As the enquiry continues into the demise of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over the skies of eastern Ukraine in July, the preliminary findings of the international investigation have done little to develop a clearer understanding of the incident. The parties responsible for bringing down the aircraft, and exactly what means were utilized to do so, have yet to be firmly established.
Due to the continued obstruction and contamination of the crash site as a result of military hostilities, it is highly questionable whether further forensic examinations can be carried out under such protracted circumstances. Another barrier is a lack of political will to consider certain findings, on the part of those states that rushed to make politically charged accusations before any investigation could take place.
The Dutch Safety Board (DSB), which is leading the investigation into the MH17 crash, released a preliminary report in September, which sought to analyze air traffic control and radio communication data, assess the inflight break-up sequences, and conduct a forensic examination of the wreckage. Assigning culpability to any party was not in the report’s mandate; the authors of the text use highly guarded and ambiguous language to explain their findings.
The findings conclude that the aircraft abruptly ended its flight with no prior alarm signals over the towns of Rozsypne and Hrabove in eastern Ukraine after a large number of “high energy objects” penetrated the aircraft from the outside. DSB’s report refrains from identifying the objects that struck the aircraft, but notes that the plane broke apart in mid-flight, with the forward section and cockpit splitting apart first.
Although the report fails to mention whether a surface-to-air missile was used as various Western governments alleged, there is still a lack of consensus among experts over whether the punctures seen on the wreckage in the report were consistent with a projectile fired from a Buk missile battery that the Ukrainian rebel militias are accused of possessing. Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), was recently reported to have held a closed-door briefing with members of parliament to present detailed evidence that implicates the rebel militias, and by extension, Russia.
Though Ukraine, the United States, and other countries have accused Russia of supplying the rebels with surface-to-air missiles and orchestrating the shoot-down of MH17, none of those governments have made their evidence publically available. Germany’s intelligence agency has not shared its evidence with the official investigation team, while the United States has similarly refused to declassify its intelligence, refusing even to discuss the sources and methodology behind its findings.
No conclusive evidence has been made public to prove that rebels militias possess missile systems capable of bringing down a commercial airliner, or that Russia supplied this technology to rebel fighters. The satellite images and military data made public by Moscow, which suggest a completely different series of events, have been entirely absent from the media’s narrative. The ongoing investigation can only be considered impartial if the findings of all parties are fairly considered. At this stage, that is not happening.
Dutch investigators have wholly omitted findings from radar data submitted by Moscow that purportedly showed a Ukrainian Su-25 fighter jet flying in close proximity to MH17 prior to it disappearing from radar. DSB’s findings also fail to distinguish whether the port or starboard sides of the aircraft were struck by foreign objects – or both. This information is highly important because, as experts have claimed, a surface-fired missile alone could not have created entry points on both the port and starboard sides of the aircraft.
The blast fragmentation patterns on the wreckage that has been photographed shows two distinct shapes: pronounced flechette-like shredding and cleaner circular pockmarks. Michael Bociurkiw, a Canadian monitor from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and one of the first observers to arrive at the crash site, described the marks as being consistent with “very, very strong machine gun fire.”
BBC’s Russian language service broadcasted – then swiftly deleted, under dubious pretenses – a report produced by its correspondent that interviewed several local eyewitnesses who claimed to see a military aircraft in the sky flying in the vicinity of MH17 as it exploded and broke apart. The investigation has a responsibility to address the question of the Ukrainian fighter jet and its possible role in the incident.
The consensus among experts cited in the media is that a surface-to-air missile was used to bring down the aircraft. Russia is the only country that has made public satellite images depicting air defense units that were in range of MH17 at the time when it was shot down, but they appeared to be under the control of the Ukrainian military. In addition to the logistical difficulties inherent in investigating a crime scene in the midst of an active conflict zone, the biggest obstacle facing the enquiry is political bias.
The UN Security Council passed Resolution 2166 shortly after the downing of MH17, which called for a ceasefire and a thorough, impartial investigation into the tragedy. Not a single Western government objected when Kiev unilaterally ended the ceasefire, pushing forward with military operations and hindering the investigation. Similarly, Western criticism of Kiev has been virtually non-existent as it launched shells and cluster munitions into populated residential areas in the country’s eastern regions throughout the duration of its US-backed military campaign.
There are existing unconfirmed reports that claim Ukraine negotiated a closed-door agreement with the Netherlands, Australia and Belgium, stipulating that the investigation’s results and data could only be published if all four nations arrived at a consensus. The existence of such an agreement is well within the bounds of plausibility. In any case, an investigation cannot be considered credible if an interested party has carte blanche to shape the outcome. It is clear that certain governments, which reflexively pointed fingers without substantiating their claims, never intended to participate in a serious investigation. Doing so is an insult to the victims who perished.
Nile Bowie is a political analyst based in Malaysia who has written for a number of publications, his expertise lies in a number of areas, with a particular focus on Asian politics and geopolitics, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.