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

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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 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 russia

In Russia, Crime Without Punishment

Vladimir Putin backs the rebels suspected of shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Why each new crisis makes him stronger

The scene was almost too horrible to take in, and yet in a world of bristling threats no scene has been more revealing: under the baking July sun of eastern Ukraine, hundreds of bodies lay rotting as pro-Russian militiamen, some of them apparently drunk, brandished their weapons to keep European observers away. A Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 bearing 298 souls–AIDS researchers, young lovers, eager children–had been blown out of the sky, apparently by a Russian-made missile, and the dead fell in a gruesome storm. One voice, and one voice only, could put an end to this indecent standoff over the innocent victims. But Vladimir Putin merely shrugged and pointed a finger at the Ukrainian government and, by extension, its Western allies. “Without a doubt,” Putin told a meeting of his economic aides on the night of the disaster, “the state over whose territory this happened bears the responsibility for this frightful tragedy.”

Had Putin finally gone too far? As the days passed and the stench rose, the coldly calculating Russian President got his answer: apparently not. While state-controlled media at home buried Russia’s role in the disaster under an avalanche of anti-Western propaganda, leaders in Europe and the U.S. found themselves stymied once again by Putin’s brazenness. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, whose nation lost 193 citizens in the attack (one of them a U.S.-passport holder) called pitifully on Putin to do “what is expected of him” in helping recover the bodies. U.S. President Barack Obama struck a similar tone on July 21 after the victims’ remains had been packed into refrigerated train cars out of reach of foreign investigators: “Given its direct influence over the separatists, Russia and President Putin in particular has direct responsibility to compel them to cooperate with the investigation. That is the least that they can do.”

That was the crisis in a nutshell: the least Putin could do was the most Obama could ask for. The American President announced no deadlines, drew no red lines and made no threats. Even as U.S. intelligence sources asserted with growing confidence that Russian weapons and Russian allies were behind the missile attack, U.S. diplomats were met with roadblocks as they tried to rally Europe to stiffen sanctions against Putin. Obama and Rutte spoke as leaders without leverage, for their voters aren’t interested in military conflict with Russia or its puppets. A generation of Westerners has grown up in the happy belief that the Cold War ended long ago and peace is Europe’s fated future. They are slow to rally to the chore of once again containing Russia’s ambitions.

So Putin presses ahead. His increasingly overt goal is to splinter Europe, rip up the NATO umbrella and restore Russian influence around the world. As if to put an exclamation point on that manifesto, the pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine apparently resumed their antiaircraft attacks less than a week after the destruction of Flight 17. On July 23, two military aircraft belonging to the pro-Western Ukrainian government were shot down just a few miles away from the airliner’s crash site.

And Putin evidently will keep going as long as each new crisis only makes him stronger. The 21st century czar has mastered the dark art of stirring up problems that only he can solve, so that Western leaders find themselves scolding him one minute while pleading with him the next. The crisis in Syria last year is a perfect example. He supplied weapons and training for the armies of President Bashar Assad, propping up the tyrant while Western statesmen demanded Assad’s ouster. Yet when Assad crossed the “red line” drawn by Obama and used chemical weapons against his own people, Putin stepped in to broker the solution. At the urging of the Russian President, Assad gave up his stockpile of chemical weapons. In turn, the U.S. backed away from air strikes in Syria. And guess who still reigns in Damascus? Putin’s ally Assad.

Other world leaders try to avoid crises; Putin feasts on them. When a pro-Western government came to power in Ukraine, Putin dashed in to annex the region of Crimea–an act that redrew the borders of Europe and snatched away Ukraine’s territorial jewel. Within a month, Western diplomats began stuffing the issue into the past. Why? Because by then, Russia had stolen a march on eastern Ukraine, giving the West another crisis to deal with–and another problem that only Putin could reconcile. He made a show of pulling Russian troops back a short distance from the border with Ukraine, but Russian arms and trainers kept the separatists supplied for the fight. And when the fighting produced the macabre spectacle of the rotting corpses, once again the instigator was in the driver’s seat.

“Mr. Putin, send my children home,” pleaded a heartbroken Dutch mother named Silene Fredriksz-Hogzand, whose son Bryce, along with his girlfriend Daisy Oehlers, were among the victims of Flight 17. And he did send them home–but only after the crash site had been so thoroughly looted and trampled that investigators may never be able to prove exactly what happened.

Divided We Stand

Can the West stop a figure who is determined to uphold the dreary habits of czars and Soviet leaders while projecting Russian exceptionalism and power? Putin doesn’t have a lot to worry about when he looks at the forces aligned against him. Obama, as the leader of a war-weary nation, has ruled out all military options, including the provision of weapons to Ukraine. Europe is both too divided and too dependent on Russian energy supplies to provoke any lasting rupture in relations. The only option would seem to be the steady ratcheting up of sanctions.

That’s harder than it sounds. Putin has allies in the heart of Europe–notably Italy, which now holds the rotating presidency of the E.U.–and it has lobbied against the sort of sanctions that could do serious damage to Russia’s economy. Cutting off trade, the Italians say (and they speak for others), would only reverse the current, inflicting substantial pain on European corporations that benefit from it. “The Europeans are in a panic over the U.S. line on sanctions,” says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected political consultant who traveled to Europe in mid-July to rally support among pundits and politicians there. “As soon as the E.U. gets the slightest chance to turn away from Washington on the issue of Ukraine, they will take it.”

Even if Europe does begin to match Washington’s tough stance on sanctions, there is scant evidence to suggest that they will work. They did not, for example, dissuade Russia from allegedly giving the separatists sophisticated SA-11 missiles, one of which U.S. intelligence officials say was probably used to shoot down MH 17. Imposing sanctions may simply make Putin lash out more. “It’s like poking a bear in the paw with a needle,” says Andrei Illarionov, who served as Putin’s top economic adviser in the early 2000s. “Will it prevent him from ransacking your cooler? Probably not.”

In fact, the first three rounds of U.S. sanctions–targeting Russian officials, oligarchs and state-run companies–have done little to stop the bleeding of Ukraine. If anything, as the world turned its attention away from the conflict in the former Soviet republic in the past several weeks, the fighting there has worsened. The top NATO commander in Europe, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, says Russian weapons and paramilitary fighters have continued flowing through the holes at the border. Russian troops massed in western Russia have kept up the threat of a full-scale invasion. “Everything that Putin has done has shown that he is absolutely all in on this issue,” says Ian Bremmer, head of the New York City–based Eurasia Group consultancy. “The Russians do not back down.”

Crackdowns and Conspiracy Theories

Instead of chastening the Russian President, the prospect of isolation has only seemed to harden his resolve. Nor is there any sign that Moscow’s ruling class–a section of Russian society that constitutes a key pillar of support for the President–has flinched in the face of Western threats and sanctions. Putin’s public-approval rating is the envy of every Western leader, standing at 86% as of late June, 20 points higher than when the Ukraine crisis began last winter, according to the independent Levada-Center polling agency.

But even if more-meaningful sanctions were somehow enacted, there is no guarantee they would help shove Putin off his pedestal. The Russian President thrives in crisis because he so effectively controls the narrative in the motherland. Russia’s pro-Kremlin TV networks–both state-controlled and private–are the main source of information for 90% of Russians. This TV propaganda machine helps keep Putin secure in an era when other strongmen have been toppled in revolutions driven in part by social media. Apart from a state-backed crackdown this year on independent news websites, the Kremlin’s supporters have proved adept at drowning out online dissent and flooding the Russian-language web with Putinthink.

His media networks have cast the conflict in eastern Ukraine as a righteous struggle, pitting a resurgent Russia against the conniving West. The pro-Putin talking heads on these channels hit reliably similar themes, championing Russian dignity, Orthodox Christian values, the survival of the Russian-speaking world and the fall of the American menace. Now MH 17 is being crammed into this narrative. After a brief wait for Putin to set the tone, a tide of conspiracy theories flooded the Russian media, all of them blaming Ukraine or its ally, the U.S., for shooting down the plane. With feelings toward the U.S. at an all-time low in Levada’s surveys, this wasn’t a difficult sell for a populace weaned on the dogmas of the Cold War. “It goes without saying that everything bad that happens to us is initiated by the United States,” says Mikhail Zygar, editor in chief of Russia’s only independent news channel. “That’s something many Russian politicians or just ordinary Russians get with their mother’s milk.”

Putin’s designs, meanwhile, are far grander than Ukraine. He hopes the conflict on Russia’s western flank will create divisions within Europe that shrink American influence. His vision–which he referred to on April 17, at the peak of Russia’s euphoria over the conquest of Crimea–is the creation of a “greater Europe” that would stretch from Portugal to Russia’s Pacific Coast, with Moscow as one of its centers of influence. By creating problems like Ukraine that only he can solve, he puts himself in the center of European politics. Russia’s vast oil and gas resources–on which Europe relies–only add to his influence.

The U.S., in this scenario, becomes a rival rather than an ally of Europe. “The United States is a major global player, and at a certain point it seemed to think that it was the only leader and a unipolar system was established. Now we can see that is not the case,” Putin said at the end of his appearance on a call-in show that day in April. “If they try to punish someone like misbehaving children or to stand them in the corner on a sack of peas or do something to hurt them, eventually they will bite the hand that feeds them. Sooner or later, they will realize this.”

A Case of Russian Pride

What happens in the aftermath of the MH 17 disaster will test Putin’s assessment of declining American power. The coming days will determine whether the U.S. and Europe can form a united front against a country that virtually the entire world believes handed a loaded weapon to an unregulated militia. “We can’t do this unilaterally,” says a senior official in the Obama Administration. “We’ve got to work with the Europeans on a strategy to help contain Russia.”

So far there’s not much unity on show. Four days after the downing of the airliner, when the bodies of the victims were still stuck in rebel territory, French President François Hollande said France would go ahead with the sale of at least one warship to Russia, the helicopter carrier Mistral, against the direct objections of the U.S. and U.K. “The symbolism is terrible,” the Administration official tells Time on condition of anonymity.

The symbolism was not much better when E.U. Foreign Ministers met on July 22 to discuss ways to isolate Russia further. Even with emotions still raw over the downing of MH 17, the ministers did not bring European sanctions into line with those of the U.S., choosing instead to add a few names to their blacklist of rebel leaders and Russian technocrats. They pledged to draft a list of harsher punishments later in the week, possibly including an arms embargo. Even the Dutch, who lost so many, do not yet seem keen to take the lead. “In the near term, much will depend on the Dutch and where European opinion settles,” says the Administration official. “The Europeans had already been moving forward–slowly, but forward.”

Certainly, the Dutch-led investigation into the shoot-down isn’t likely to trouble Putin soon. British experts are analyzing the plane’s flight recorders. Forensic experts are examining the wreckage that was scattered across an area of several square miles. The investigation could take years, and it will be complicated by the fact that the people likely responsible for the disaster–the rebel fighters–had several days to remove evidence of their culpability.

There is always the chance of a quick and unexpected breakthrough–a missile fragment with a chemical signature or a serial number identifying its source. One of the trigger pullers could break his silence and confess to the crime. That could lead to an arrest, extradition, a trial and conviction years down the road. But these are chances Putin seems willing to take. “Maybe he can still apologize,” says Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as National Security Adviser under President Jimmy Carter. “But he would have to swallow a lot of mendacity.”

Besides, for now, Vladimir Putin answers to virtually no one. His command of the Russian airwaves will help him manage any blowback at home, spinning even the most damning evidence as part of an ancient American conspiracy. The more the world picks on him and Russia, the more it feeds a Russian will to push back, out of a sense of pride and victimhood. Isolation will still be the West’s only means of attack, and if Europe has lacked the will to impose it after Syria, after Crimea and even amid the global outrage over MH 17, it is unlikely to take action once the shock of the crash subsides. Putin has played this game before. He need only bide his time for the West’s own inaction to clear him.

–WITH REPORTING BY MICHAEL CROWLEY, ZEKE MILLER, JAY NEWTON-SMALL AND MARK THOMPSON/WASHINGTON; MIRREN GIDDA/LONDON; AND CHARLY WILDER/MOSCOW

TIME #MH17

40 Bodies From MH17 Solemnly Returned to Dutch Soil

Netherlands Ukraine Plane
Soldiers carry a coffin during a ceremony to mark the return of the first bodies of passengers and crew killed in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, on July 23, 2014 Martin Meissner—AP

Though still unidentified, the corpses that arrived on two military transport planes in Eindhoven were welcomed by a nation unmoored by the loss of so many caught in a faraway war

(EINDHOVEN, Netherlands) — Victims of the Malaysian jetliner shot down over Ukraine returned at last Wednesday to Dutch soil in 40 wooden coffins, solemnly and gently carried to 40 identical hearses, flags at half-staff flapping in the wind.

The carefully choreographed, nearly silent ceremony contrasted sharply with the boom of shells and shattered glass in eastern Ukraine as pro-Russian rebels fought to hang onto territory and shot down two Ukrainian fighter jets. The bold new attack showed the separatists are not shying away from shooting at the skies despite international outrage and grief at the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

Even though they are still unidentified, the corpses that arrived on two military transport planes in Eindhoven were embraced by a nation unmoored by the loss of so many people caught in someone else’s faraway war.

Boys going to visit their grandparents, a flight attendant hurrying to get home, a bouncer heading to see his sweetheart were among the 298 victims of the jetliner that was blown out of the sky on July 17, intensifying anger at the separatists suspected of bringing it down with a surface-to-air missile.

Nearly a week later, international investigators still don’t have unfettered access to the crash site, some remains have yet to be recovered, and armed men roam the region, defying their government.

Investigators in a lab in southern England began studying the plane’s “black boxes” Wednesday in hopes of learning about the Boeing 777′s final minutes. The Dutch Safety Board, which has taken control of the investigation, said the cockpit voice recorder suffered damage but showed no sign of manipulation, and its recordings were intact. Specialists will start studying the flight data recorder Thursday.

Families of passengers moved to a new stage of grief as the bodies began arriving in the Netherlands, the country that bore the heaviest death toll.

The families had spent days agonizing in wait while their loved ones’ remains lay in sweltering fields in eastern Ukraine before being gradually shifted by truck, train and plane.

“If I have to wait five months for identification, I can do it,” said Silene Fredriksz-Hoogzand, whose son, Bryce, and his girlfriend Daisy Oehlers died in the crash. “Waiting while the bodies were in the field and in the train was a nightmare.”

On a day of national mourning, flags flew at half-staff on Dutch government buildings and family homes around this nation of 17 million.

Church bells rang out around the country as the Dutch and Australian military transport planes taxied to a standstill. King Willem-Alexander clasped the hand of his wife, Queen Maxima, as the couple grimly watched uniformed pallbearers carry the coffins slowly from the planes to a fleet of waiting hearses.

Almost the only sound was of boots marching across the ground and flags flapping in the wind.

Then as the last hearses drove away, applause briefly broke out. Along the route, there was more applause from people gathered along the roadsides. Some tossed flower petals at the motorcade.

From the airport, they drove under military police escort to the central city of Hilversum where forensic experts waited at a military barracks to carry out the painstaking task of identifying the remains. Prime Minister Mark Rutte says many bodies could be identified quickly, but some families may have to wait weeks.

Two more planeloads of victims will be flown Thursday to Eindhoven to a similar ceremony, the Dutchgovernment said.

The rebels, undeterred, fought to hold onto territory and said they attacked two Ukrainian air force jets in the same area where the passenger plane fell.

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said the Su-25s were shot about 30 kilometers (20 miles) south of the wreckage from the Malaysian jet. The separatist group Donetsk People’s Republic said on its website that one of the pilots was killed and another was being sought by rebel fighters.

The attack revived questions about the rebels’ weapons capabilities — and how much support and training they are getting from Russia. The U.S. accuses Russia of backing the separatists and fueling Ukraine’s conflict, which has brought Russia’s relations with the West and key trading partners in Europe to a two-decade low.

White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said the downing of the fighter jets “speaks to the pattern we’ve seen over the last several weeks, which is Russian-backed separatists armed with Russian anti-aircraft posing risk to aircraft in Ukraine.”

Rhodes added: “The only aircraft they’re not taking responsibility for is MH-17,” referring to the Malaysian jetliner.

He said the U.S. believes it has a “pretty clear case” that responsibility for downing the Malaysian plane lies with the Russian-backed separatists. He acknowledged that the U.S. does not know who “pulled the trigger” and said that would be the hardest thing to determine.

While the insurgents deny having missiles capable of hitting a jetliner at cruising altitude, rebel leader Alexander Borodai has said his fighters do have Strela-10M missile systems, which are capable of hitting targets up to an altitude of 3,500 meters (11,500 feet). They have shoulder-fired missiles with a smaller range.

The rebels also say they shot down an Antonov-26 early last week with a shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile. The Kiev government is hinting that the Antonov was flying too high for the rebels to hit it, suggesting Russian involvement.

Rebel leader Pavel Gubarev wrote on his Facebook page that 30 rebels were injured and his men retreated from the villages of Chervona Zorya and Kozhevnya, on the Russian border about 45 kilometers (30 miles) from the sunflower fields where the Malaysia Airlines plane fell.

The battles are complicating the investigation into the passenger jet crash.

Ukraine and Western nations are pressing the rebels who control the crash site to allow an unfettered investigation, something Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would use his influence to achieve. Though confident that a missile brought down the passenger jet, U.S. officials say Russia’s role remains unclear. Russia denies involvement.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf laid direct responsibility on Putin.

“These Russian separatists, who we strongly believe fired this missile, would not be there operating without the support of President Putin and the Russian government, would not have been trained without the support of President Putin and the Russian government, would not be armed without the support of President Putin and the Russian government,” she said. “They would not be there doing what they’re doing, period, so they could fire an SA-11, without the support of President Putin and the Russian government.”

The Dutch Safety Board, which is leading an international team of 24 investigators, said unhindered access to the crash site was critical.

Spokesman Tjibbe Joustra told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that about 25 investigators are in Kiev analyzing photos, satellite images and radar information, but have not yet gained access to the crash site.

Body parts were still seen at the crash site Wednesday, said Michael Bociurkiw, spokesman for the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine. He also described “significant puncture marks to the fuselage, almost a piercing mark.”

Independent military analysts said the size, spread, shape and number of shrapnel impacts visible in an AP photograph of a piece of the wreckage all point to a missile system like the SA-11 Buk.

U.S. analysts have also concluded that an SA-11 was the likely weapon.

Konrad Muzyka, an analyst at IHS Jane’s, said the high number of shrapnel holes in the debris meant that only a fragmentary warhead like the SA-11 could have been used. The fact the shrapnel holes are folded inwards confirmed that the explosion came from outside the plane, he added.

Justin Bronk, military sciences research analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, said “the size of shrapnel holes is fairly broad, in keeping with what you would expect from a large missile like the SA-11.”

Residents in the rebel-held city of Donetsk swept up broken glass and tried to repair apartments damaged from shelling in recent days.

“The solution I see is to stop shooting. Then Europe and Russia should step in to help start talks,” said resident Alexander Litvinenko. “Nothing will be resolved by force.”

___

Chernov contributed from Snizhne, Ukraine. Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, Matthew Lee and Julie Pace in Washington and Jona Kallgren in Kharkiv, Ukraine, contributed to this report.

TIME brussels

EU Preparing Further Sanctions Against Russia After MH17 Crash

The Bodies Of The MH17 Plane Crash Are Repatriated From The Ukraine To The Netherlands
A numbered coffin carried by Dutch military personnel contains an unidentified body from the crash of MH17 on July 23, 2014 at Eindhoven airport, Netherlands. Peter Macdiarmid—Getty Images

But it's unclear how potent any sanctions will be

For a continent determined to present a united message of outrage and reprisals after the downing of Flight MH17 killed 211 of its citizens, the signals coming from the European Union this week have been contradictory.

While its foreign ministers emerged from a meeting Tuesday vowing strong and unified action, a cross-channel spat over the sale of French warships to Russia exposed the depths of the economic conflicts which have prevented the EU from hitting Moscow with the toughest tools in its arsenal.

Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron said it was “unthinkable” that the UK would continue with the $1.62 billion warship deal, as France has done, given the Kremlin’s alleged backing of the Ukrainian rebels believed to have shot down the plane. The leader of France’s ruling Socialist Party, Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, hit back: “When you see how many oligarchs have sought refuge in London, David Cameron should start by cleaning up his own backyard.”

For Stefan Lehne, a former Austrian diplomat who is now a visiting scholar with the Carnegie Europe policy center, the spat underscored a “lack of coherence” among the 28 member states, and one which is unlikely to be solved in the coming days or weeks, despite last Thursday’s tragedy.

“The shooting down of this airliner has of course increased urgency and support for doing something, but it has not changed anything fundamental,” he says. “There are still all the different interests of the member states.”

So for now, the EU has continued with its policy of inching forward with low-level sanctions while issuing more ultimatums, a cycle it has pursued since a political crisis in eastern Ukraine escalated into a full-scale insurgency earlier this year: First, add more names to a list of Russian and Ukrainian individuals and companies with their assets frozen and banned from entering the EU. Then threaten to move to the most damaging ‘Tier Three’ sanctions – which would hit whole sectors of the Russian economy like banking, arms and energy – unless the Kremlin moves to de-escalate a conflict which EU leaders say it is fuelling by supplying weapons and manpower.

Inevitably, Putin takes a few steps in the right direction, and EU leaders breathe a sigh of relief that they do not yet have to sacrifice their €400bn annual trade with Moscow. But slowly the Russian tanks return to the Ukrainian border, the ceasefires disintegrate, and more Russian-made tanks and weapons seep into the rebel strongholds — again and again the cycle has repeated itself.

Europe’s leaders profess that the plane crash has ended this cycle, and on Thursday it will become apparent exactly what has changed when the EU reveals who else is going to be added to a sanctions list first drafted in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March.

The list will go further than ever before, targeting people and companies providing material support to Putin. The EU will also review a set of proposals on potential Tier Three sanctions which could be implemented if Russia does not cooperate with an international investigation into the downing of MH17 and fails to halt the stream of weapons into the country.

Much of the discussion has focused on a potential arms embargo, but only for future sales. That would mean France could still sell Russia its two warships, while Russian money in Britain’s banks would be protected, German companies operating in Russia could continue their work relatively unimpeded, and eastern European nations which get 80% of their gas from Russia could be slightly more confident of the security of their winter gas supplies.

Carnegie Europe’s Lehne does not think the EU will move to any Tier Three sanctions on Thursday. Instead, he says it’s playing the long game. He believes that the gradual escalation of threats combined with an economic squeeze on key allies of Putin is having an impact on the Russian president’s decision-making.

Others think the time has come to get tougher. Elmar Brok, chair of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said on Tuesday that Putin left open no “possibility of finding a political solution” and the EU should proceed with stronger sanctions.

The Lithuanian President, Dalia Grybauskaite, even made the comparison with appeasement in the Second World War. “In 1930s, Nazism wasn’t stopped, and now aggressive Russian chauvinism isn’t stopped and that resulted in the attack against a civilian plane,” she told a Lithuanian radio station.

Karel Lannoo, head of the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies, points out that Russia has more to lose than Europe from any restrictions on Russia’s energy sector, which accounts for 50 percent of Russia’s federal budget reserves.

“[The EU] can act in a coordinated way, just show they can have alternate sources of energy, that they are not too dependent on Russia,” he tells TIME. “It’s an oil and gas country, and the moment they don’t have these exports anymore, their economy will fall down.”

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 Ukraine

Bodies of Malaysia Jet Victims Leave Ukraine

A coffin containing the body of a victim of the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 is loaded onto a plane for transport to the Netherlands during a departure ceremony on July 23, 2014 in Kharkiv, Ukraine.
A coffin containing the body of a victim of the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 is loaded onto a plane for transport to the Netherlands during a departure ceremony on July 23, 2014 in Kharkiv, Ukraine. Brendan Hoffman—Getty Images

(KHARKIV, Ukraine) — Two military aircraft carrying the first bodies of victims of the Malaysia Airlines crash left the embattled plains of eastern Ukraine Wednesday, while British investigators began work on a pair of “black boxes” to retrieve data on the flight’s last minutes.

Pro-Russian rebels shot down two Ukrainian fighter jets, Kiev’s defense ministry said, as fighting flared again in the east.

The Dutch government declared a day of national mourning as the country prepared for the arrival of the first bodies in the afternoon. The crash on Thursday killed all 298 people — most of them Dutch citizens — aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

Ukraine and western nations are pressing the pro-Russian rebels who control the crash site to allow an unfettered an investigation, something Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would use his influence to achieve. Though confident that a missile brought down the aircraft, U.S. officials say Russia’s role remains unclear.

Britain’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch said Wednesday that Dutch authorities had delivered the plane’s voice and data recorders to the agency’s base at Farnborough, southern England, where information will be downloaded. Experts will also check for signs of tampering.

Two military transport planes, one Dutch and one Australian, departed Ukraine at midday, heading for Eindhoven air base where the flights will be met by Dutch King Willem-Alexander, Queen Maxima, Prime Minister Mark Rutte and hundreds of relatives.

For one grieving mother, the arrival of the bodies marked a new stage of mourning and brought to an end the pain of seeing television images of victims lying in the undulating fields or in body bags being loaded into a train.

“If I have to wait five months for identification, I can do it,” Silene Fredriksz-Hoogzand, whose son, Bryce, and his girlfriend Daisy Oehlers died in the crash, said before setting off for Eindhoven. “Waiting while the bodies were in the field and in the train was a nightmare.”

Dutch government spokesman Lodewijk Hekking said about 60 coffins were expected, but the number wasn’t immediately confirmed.

There was confusion as well about how many of the 282 corpses which the rebels said they have found were on the train which arrived in Kharkiv, a government-controlled city, on Tuesday.

Jan Tuinder, the Dutch official in charge of the international team dealing with the dead, said that at least 200 bodies were aboard the train and that more remains could be found once the body bags are examined fully.

The Dutch Safety Board announced that it will lead an international team of 24 investigators, and said unhindered access to the crash site — controlled by pro-Russian separatists — is critical.

“At the moment, there are no guarantees for the investigators’ safety” at the scene, the board said, adding that it “and other parties” are working to get access to the site and to secure it.

Rebel leader Pavel Gubarev wrote on his Facebook page that his men had retreated Wednesday from the villages of Chervona Zorya and Kozhevnya, which are on the Russian border about 45 kilometers (30 miles) from the scene of the crash. Gubarev said 30 rebels had been injured.

Wreckage of the Boeing 777 fell on territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists who have been battling the Kiev government since April. U.S. officials say the plane was probably shot down by a missile, most likely by accident.

The European Union on Tuesday imposed sanctions against more Russian individuals but refrained from targeting entire sectors of the Russian economy while waiting for clearer evidence of Moscow’s role in the disaster.

Senior U.S. intelligence officials said Tuesday that Russia was responsible for “creating the conditions” that led crash, but they offered no evidence of direct Russian government involvement.

The officials, who briefed reporters Tuesday under ground rules that their names not be used, said the plane was likely shot down by an SA-11 surface-to-air missile fired by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. The officials cited intercepts, satellite photos and social media postings by separatists, some of which have been authenticated by U.S. experts.

The intelligence officials were cautious in their assessment, noting that while the Russians have been arming separatists in eastern Ukraine, the U.S. had no direct evidence that the missile used to shoot down the passenger jet came from Russia.

TIME Ukraine

U.S. Officials Say They Tracked ‘Specific’ Missile That Downed Malaysian Plane

298 Crew And Passengers Perish On Flight MH17 After Suspected Missile Attack In Ukraine
Wreckage from Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 lies in a field in Grabovo, Ukraine, on July 22, 2014 Rob Stothard—Getty Images

The Obama Administration says it tracked the missile that struck Malaysia Airlines Flight 17

U.S. intelligence resources tracked the “specific missile” that downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, a senior Administration official said Tuesday, saying intelligence adds up to a picture that “implicates Russia” in helping to bring down the plane.

“We did pick up a launch, and so we were able to have the ability to track this specific launch,” the official told reporters Tuesday afternoon. The missile shot up nearly vertically from a location in eastern Ukraine determined to be in control of Russian-backed separatists, the official added, before striking the plane at an altitude of 33,000 ft., killing the plane’s 298 passengers and crew.

The comments come as the U.S. government is intensifying pressure on the Russian government for arming and training separatist forces. President Barack Obama Monday threatened additional economic and diplomatic “costs” on Russia.

But the American intelligence case against Russia remains largely circumstantial, even as Russia has called on the U.S. government to prove its case. “Everything points at the same scenario,” the official said. “It’s not like there are countertheories that make any sense to us.”

“We don’t know who literally was operating the system that day,” the official added. “But more generally what we have is a picture of evidence that says the Russians have been providing these arms, these types of systems and Russians have been providing training. That adds up to a picture that implicates Russia.”

The official did not say whether U.S. intelligence was capable of tracking the missile’s flight-path in real time, or only once the plane had been brought down.

The admittedly circumstantial American case comes as Russia has remained adamant that it bears no responsibility for the incident. The official said while the U.S. government does not know with precision how and when the SA-11 got to Ukraine, it did not belong to the Ukrainian government, rather appears to have entered the country from Russia. “What we had been tracking is a lot of heavy weaponry moving into Ukraine, including antiaircraft systems,” the official added.

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

MH17 Jet Wreckage Hacked Into With Saws, Experts Say

298 Crew And Passengers Perish On Flight MH17 After Suspected Missile Attack In Ukraine
Ukrainian rescue servicemen look through the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 on July 20, 2014 in Grabovo, Ukraine. Rob Stothard—Getty Images

Large pieces of the downed Malaysia Airlines jet have been “hacked into” with diesel-powered saws, international monitors at the crash site said Tuesday. The limited access granted to experts and alleged tampering by pro-Russia rebels controlling the region has outraged the leaders of countries including the Netherlands and Australia, who are eager to repatriate the victims’ remains. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has officials at the scene, reported damage that did not appear to be linked to the missile strike…

Read the rest of the story at NBC News

 

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