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With three of its citizens facing murder charges as increasingly detailed information about how Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down, Russia is still casting it as a “crash” whose cause is a mystery — a familiar tactic when Moscow’s involvement in mayhem abroad and at home leads to tragedy.
Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.
It Sank, It Crashed
Weeks after explosions on board crippled the nuclear submarine Kursk, leading to the deaths of all 118 crewmen deep beneath the Barents Sea, CNN’s Larry King asked Russian President Vladimir what happened to the vessel.
“It sank,” Putin said — a glib response that reverberated in Russia and abroad, augmenting the impression that a callous Kremlin was dismissive of the tragedy and, in the tradition of the Soviet government, unconcerned about the lives and fates of individual citizens.
In retrospect, given Putin’s public remarks and performances over 20 years in power, it seems likely that he intended it more as a quick, point-scoring quip targeting not relatives of the victims or Russians in general but his American interviewer and a question that, on the most basic level, had an obvious answer.
Coming after Russia had been slow to Western accept offers to help with rescue efforts, raising questions about whether some of the crewmen could have been saved, it also sounded like a show of irritation at worldwide interest in a tragedy that Moscow might perhaps have kept under wraps if it believed that was possible. The message being — as Putin told Western media in 2008 several years later about a different subject, his rumored wealth — don’t go poking your noses in the details.
Nearly 20 years later, there was an echo of Putin’s “it sank” in Russian government remarks on July 17, five years since Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over the war zone in eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board.
In an official statement and a tweet, the Foreign Ministry said in matter-of-fact language that five years ago “a civilian aircraft operating flight МН17 from Amsterdam to Kuala-Lumpur…crashed in eastern Ukraine.”
It gave the death toll, then said that “this tragedy became a tool in a dirty political game” and accused the Dutch-led international investigation team of shutting Russia out and ignoring evidence Moscow has provided.
‘Proof’ And ‘So-Called Evidence’
Crashed, yes — the plane or pieces of it did crash to the ground, just as the Kursk sank to the sea floor. But why? That’s what King was asking – and in fact, Putin did go on to discuss what appeared to have happened – and that’s what the Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT) conducting a probe into the downing of MH17 have tried to determine, with an increasing wealth of details emerging over the past five years.
Among other things, those details include evidence-based conclusions about the type of missile fired — a Buk; the unit it belonged to – Russia’s 53rd Antiaircraft Missile Brigade; and the location it was fired from — a field in territory held by the Russia-backed forces in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
In June, Dutch prosecutors announced plans to try three Russians and a Ukrainian on murder charges in connection with their alleged roles in the downing of MH17.
The investigators also say they have determined that the launcher that fired the missile was moved into Ukraine from Russia before the downing and spirited back across the border shortly afterward — but not before the Russia-backed fighters realized that the plane that was shot down was a passenger jet and not a Ukrainian military aircraft.
The Russian Foreign Ministry statement made no mention of the substance of what the JIT has concluded, calling its findings “so-called evidence” while erroneously claiming Moscow had “proved” that the missile the JIT determined shot down MH17 belonged to Ukraine.
Two days before relatives, friends, and colleagues of the MH17 victims mourned their loss five years ago, relatives, friends, and colleagues of Natalya Estemirova — a Russian human rights activist who was abducted outside her home in the Chechnya region on July 15, 2009 and found dead with bullet wounds later the same day — did the same 10 years after her killing.
Nobody has been prosecuted for the killing of Estemirova, a dogged rights defender who herself had investigated suspected abductions, slayings, and other violations in Chechnya — whose head, Ramzan Kadyrov, has been widely accused of presiding over the same kinds of human rights abuses that he said in 2007, a month after Putin appointed him, were “a thing of the past” in Chechnya.
There is no direct link between Estemirova’s killing and the downing of MH17, of course, but there’s one thing they had in common.
Both occurred in violence-plagued regions where the Kremlin backs figures and forces whose power stems from the role they play in advancing what appear to be Putin’s goals: keeping Chechnya under the control of Moscow — or at least keeping it in Russia — and keeping part of Ukraine outside the control of Kyiv.