ambassadors, soldiers and officials, 40 coffins were loaded onto two military planes bound directly for Eindhoven. They will then be taken to barracks south of Hilversum for identification. Rutte has warned, however, that this could take months.

Flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17. All 298 people on board were killed. Washington said Wednesday that they had clear evidence the plane was downed by an SA-11 missile “fired from eastern Ukraine under conditions the Russians helped create.”

[BBC]

TIME Ukraine

Who Are the Rebels Controlling Flight MH17’s Crash Site?

Armed pro-Russian separatists stand guard in front of the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Grabove, in the region of Donetsk on July 20, 2014.
Armed pro-Russian separatists stand guard in front of the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Grabove, in the region of Donetsk on July 20, 2014. Bulent Kilic—AFP/Getty Images

The men behind the "Donetsk People's Republic" and other separatist groups

On Monday the two black boxes from flight MH17 were finally handed over to Malaysian experts who had been petitioning for their safe recovery. The black boxes, however, weren’t returned by the Ukrainian government, but by pro-Russian separatists from the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic”.

The handover, attended by international press, did not seem bound by diplomatic protocols. Hulking rebels dressed in camouflage loomed over the diminutive leader of the Malaysian delegation as he addressed the media.

Next to him stood their leader, Alexander Borodai, the self-styled Prime Minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, who had negotiated the black boxes’ return with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. During the talks, Borodai had also agreed to transport the bodies of the victims to Kharkiv, in northeastern Ukraine, to be flown out to the Netherlands for identification. He later kept his word.

Self-proclaimed Prime Minister of the pro-Russian separatist "Donetsk People's Republic" Alexander Borodai gives a press conference in Donetsk, on July 19, 2014.
Self-proclaimed Prime Minister of the pro-Russian separatist “Donetsk People’s Republic” Alexander Borodai gives a press conference in Donetsk, July 19, 2014. Bulent Kilic—AFP/Getty Images

But what authority did Borodai have to negotiate the terms of the agreement with a world leader? Little more than the authority of the gun. In April, a gang led by Borodai and another rebel, Igor Girkin, declared the eastern province of Donetsk a republic. Girkin, who goes by the moniker “Strelkov” meaning shooter, is Borodai’s right hand man, running the armed forces within the so-called “Republic.” Negotiations between the two prime ministers—legitimate or otherwise—may have been fraught given that Girkin reportedly boasted about shooting down the plane.

Despite their grand claim to have founded a republic, Andrew Weiss, a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment, told TIME Borodai and Girkin only control shifting parts of the region, which is also populated by other separatist groups numbering about 5,000 rebels.

The separatists are far from a unified force, says James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House. “They are a series of disparate and only vaguely interconnected groups,” he says. “They’re very disorganized with no real structure or headquarters. Most of the rebels are poorly trained, ill-educated and ignorant of geopolitics.”

Borodai and Girkin however, aren’t everyday thugs like some of their rebel brethren. The pair are both Russian nationals with suspected ties to the Kremlin and experience in separatist conflicts.

Borodai, 41, is rumored to be particularly close to Moscow. In the early 1990s he wrote regularly for the far-right newspaper Zavtra and in 2011 founded the nationalist television channel Den-TV. He confirmed earlier this year that he worked as an adviser to the separatist Prime Minister of Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov. Russia annexed Crimea in March.

Borodai claims he was invited to eastern Ukraine by Girkin, a former Russian security-service officer. Girkin, meanwhile, has alleged he was asked to head the rebellion in eastern Ukraine, though refuses to say by whom. Like Borodai, he also advised separatists in Crimea.

The Russian pair’s group may have staked their claim to the crash site—Iryna Gudyma, a spokesperson for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe who is currently in the area told TIME “we’ve only encountered armed rebels from the Donetsk People’s Republic”—but other rebels are on the scene.

The Wall Street Journal has claimed Cossacks led by commander Nikolai Kozitsin control part of the area where MH17 fell. Unlike Borodai and Girkin, Kozitsin is a Ukrainian who was born in Donetsk. Like them, he has been involved in separatist conflicts in Transnistria and Georgia.

On July 18, the day after the crash, Ukrainian authorities released a transcript of a conversation in which a man they identified as Kozitsin says of MH17: “they shouldn’t be flying. There’s a war going on.” Another transcript implicates Igor Bezler, known to his men as “Bes”, or “devil.” During a call Bezler reportedly told a Russian intelligence officer his men shot down a plane. Bezler’s group currently controls the town of Horlivka in Donetsk province.

But none of the rebel leaders have any overarching authority. “The people who are leaders in east Ukraine are not playing leading roles,” says Sam Greene, director of King’s College London’s Russian Institute. “They hold the de facto power in that part of the Ukraine but that’s all. They don’t have long established electoral legitimacy.” Borodai was only allowed to speak to the Malaysian Prime Minister because his men currently control the area.

Any fleeting power the groups have is considerably bolstered by Russia’s supply of money and weapons into the region, but that may soon cease. “Moscow’s commitment to supporting the rebels is waning, particularly after MH17,” notes Greene. “The costs are becoming too high politically both in terms of sanctions and the damage to Putin’s international reputation.”

And without Russian support, the future of the Donetsk People’s Republic looks decidedly shaky.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser