With pandemics and protests dominating the headlines, it’s easy to forget there was a world before them. In that world, just like today, a great wrong was done, people died, and justice was demanded. Sometimes justice takes a bit longer.
Next week, the District Court of the Hague will resume hearings on the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in 2014 by a Russian-made BUK missile, while flying a standard international route over eastern Ukraine. All 298 people on board were killed. Since most of the passengers were Dutch, the trial seeking restitution and justice for the victims is being held in the Netherlands.
From the start, the Russian government denied involvement, in ways so numerous and distinctive they defy imagination. “It was a botched assassination attempt on Putin’s private plane.” “It was planned by American, Dutch and Ukrainian intelligence services.” “It was downed by a Ukrainian fighter jet with a mentally unstable pilot.” “MH17 exploded internally due to a load of unsafe batteries.” “Investigators found no traces of a BUK.” “Investigators found traces of a BUK but it wasn’t ours. “ There are plenty more where those came from.
I’ve reviewed the publicly available evidence from the MH17 investigative team and others. It comes from multiple independent sources, including satellite photos, cellphone conversations, eyewitness testimony, social media, and forensic analysis.
They all point to a BUK antiaircraft missile unit transported from Russia into separatist-controlled Ukraine, to a field near the village of Pervomaisk. On July 17, one of its missiles was launched, and a well-known colonel in the separatist forces bragged to thousands of his social media followers about shooting down a Ukrainian military cargo plane. (That event was even reported by official Russian sources. As far as I can tell, you can still find it online).
Locals reported seeing the missile launch trail and the burned field where the launch came from. They even took photos of the BUK transport vehicle on its way back to Russia, with one less missile in its rack.
The four suspects in the trial (three Russian nationals and one Ukrainian) are conclusively identified as being involved with the transportation and positioning of the missile (the actual missile operator may never be known). The question is: Who is behind them?
I recently had the good fortune to speak with Andrei Illarionov, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity and Putin’s former chief economic advisor. He eventually quit in disgust over corruption, cronyism, and the Russian government’s failure to embrace capitalism, democracy and the rule of law.
Illarionov points out that the Russian government is following the MH17 trial very closely. The moment the Dutch announced they had eyewitnesses who would testify, the Russian disinformation campaign stopped cold.
More importantly, Illarionov wants the world to know about an important coincidence. In March, the Russian parliament introduced a measure allowing Putin to serve as president until 2036, 12 years longer than the Russian constitution allows. The official explanation from the Russian Foreign Ministry was that in difficult times, the country needs stability and strong national leadership.
That might be true. But Illarionov points out the resolution was introduced on March 10 of this year, one day after the first hearings were held in the MH17 trial. These hearings first gave hints of the quality and scope of the Dutch evidence. If an international trial implicates you in a terrorist attack, would you rather be a private citizen, or a sitting president? You don’t have to have a law degree from Leningrad State University to know the answer.
In the chaos and uncertainty of today’s world, we must not forget that facts matter. To my mind, that’s exactly what’s on trial in The Hague: Whether facts matter. We live in an age where governments like those of Russia and China believe reality is what they say it is. Sometimes, I see similar disregard for facts in my country. That frightens me.
The trial is going to last for months, maybe years. Sadly, despite the strength of the evidence, there’s no reason to think the suspects will see a prison cell (Russia does not allow extradition of its citizens). Nor can I see how the relatives of victims will ever get a dime of compensation.
Payment of damages would be an admission of guilt, something the Russian government will never do.
But a guilty verdict would at least show the world that facts matter. Objectivity matters. Truth matters. Even if we can’t always agree on the details, they are ideals we can aspire to. We would do well to remember that now.
Barry Fagin is a fluent Russian speaker, he has lectured and traveled extensively in Russia and Ukraine, including Chernobyl, the Crimea, and the eastern occupied zone. Readers can contact Fagin at firstname.lastname@example.org.