The Cable

U.S. Says Russia Playing a Double Game on the MH17 Shoot-Down

The United States and other key members of the U.N. Security Council accused Russia of playing a double game on the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17: supporting U.N. calls for an independent investigation into the tragedy while simultaneously doing nothing to prevent pro-Russian armed separatists from despoiling the crime scene, looting jewelry and other ...

Photo by Spencer Platt/ Getty Images
Photo by Spencer Platt/ Getty Images

The United States and other key members of the U.N. Security Council accused Russia of playing a double game on the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17: supporting U.N. calls for an independent investigation into the tragedy while simultaneously doing nothing to prevent pro-Russian armed separatists from despoiling the crime scene, looting jewelry and other valuables from the dead, and destroying vital evidence.

Russia joined the Security Council’s 14 other members in adopting a resolution condemning the July 17 crash in eastern Ukraine and calling for "a full, thorough and independent international investigation" of what brought down the plane. The resolution, which was drafted by Australia, calls for a cease-fire in the area surrounding the crash site and demands that armed groups in control of the crime scene refrain from compromising the integrity of evidence. It also demands that those responsible for the downing of the airliner be held accountable, but it does not specify who would prosecute the perpetrators or how suspects would be identified, captured, and handed over to authorities.

The vote comes just days after the 15-nation council issued a similar call for an international probe. But pro-Russian separatists have stalled the investigation, delayed the recovery of remains, severely limited access by investigators to the crash site, and tampered with evidence, according to U.S. and Ukrainian officials.

Only over the past 24 hours have the remains of the 298 victims, including 80 children, been transported from the crash site on a refrigerated train to the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv before being flown to the Netherlands. A small team of Dutch investigators, who have been asked by Ukraine to lead the investigation, arrived at the crash site Monday, July 21.

"We welcome Russia’s support for today’s resolution," Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told the Security Council Monday. "But no resolution would have been necessary had Russia used its leverage with the separatists to provide unfettered access to the crash site in the crucial first days following the air tragedy."

The Russian government has denied playing any role in the shoot-down of the Boeing jet, seeking instead to blame the Ukrainian government for allowing a commercial plane to fly directly over a conflict zone where surface-to-air missiles have been used to bring down Ukrainian aircraft in the recent past.

The U.S.-Russia spat played out as top diplomats from Australia and the Netherlands, whose nationals suffered the greatest loss in the incident, traveled to New York to appeal to the Security Council to ensure that the relatives of the dead be spared the further indignity of having the remains of their loved ones treated as pawns in the region’s geopolitical struggle.

"The demise of almost 200 of my compatriots has left a hole in the heart of the Dutch nation, has caused grief, anger, and despair," Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans told the council. "Grief for the loss of loved ones, anger for the outrage of the downing of a civilian airplane, and despair after witnessing the excruciatingly slow process of securing the crash site and recovering the remains of the victims."

Timmermans, who looked visibly shaken, said his government has been shocked by reports of bodies being moved and looted.

"It must be unbearable first to lose your husband and then to have to fear that some thug might steal his wedding ring from his remains. To my dying day I will not understand that it took so much time for the rescue workers to be allowed to do their difficult jobs and that human remains should be used in a political game," he said.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, whose nation lost 37 citizens, called the lack of access "despicable."

"It is an affront to the victims and their families," she told the council.

Russia’s U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, offered condolences to the families of the dead but accused Barack Obama’s administration of using the tragedy to score propaganda points against Moscow. Russia, he insisted, had been working closely with other countries to ensure that international crash inspectors could gain access to the site. "There is no need to turn the discussion of a tragedy into a farce," he said.

Even before Monday’s vote, Churkin had sought to deny Ukrainian authorities a role in leading the investigation, arguing that it would be better to have a U.N. agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), take the lead. To secure Russian support for the resolution, Australia agreed to take out language accusing the separatists of shooting down MH17.

The resolution adopted Monday doesn’t directly specify who would lead the investigation. It simply recognizes that Ukrainian authorities are working with the ICAO and other international experts and governments to "institute an international investigation" into the incident and calls on all states to cooperate.

In his comments to the council, Churkin suggested that Ukrainian authorities could not be trusted to take charge of the investigation, saying that Kiev had never come clean about its role in the October 2011 shoot-down of Siberia Airlines Flight 1812. The resulting crash killed all 78 people on board, mostly Israelis of Russian descent.

Churkin also accused Kiev of effectively fabricating the evidence it had submitted to the council to bolster its claims that Russian-backed rebels were responsible for the attack. But he stopped short of directly accusing Kiev of shooting down the plane.

The "controversial recording" of radio communications purportedly proving that Russian-backed separatists accidentally shot down the plane and then tried to cover it up were recorded before the aircraft was downed, he claimed. A video released by the Ukrainian government purporting to show Russian-made surface-to-air rockets on Ukrainian territory were actually taken in Russia, he said. Finally, he claimed that a sophisticated Ukrainian government Buk missile system was in an area controlled by the rebels before the plane’s downing, and then "hastily removed" after the tragedy.

Power, for her part, said Russian hints that Ukraine might be involved in the downing of the airplane made little sense.

"If Russia genuinely believed that Ukraine was involved in the shoot-down of Flight 17, surely President Putin would have told the separatists — many of whose leaders are from Russia — to guard the evidence at all costs, to maintain a forensically pure, hermetically sealed crime scene," she said.

Instead, Power said that Putin had remained largely silent until Monday, just hours before the Security Council vote. On Monday morning, she noted, Putin issued a public call to ensure the security of international experts, but stopped short of issuing a direct call "to the separatists who have threatened those experts and over whom he has enormous influence."

"Russia’s muteness over the dark days between Thursday and today sent a message to the illegal armed groups it supports: We have your backs," she said.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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