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Russian Officials Dig In On MH17, As Critics Decry 'Politics Of Denial'

  • Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW -- A series of denials by Russian officials and state-media allegations of bias and foul play present a view that is starkly discrepant with international criminal investigators' findings, announced this week, over the downing of a Malaysian airliner over eastern Ukraine in 2014.

The Joint Investigation Team's (JIT) interim conclusions were that the passenger jet was shot down by a Russian-made missile system smuggled into separatist territory then spirited back over the border into Russia.

The Russian counternarrative after the release of the JIT report also introduces at least one new conspiracy theory and was decried by liberal opposition voices and the independent newspaper Vedomosti, which criticized the Kremlin’s perceived “politics of denial,” saying they would increase Russia’s international isolation.

Russia has consistently rejected considerable evidence -- including recovered pieces of shrapnel, phone chatter among Moscow-backed separatists, and the geolocation of telltale photographs, among other things -- that points to the involvement of anti-Kyiv forces in eastern Ukraine in the shoot-down, which killed all 298 people aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014.

Pro-Kremlin media focused on a chorus of countercharges made by officials, Russian missile maker Almaz Antey, and politicians, who claimed primarily that Russian evidence had been deliberately ignored by the JIT in order to reach a “political” verdict.

Missile maker Almaz-Antey called a news conference immediately after the announcement of the JIT findings, challenging the probe in comments widely carried by online and traditional media. The defense manufacturer's chief engineer, Mikhail Malyshevsky, said for instance that the JIT had ignored "technical" aspects of the investigation and analyzed the wrong type of missile, adding that Almaz-Antey's tests showed the rocket was fired from territory controlled by Ukrainian government forces.

“Journalists and experts pointed out one strange detail,” said the newscaster on state TV channel Vesti, which led its September 28 evening news with a report on the MH17 report. “There are considerably more facts that the international investigators ignored than that they took into account. That is to say, the conclusions were drawn first and then backed up with fragmentary evidence.”

State news agency RIA Novosti, meanwhile, published an opinion piece late on September 28 titled Investigation On Track Without Veering Off Course, in which it casts doubt on the findings because they appear similar to those initially expressed by the Ukrainian and Western governments soon after the downing of the plane.

The wreckage of MH17 near the village of Hrabove in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region.

The wreckage of MH17 near the village of Hrabove in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region.

“It hasn’t changed despite the fact that two years have passed since the moment of the catastrophe and that since that time one side" -- a reference to Russia -- "has presented lots of new facts and materials, while from the other side fairly important information remains hidden from international investigators.”

In comments carried by Russian news agencies, Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov also criticized the findings, claiming they were based on two sources: the Internet and Ukrainian security services. He also denied that any missile system crossed the border between Ukraine and Russia, as investigators concluded.

'Dutch Fog'

Pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia on September 29 published what appeared to be an elaborate conspiracy theory in a piece titled Dutch Fog, in which the author also said the results were “predetermined.”

Calling the Dutch “loyal vassals” of the United States, author Oleg Matveychev, who was cited as a political expert, alleged that Washington rigged the results of the investigation to help Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton beat Republican Donald Trump in the upcoming U.S. presidential election.

“During the election campaign of Hillary Clinton, who is banking on confrontation with Russia, the conclusions [of the JIT] could scarcely have turned out differently," Matveychev argued.

Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told the BBC's HARDtalk program that Russia would neither confirm nor deny the findings because they are “preliminary.”

Asked by HARDtalk's host whether or not Russia "accepts the truth" of the JIT findings, Peskov said that “there was nothing to accept or deny” because this report is not the “final truth.” Peskov continued: “We know the devil is inside those details, and unfortunately we are still missing lots of the details.”

Aleksei Navalny, an anticorruption activist and leading opposition figure, compared Peskov’s response to the Soviet Union’s initial denials after it shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 over the Sea of Japan in 1983. Navalny wrote that the Kremlin is “driving itself into the [same] situation” and said Moscow was trying to deflect the accusations with the same propaganda playbook.

‘Politics Of Denial’

An editorial in the independent Vedomosti business daily on September 29 chided Russia for what it described as its “politics of denial.” “By changing its explanations and denying in advance the conclusions of the investigative group," the paper wrote, "Russia itself is working toward the gradual strengthening of its own isolation."

It said the denials are painting Russia into a corner: “Each new explanation has worked against Russia even more, forcing [the explanations] to be seen as deliberate attempts to confuse the investigation."

An informal street survey by RFE/RL’s Russian Service suggested that Muscovites hold a range of views on who was responsible for MH17's downing.

“There is a war between Russia and Ukraine. The Russian Army unfortunately shot down this Dutch Boeing -- unfortunately,” said one.

“The fact that [the missile] was Russian manufactured proves nothing and says nothing," said another, adding, “Our government agencies...published their report in which they, citing objective information, entirely denied this information.”

"We’ll most likely never know whose fault it was and who was to blame," concluded another.

But the JIT and other investigators are less ambiguous, according to Wilbert Pualissen, the head of the Dutch police investigation: "On [the] basis of the criminal investigation, we can conclude that Flight MH17 was downed on July 17, 2014, by a rocket of the 9-M-83-38 series, fired from a Buk trailer, and that this Buk trailer came from the territory of the Russian Federation and returned to the territory of the Russian Federation after the launch."

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    Tom Balmforth

    Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics. He can be reached at