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 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 interactive

How the World Sees America Now

Russia's approval for the United States plummeted in 2014. So did Brazil's. China and France increased in their affection for the country. This map shows the rise and fall in esteem for the United States around the world in recent years

Russians’ disapproval for the United States has hit new lows, according to the latest figures released by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. In 2013, 51 percent of Russians said they had a favorable view of the United States–the fourth straight year that a majority of those polled gave the U.S. a thumbs up. This year, with discord rising between American and Russian leaders, Russian approval of the U.S. plummeted 28 percentage points.

The following interactive allows you to compare any two different years back to 2002 to see how global opinion has changed. Not every country was polled every year.

 

Note: Clicking on the green hyperlinks updates the interactive map in the article.

Following Barack Obama’s election in 2008, many countries saw spikes in favorability toward the United States in 2009, and in many cases those bumps in approval have since waned. Germany greeted the new White House administration with a 33 point bump in approval, for example, but has since dropped 13 points to a 51 percent favorability rating. France and China, meanwhile, has bucked the trend, with growing support for the U.S. since last year.

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 foreign affairs

Putin’s Power: Why Russians Adore Their Bare-Chested Reagan

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin Alexey Druzhinin—AFP/Getty Images

The history of strongmen leaders helps fuel a passion for capitalism—even if there's a cost

There he is, the President of Russia, riding bare-back and bare-chested astride a galloping steed; spending $50 billion on a resort town most Russians will never see; seizing Crimea, instigating unrest in Ukraine; maybe even making himself indirectly responsible for the murder of nearly 300 innocents aboard a downed passenger plane: Vladimir Putin, shaking his fist in the face of a West that often seems unable to do more than avert its eyes.

When we in The West do look, it can seem perplexing: How can Russians buy into such blatant bravado? How can a country that is (at least nominally) democratic support such near-authoritarian power? And why does Putin remain so popular?

“Why,” Russians might ask us in return, “do you support a system of government that is so weak?” In 2010, traveling through Russia to research a novel, I was asked this a lot. I’d press people on the way Putin had cowed political opposition, castrated the parliament, brought the media mostly under his control. Usually, they’d shrug. Then they’d tell me, “At least he does stuff, makes stuff happen. Unlike in America. Where your government can’t get even the smallest things done.” Yes, Putin goes big, they’d say—maybe even sometimes goes wrong—but we in America can’t manage to go anywhere at all. Heck, we can barely manage to fund our own government, let alone set aside our squabbling long enough for anyone to actually lead.

I’m not a political scientist; I couldn’t respond with more than a layman’s opinion. I’m not a scholar of Russian history; it’s not my place to proclaim intimate knowledge of a complex and multifaceted culture. And I’m not Russian; I’d never purport to speak for the people themselves. But I am a novelist. And, as a novelist, my job is to listen—to the voices of others, to the voice of a place—and then to attempt to understand, not just intellectually but emotionally. In other words, to empathize.

The Great Glass Sea, by Josh Weil Courtesy Grove/Atlantic

Everywhere in Russia that I traveled to research my new novel, The Great Glass Sea, I felt a yearning. Sometimes it took the shape of nostalgia: a man who’d made a fortune in the early ‘90s lit up talking about that wild time of unleashed, unfettered capitalism when millions could be made overnight; a school teacher spoke of the way, under communism, everyone knew their neighbors, shared what little they had—a birthday cake cut into dozens of tiny slices to serve the entire apartment block, an apartment block now filled with families too busy trying to make ends meet to even know each others’ names; I even spoke to young men who hungered for a return of the tsar. Sometimes the yearning was for a future for which they fiercely grasped: I saw a deep appreciation for the opportunities that the release from communism had afforded, the new paths capitalism had opened up.

But in all of it there was an undercurrent of aggrievement; a sense of having to restart after seven decades of the Soviet State, having to retrace steps back to the path the rest of the world had been on—and then struggle to catch up; a feeling that the chance for Russia to remake itself had been hampered by the hegemony of the West; a knowledge that the county was less than it could be, should be, that their individual lives were lessened too; or maybe just a knowledge—especially among the populace in poorer towns and villages outside of Moscow—that what wealth and success has come to the county has come only to a very few.

That’s a feeling a great number of Americans can relate to: not only the frustration with growing inequality, but the sense that our country is also somehow becoming smaller than it should be. Here, when our sense of self is threatened, we turn to historical mythology that buttresses our belief in who we are: The American Dream, our forefathers wrestling with what that would be, the presidents who, through our beloved democracy, shaped how we understand it now—FDR, JFK, Reagan. We look for the next in that mold.

But Russians don’t have that history. Theirs is one in which revolutionary uprisings led to instability before being channeled by a system of control; one in which democracy is associated with a time of devastating economic collapse. We all know the long history of Russian strongmen—from Ivan the Terrible to Joseph Stalin—but can you imagine having that history as our own, having those leaders to look back on? Can you imagine our own country collapsed, our own inequality increased, our own dreams squeezed? Maybe you can, all too well. Now imagine that we had a leader who not only gave us hope, promised us change, but delivered.

Josh Weil Jilan Carroll Glorfield

Josh Weil is the author of the novel The Great Glass Sea and the novella collection The New Valley, which was awarded the Sue Kaufman Prize from The American Academy of Arts and Letters. A Fulbright Fellow and Nation Book Award 5-under-35 honoree, he has written for The New York Times, Granta, and Esquire.

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

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.

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