A Russian military missile was responsible for shooting down flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014, an international team of investigators said on Thursday, for the first time pointing the finger directly at Moscow.
The Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 was travelling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was shot down over the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine on 17 July 2014. All 298 people onboard were killed.
In 2016, investigators announced they had evidence that the BUK system involved in the incident had crossed the border into eastern Ukraine from Russia and returned after the plane had been shot down.
At a press conference in The Hague on Thursday, the investigators showed photo and video evidence that they said proved they had identified the specific BUK missile system responsible.
They said they had “legal and convincing evidence which will stand up in a courtroom” that the BUK system involved came from the 53rd anti-aircraft missile brigade based in Kursk, in western Russia.
Previously, the investigative website Bellingcat has pointed to involvement of the same brigade using open-source information.
The joint investigation team (JIT) looking into the incident is made up of Dutch prosecutors and police and others from Australia, Malaysia and Ukraine. They showed photos and video of the convoy that carried the missile system over the border from Russia to Ukraine, and a series of distinctive markings and serial numbers which they said had enabled them to trace the exact system used in the attack, and trace it to the 53rd brigade.
Russian officials have denied all involvement in the incident, and on Thursday the defence ministry repeated these denials, claiming that no Russian missile had ever crossed into Ukraine. Kremlin-linked media outlets have floated a range of implausible theories suggesting Ukraine was responsible for shooting down the plane. Russia has used its veto in the UN to prevent an international tribunal from being set up to determine guilt, meaning any eventual trial would be held in the Netherlands under Dutch law.
Fred Westerbeke, the chief prosecutor, said the investigation was in its last phase but could not say when he would be ready to file indictments. Two years ago, prosecutors said there were about 100 people under suspicion of direct or indirect involvement. On Thursday, Westerbeke said that number had come down to several dozen, but he declined to name them.
He said there was other evidence that would be kept secret until a court hearing began. “We don’t want to tell everything we know because then we are opening our cards to the other side and we do not want to do that.”
The big question will be how a future court will operate, given Russia is likely to continue its policy of stonewalling and denial. Investigators had asked Russian authorities for information about the 53rd brigade but had been ignored, said Westerbeke. If specific Russian military personnel or commanders are indicted, Russia is almost certain to refuse their extradition.
Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop said the countries that make up the JIT were now “considering options” about how to proceed. “That a sophisticated weapon belonging to the Russian army was dispatched and used to shoot down a civilian aircraft should be of grave international concern,” she said.
The JIT stopped short of saying it believed the BUK system was deployed as part of a Russian military mission, saying only that they had identified the base from which it came. In a sign that some evidence is still missing, the JIT repeated a call for those with information about the incident to come forward, including information about the 53rd brigade, promising anonymity.
“The next crucially important step is to identify some members of the military in the 53rd brigade … who can directly say who was involved in the transfer or operation of the BUK,” said Ukrainian army general Vasyl Hrytsak, a member of the investigation team, in comments to Reuters.
Bellingcat said it would hold a press conference on Friday to present new findings on MH17.
In the weeks before MH17 was shot down, the separatists had shot down a number of Ukrainian military planes over east Ukraine, and intercepted communications between separatist fighters made it clear that they initially believed they had hit another military plane, not a civilian liner.
Russia has repeatedly denied it was militarily active in eastern Ukraine, despite an overwhelming body of evidence to the contrary. In 2014, Russian troops and hardware were introduced at key moments to back pro-Russia separatists fighting against Ukrainian government troops.
After a series of Russian media claims of Ukrainian responsibility were all shown to be false, Moscow appears to have settled on the idea that it was “impossible to tell” which side was responsible.
This week a group of families of the MH17 victims wrote an open letter to the Russian people before the World Cup begins next month.
“We are painfully aware of the dark irony that the Russian leaders who will profess to welcome the world with open arms are those who are chiefly to blame for shattering our world,” the letter says. “And that it is these same leaders who have persistently sought to hide the truth, and who have evaded responsibility ever since that dreadful day in July 2014.”