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 Aviation

How a Dutch Firm Plans to Find MH370 in Seabeds Less Mapped Than Mars

Australia Malaysia Plane
In this map released on July 31, 2014, by the Joint Agency Coordination Centre, details are presented in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in the southern Indian Ocean. AP/Joint Agency Coordination Centre

Australia said Wednesday that Fugro has won the bid to relaunch MH370's search

A Dutch firm is attempting to crack one of aviation’s greatest unsolved mysteries: how Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, a Boeing 777 carrying 239 people, vanished in an age of surveillance and technology.

The Australian Transportation Safety Board (ATSB) said Wednesday it selected the Dutch technical consultancy Fugro to relaunch the search for MH370 after a month-long tender process that solicited bids the world’s most advanced deep sea searchers, according to the firm’s statement.

Unlike some of its fellow bidders, Fugro historically hasn’t focused on deep-sea recovery, but rather on geotechnical services like underwater mapping for off-shore oil and gas clients. Other bidders like the UK-based Blue Water Recoveries and the Odyssey Marine Exploration specialize in recovering modern shipwrecks or search-and-recovery in deep ocean exploration.

Fugro, which has pursued some underwater search missions in European waters, attributes its win not to advanced technology, but instead to a calculated balance.

“In the initial phases of the search, a number of companies deployed very accurate and very sophisticated autonomous underwater vehicles. The advantage of such technology is that it’s very accurate, but the bad side is that it takes a lot of time to cover a square meter,” Rob Luijnenburg, Fugro’s director of corporate strategy, told TIME. “What we’re doing now is a combination of sufficient resolution and the capability to survey a reasonably large seabed in a relatively short time.”

Fugro had previously worked in conjunction with Bluefin Robotics to develop the Bluefin-21 vehicle used in search efforts during April and May. At that time, officials had suspected the plane’s pinger had run out of battery, and swapped in the Bluefin-21 for the Towed Pinger Locator. Other Fugro missions devoted to search-and-recovery have involved partnerships with the UK to recover helicopters downed over water, and ship recoveries near the Netherlands.

Fugro has already been directly involved in the MH370 search, too. Since June, one of Fugro’s ships, the Fugro Equator, has been working with a Chinese ship to conduct preliminary bathymetric surveys (i.e. underwater mapping of the terrain) around the target area. While radars mounted on the two ships have already mapped nearly 60,000 sq. km—much of that area is in the designated search area—Fugro’s AUS 60 million contracted mission involve only the Fugro Equator and another of Fugro’s ships, the Fugro Discovery. The two ships will each tow sonar scans near the seabed to produce higher resolution maps and possibly locate debris.

“Previous estimates [of the seabed] are very, very rough. The resolution is not good enough to find little bits of pieces of aircraft—that we do with the [towed] sonar equipment,” Luijnenburg said.

The designated search area, about 600 miles south of the previous phase’s area, was decided in June by Inmarsat scientists after re-analyzing satellite data. The area, roughly double the size of Massachusetts, is the latest patch of ocean in what’s been a hopscotch around the largely uncharted South Pacific. Estimates indicate that existing maps of this territory are about 250 times less accurate than surveys of Mars and Venus.

To navigate such difficult underwater terrain, further complicated by treacherous weather conditions, Fugro has connected with experts including Donald Hussong, a sonar guru. Hussong, who was brought out of partial retirement to assist Fugro’s sonar towing logistics, said the two vessels will each be equipped with 9 or 10 km. of cable that will tow scanners about 100 to 150 m. above the sea floor. The existing maps, while crude approximations, will be enough to prevent the sonar from impacting the ocean floor, which could dislodge the equipment.

Hussong estimates that the relaunched search over 60,000 square km. will span approximately 9 to 10 months—a heartbeat compared to the nearly 2 years it took locate Air France Flight 447’s debris, a mere 6.5 km from the center of the search. If the Dutch firm’s towed sonars locate debris, then the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which aided in locating the Titanic’s wreckage in 1985, will contribute two autonomous underwater vehicles.

But thus far, absolutely nothing—not even a suitcase, life vest, or crumpled paper—has turned up. Fugro is hopeful that the wreckage will be located, but the Dutch firm acknowledged that there’s a chance the massive search might yet again emerge fruitless.

“If we have contrast between the hard surfaces of debris and sediments naturally on the bottom [of the ocean], then we should find it.” Hussong told TIME. “If it’s some place on a rocky bottom or the side of a cliff, it’ll be difficult.”

Inmarsat, however, the agency that dictates the search area alongside Australian and Malaysian authorities, remains more than cautiously optimistic that Fugro will solve MH370’s mystery.

“We remain highly confident in the analyses conducted,” an Inmarsat spokesperson told TIME in an e-mail, adding that the scale of the task shouldn’t be underestimated. “The next phase of the search is being handled by those trained in this sort of work and we are hopeful that evidence will be found.”

TIME Malaysia Airlines Flight 17

Investigators Examine Shrapnel-Like Holes in MH17 Debris

A part of the fuselage of the downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 is pictured in a field near the village of Grabove, in the Donetsk region, on July 23, 2014.
A part of the fuselage of the downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 is pictured in a field near the village of Grabove, in the Donetsk region, on July 23, 2014. Bulent Kilic—AFP/Getty Images

Possible evidence of missile impact discovered, as well as more human remains, while crash site still remains inadequately secured

Investigators have found shrapnel-like holes in pieces of the fuselage belonging to the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 that crashed in eastern Ukraine last Thursday, allegedly after being struck by a missile.

Michael Bociurkiw, spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), described the punctures as “almost machine gun-like holes,” and said that Malaysian aviation-security officials had inspected the damage before leaving the site on Thursday.

A second plane carrying bodies from the ill-fated jetliner arrived Thursday in the Netherlands. With 194 of the 298 people on board being Dutch, the Netherlands was the country that lost the most citizens in the crash. Confusion remains over how many bodies have actually been recovered, though. Russian-backed separatists in control over the crash site claim to have handed over 282 bodies, plus more than 80 body parts. However, Dutch officials estimate that the figure handed over could be lower. Meanwhile, monitors in Ukraine keep finding human remains in the area.

There’s still concern that the 12 km-long area over which plane debris has been scattered hasn’t been adequately secured. Farmers are operating agricultural equipment in fields that could contain further evidence or even human remains. Serhiy Bochkovsky, the head of State Service of Emergencies Ukraine, said the separatists were preventing his team from doing their job.

“They took away our tents, the ones which were at our base camp,” Bochkovsky told a news conference. “We were allowed only our equipment and machinery and we were chased away at gunpoint.”

The Netherlands has officially taken charge of the investigation. “Now that … Ukraine has transferred legal responsibility to the Netherlands, we feel we’ll get more progress from the separatists,” Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in Kiev. With 38 passengers, Australians comprised the third-largest nationality on the flight after the Netherlands and Malaysia. Both the Netherlands and Australia are sending additional teams to help with the investigation in Ukraine.

TIME Malaysia Airlines Flight 17

Russia Will Comply With MH17 Probe Led by Dutch

A pro-Russian separatist seen at the crash site of a Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, near the village of Grabovo, July 23, 2014.
A pro-Russian separatist seen at the crash site of a Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, near the village of Grabovo, July 23, 2014. Zurab Dzhavakhadze—Itar-Tass/Corbis

Opposes letting Ukraine lead the investigation

Russia’s ambassador to Malaysia told Reuters Wednesday that the country will cooperate with an investigation into the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 that will be led by the Dutch.

Under the rules of the United Nations’ civil aviation body, the ICAO, the country where the crash occurred typically heads up the probe. But Russia has opposed a Ukrainian-led investigation, saying the rebels who control the site do not trust the central government. But it is satisfied with a probe led by the Netherlands.

“We want an international investigation led by ICAO. Any country part of ICAO may take part [sic]. Netherlands has the right to lead this,” Liudmila Vorobyeva, the ambassador to Malaysia, told Reuters.

MA17 was shot down in eastern Ukraine en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur one week ago, killing 298 people including 193 Dutch citizens. Western officials and Ukraine believe Russian-backed rebels may be responsible, having been given the technology to bring down an airliner by Russia — the Kremlin, however, has laid blame on Kiev.

A separatist commander in Ukraine earlier admitted that the rebels did possess the surface-to-air BUK missile system that are suspected of downing the airliner, even as other rebels and the Russians deny that the separatists have the technology.

“I don’t know the reason why he gave such a statement,” Vorobyeva, the ambassador, told Reuters. “It was clearly stated by our ministry of defense that we never provided any BUK air defense systems to the so-called pro-Russian rebels. We are pretty sure they don’t have this kind of system.”

[Reuters]

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 Terrorism

MH17 Ukrainian Crash: Dusting for Fingerprints

The U.S. embassy in Ukraine posted this graphic Tuesday, suggesting how pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. U.S. government

Both sides believe a missile downed the jet, but determining whose missile will be tougher

Missiles don’t shoot down airliners. People do. But determining whose finger pushed the button that sent a guided rocket into MH17 is a lot tougher than determining that it was a missile that brought the Boeing 777 down, killing all 298 aboard.

While the smoke has cleared from the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, and its victims begun their long journey home, much smoke—and some mirrors—remain for those seeking to determine culpability. U.S. officials said Tuesday that their latest intelligence suggests that pro-Russian separatists acted alone, without Moscow’s help.

But that’s a distinction without a difference. The Russian government has fanned and fueled pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine for months. There’s little chance the rebels would have been able to shoot down the jet—if indeed that is what happened—without Moscow’s support. Implicit in that latest assessment is Washington’s eagerness to avoid pushing Russian President Vladimir Putin into a corner. Washington is trying to entice him into abandoning his support for the separatists.

Amid the ferocious propaganda battle, powered by dueling briefings and instant analysis on social media, it’s important to remember both sides have been caught fudging before.

Moscow took nearly a week before finally acknowledging it shot down Korean Airlines Flight 007 in 1983, killing all 269 on board. The U.S. denied early Soviet reports that Moscow had shot down a U-2 spy plane in 1960—until it produced Francis Gary Powers a week after his plane was shot down (and the weapons of mass destruction used to justify the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq—weapons that remain MIA—are often cited when questioning the trustworthiness of U.S. intelligence claims).

It has been nearly a week since the plane crashed. The pair of black boxes, at last in the hands of Malaysian authorities, are unlikely to offer many clues. The crew aboard the plane likely had no knowledge they were under attack, so there’s probably no conversation on the cockpit voice recorder detailing what happened. It’s also likely that the flight data recorder will show everything aboard the plane was normal—until it shut down as the plane disintegrated.

There is growing evidence that some kind of missile warhead peppered the plane with shrapnel. An anti-aircraft missile’s warhead generally shatters as it comes within 100 yards or so of its target, flinging hundreds of high-velocity shards of shrapnel into it. They cripple the plane’s flaps and engines, severe fuel lines and can lead to its near-instantaneous destruction.

The shrapnel plays into both competing narratives. The Russians have suggested, without offering proof, that a Ukrainian Su-25 may have fired the missile that brought the plane down. The U.S., showing how much remains unknown, didn’t dismiss the Russian claim. “I haven’t seen any information that indicates a Ukrainian jet,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Tuesday. “We’re still looking into it, obviously. The president of Ukraine has said there was not, but again, we like to independently verify things.”

Russian officials also indicated that their own intelligence shows that Ukrainian missile systems were in the area and could have downed MH17. Moscow has argued that photographs of purported Russian missile systems inside Ukraine, and taped phone calls implicating Ukrainian rebels and their Russian allies in the shootdown, have been doctored, or are from different times and different places than the shootdown and its aftermath July 17.

The rest of the world—the U.S., Europe and Ukraine—believes that an SA-11 surface-to-air missile—fired either by pro-Russian separatists or Russian troops themselves, from rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine—is responsible. Chemical testing of any explosive residue left on the remnants of the plane—or the missile—might pinpoint the kind of missile involved.

Smarting under increasing global pressure, Russian generals went on the offensive at a briefing Monday where they claimed a Ukrainian fighter jet flew within two miles of MH17 despite Kiev’s contention that no other aircraft were close by. And if an SA-11 Buk missile downed the jet, Lieutenant-General Andrei Kartopolov said, it didn’t come from Russia. Moscow hasn’t given pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists missiles, he added, “or any other kinds of weapons or military hardware” (that claim set off howls of laughter from inside U.S. intelligence and military circles).

“According to the U.S. declarations, they have satellite images that confirm the missile was launched by the rebels. But nobody has seen these images,” Kartopolov said. “If the American side has pictures from this satellite, then they should show the international community.”

If Monday’s Russian briefing—complete with radar images flashing across giant screens—was state of the art, Tuesday’s U.S. posting of a graphic designed to show how the shootdown happened was crude. The American embassy in Ukraine posted the sketch, which quickly turned up on cable television. But it listed no sources for what it supposedly showed, and was widely ridiculed online for its lack of provenance and authority.

“It’s commercial imagery that’s available commercially,” the State Department’s Harf said Tuesday. “Flight paths are obviously publicly available information.” But it’s the alleged trajectory of the missile that’s key. Who added that? “I don’t think anyone here did,” Harf said. “I think this is just something we’ve been using internally inside the broader USG [U.S. government] who’s been talking about this.”

Ukraine and Russia were involved in a similar case more than a decade ago. In 2001, Kiev belatedly acknowledged that its military mistakenly shot down a Siberia Airlines plane over the Black Sea, killing all 78 aboard.

Coming less than a month after the 9/11 attacks, Russians initially suspected Chechen rebels for the shootdown. Back when Moscow and Kiev had warmer relations, the Russians declared that U.S. intelligence suggesting a wayward Ukrainian missile was to blame was “unworthy of attention.”

Putin, no less, denied that the plane could have been downed by a Ukrainian missile. “The weapons used in those exercises had such characteristics that make it impossible for them to reach the air corridor through which the plane was moving,” he said shortly after the shootdown, while in his first of three terms as Russian president. So were terrorists responsible? “The final judgment of that and the cause of the tragedy,” he said, “can only be made by the experts after very careful study.”

Ultimately, such study concluded that a Russian-built Ukrainian S-200 flew past its target drone after a second missile destroyed it. But instead of self-destructing, the S-200 locked on to the civilian airliner 150 miles away and blew it out of the sky.

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.

TIME Flight MH17

After MH17, Challenges Ahead for the International Community in Ukraine

In the video above, TIME asked an international affairs expert to discuss the diplomatic challenges faced by the international community

+ READ ARTICLE

In the wake of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, which was shot down last week, diplomatic pressure for Russia and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine continues to mount.

Malaysian Prime Minster Najib Razak recently announced an agreement with the leader of a pro-Russian separatist group to return bodies, hand over black boxes, and let independent international investigators access the crash site.

Here, international affairs expert Austin Long explains what the options are for the international community, as it seeks justice for victims.

TIME Malaysia

See the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 Crash Site in Ukraine From Space

Malaysia Airlines flight 17 crash site in Ukraine, July 20, 2014.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash site in eastern Ukraine, July 20, 2014. DigitalGlobe/Getty Images

Satellite image released by DigitalGlobe shows a main impact site on July 20

Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was traveling some 33,000 feet above eastern Ukraine on July 17 when it was struck by a surface-to-air missile believed to have been fired by Russia-backed separatists, resulting in the deaths of 283 passengers and 15 crew members from 12 nations. (Read about the lives lost in the tragedy.)

DigitalGlobe released this image on July 21, one day after its QuickBird satellite captured it. Debris from the plane, which had been traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was scattered over several square miles near the area of Grabovo. (For a closer look, see Jérôme Sessini’s photographs from immediately after the crash.)

President Barack Obama accused the separatists on Monday of removing evidence from the impact site following reports that bodies were not being properly released and international investigators were being blocked from the scene.

TIME Malaysia

Live: Malaysian PM Speaks on MH17

Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose step-grandmother was on the plane that came down in eastern Ukraine, delivers a statement

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