MOSCOW -- For almost six years, Russia’s most respected pollster has tracked public opinion about the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which killed all 298 people on board and further damaged Russia's badly frayed relations with the West months into the war in eastern Ukraine.
One statistic has remained robust: the high proportion of Russians who say that their country is not to blame, despite a large and mounting body of evidence compiled by international investigators, journalists, and open-source researchers pointing to a major Russian role in the shoot-down over the conflict zone.
The Levada Center polling shows that about 60 percent of Russians consistently blame the July 2014 disaster on Ukraine or volunteers fighting on its side of the war against Russia-backed separatists in the region known as the Donbas, which has killed more than 13,000 people since it began that April.
“In general, the situation has changed only very slightly,” said Aleksei Levinson, a senior Levada Center researcher who has led its work on Ukraine and who published the results of the pollster’s latest survey on MH17 in February.
But with the trial of four suspects set to start in the Netherlands on March 9, Levinson emphasizes another finding: In the latest poll, 62 percent of respondents agreed that Russia should compensate the families of MH17 victims if the Dutch-led investigation leads the “international community" to the conclusion that Russia was responsible.
The four defendants in the upcoming trial -- three Russians and one Ukrainian -- were identified as a result of the ongoing probe by the Joint Investigation Team (JIT), which comprises representatives from Ukraine as well as the Netherlands, Australia, Belgium, and Malaysia -- all of which lost citizens when the passenger jet was shot down during a routine flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
But Igor Girkin, Sergei Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov, and Leonid Kharchenko will not be in the dock when the trial begins. Having refused to face prosecutors, they will be tried in absentia -- amid a dogged information campaign emanating from Russia, which has portrayed their prosecution as a politically motivated stunt.
“Once again the Russian side is subject to absolutely groundless accusations aimed at discrediting the Russian Federation before the international community,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said on the day the JIT named the four suspects in June 2019. The Kremlin has repeatedly sought to cast doubt on the objectivity and findings of the investigation.
But the Levada poll results add a twist, suggesting that the Russian government's denials of involvement could eventually run up against the results of the trial in the eyes of Russian citizens -- not just those in Ukraine and elsewhere who, based on the probe and other information, blame Moscow and the military advisers it allegedly dispatched to eastern Ukraine with the missile that downed MH17.
“This survey shows that Russians understand how important the MH17 case is for the relatives, in spite of the poor information they’ve received about the disaster from Russia,” Dutch lawmaker Chris Van Dam told the Dutch newspaper Trouw in February.
According to Levinson, the survey is the latest testament to the gradual dissipation of Russia's “Crimea consensus”: the rally-round-the-flag effect that followed Moscow’s seizure of the Ukrainian peninsula in March 2014 and led to a spike in patriotic sentiment -- and support for President Vladimir Putin -- for several years.
Other recent surveys by the Levada Center show that anti-Western sentiment has drastically decreased. Antipathy toward the United States has more than halved since 2015, with positive views of the former Cold War adversary rising almost fourfold. Positive opinions of the European Union have seen a similar increase.
“This shows the erosion of a strong anti-Western position, and other results corroborate that,” Levinson said. He added that the large number of respondents prepared to accept the outcome of the MH17 trial – a scenario Levada’s polls have not addressed until now -- correlates with a growing number who believe the JIT will hold a fair trial.
Russians’ views on the MH17 downing closely correlate with general opinions about the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine, where the Russia-backed separatists seized parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces after a Moscow-friendly Ukrainian president was pushed from power in February 2014 by protests in Kyiv.
The majority of respondents say Russia should not yield to Western sanctions aimed at changing its foreign policy toward Ukraine, meaning that the denial of responsibility for the downing of MH17 remains almost the default stance.
In the latest Levada survey, which was conducted in October 2019 and January 2020 on behalf of Leiden University, only 2 percent of respondents said that the Russian armed forces were culpable -- unchanged from the proportion blaming Russia in a differently worded Levada poll question in 2015 -- while 7 percent blamed Russian volunteers or the Russia-backed separatist forces.
These figures represent a “marginal view however you look at it,” Levinson said.
Levinson does not comment on what factors may have influenced the widespread assertion that Russia is not responsible, which flies in the face of evidence made public by the JIT, various journalistic probes, and independent investigative groups such as Bellingcat.
But Russian state TV, a major shaper of public opinion, has from the outset sowed confusion about the incident and broadcast official Moscow’s repeated denials.
In the hours that followed reports of the catastrophe on July 17, 2014, several Russian state news agencies claimed the separatists had shot down a Ukrainian An-26 military plane in the area. Updates to those stories became increasingly muddled after it emerged that MH17 had crashed in the location where the separatists had reportedly downed the Ukrainian military aircraft, giving the false impression that two planes had gone down.
In the days following the downing of MH17, Moscow would launch a campaign to push conspiracy theories and so-called alternative facts. It has not only denied involvement in the MH17 disaster but has also denied involvement in the war itself, despite ample evidence that that it has provided troops, arms, and other support to the separatists.
The JIT’s years-long criminal investigation has since concluded that MH17 was shot down by a surface-to-air Buk missile from Russia's 53rd Antiaircraft Missile Brigade, fired from territory held by the Russia-backed separatists. It found that the launcher was brought into Ukraine from Russia before the shoot-down and taken back across the border shortly afterward.
The indictment the JIT issued in June 2019 paved the way for the four suspects to be tried on murder charges for their alleged roles in the crime.
In announcing the first criminal charges in the MH17 case, investigators said evidence showed a direct line of military command between the separatists and Russia. To back up the claim, they played phone calls of the suspects discussing the Buk’s movement and other key aspects of the incident by telephone, via social-media chats and a computer image reconstruction of events.
In 2015, almost half of Russians questioned told the Levada Center they backed the idea of creating an international tribunal with Russia's participation. Levinson said the majority believed Russia would be exonerated and Ukraine's complicity would be proved. But that July, Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution to create the tribunal, the only nation to do so.
"There can be no reason to oppose this [draft resolution] unless you are a perpetrator yourself,” then-Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said at the time. The JIT was formed as an alternative.
For Levinson, the latest survey shows that public opinion may be shifting. And Russians are not ignorant of the experiences of other countries faced with a rapidly growing trove of incriminating evidence.
The final question Levinson’s team asked respondents to the recent survey related to another passenger jet that was shot down: Ukrainian Airlines Flight PS752, whose crash after takeoff from Tehran on January 8 killed all 176 people on board. Iranian officials acknowledged responsibility three days later, asserting that the plane was shot down by mistake.
Moscow's reaction to that incident, which included a staunch defense of Iran, was for many redolent of the obfuscation campaign it launched following the downing of MH17, and brought into stark relief the parallels between Iran's admission of guilt and Moscow's dogged denials throughout the past five years.
"I didn't want to believe it until the last. A full remake of July 17, 2014," Gleb Pavlovsky, a former adviser to Putin, wrote about Iran’s confession at the time. "But the Iranians admitted it -- a strong nation."
It appears that most Russians back that judgment. When Levada asked whether admission of guilt by a state is a sign of weakness or strength, more than 80 percent of respondents said it was a sign of strength.