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State Department Silent on MH17 Anniversary Following Trump-Putin Firestorm

The department prepared to criticize Russia’s role in the 2014 downing of a civilian airliner over Ukraine, but the statement was never released.

Two Dutch passports lie in a field among luggage, personal belongings and wreckage from Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 on Jul. 22, 2014, in Grabovo, Ukraine. (Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images.)
Two Dutch passports lie in a field among luggage, personal belongings and wreckage from Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 on Jul. 22, 2014, in Grabovo, Ukraine. (Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images.) Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images.

Every year since a Russian missile downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine on July 17, 2014, killing all 298 passengers and crew, the U.S. State Department has issued a statement to mark the anniversary.

But on the anniversary this year—a day after U.S. President Donald Trump met in Helsinki with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin—the State Department was conspicuously silent about it.

Officials there prepared a draft statement that was sharply critical of Russia for its alleged role in the attack. But for reasons the State Department has not explained, it was never issued.

Based on a cached version of the U.S. embassy’s website in Moscow, it appeared on the homepage briefly on Tuesday but then was quickly taken down. One U.S. official confirmed this account to Foreign Policy.

“Four years after the downing of MH17, the world still awaits Russia’s acknowledgement of its role,” read the draft, a copy of which was obtained by Foreign Policy.

“It is time for Russia to cease its callous disinformation campaign and fully support the next investigative phase … and the criminal prosecution of those responsible for the downing of flight MH17.”

[For the full draft of the statement, see below.]

The passenger jet, traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was downed in eastern Ukraine, where a conflict simmered between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists.

This anniversary was particularly significant because it was the first since the Dutch-led international investigation into the incident published its conclusion that the missile originated from a Russian military unit based near the border with Ukraine.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul described the State Department’s silence on the issue as “deeply disappointing.”

“This should be very pro forma in the U.S. government. The evidence is overwhelming. Just to be on the record on the right side of history is very prudent,” he said.

A State Department spokesman said in response to a query from FP that he would not comment on allegedly leaked documents.“The United States’ position on the MH17 catastrophe has not changed,” he added. 

Foreign ministers of the G-7 group—including the U.S. secretary of state—released a statement on Sunday criticizing the attack and Russia’s role in it. The Canadian and British Foreign ministries promptly posted it on their websites. But the State Department did so only on Wednesday, after being asked about the issue by FP.

The statement posted Wednesday appeared to reflect a kind of carelessness about the matter. It said the G-7 foreign ministers “today issued the following statement in advance of the anniversary” even though the anniversary was Tuesday. The other G-7 foreign ministries released the statement three days before the United States.

The State Department spokesman referred FP to the G-7 joint statement and another statement published in May on the findings by the Dutch-led investigative team that reaffirmed the plane was shot down by a Russian missile.

The U.S. embassy in Kiev released the joint statement a day ahead of the anniversary. As of late Wednesday, the U.S. embassy website in Moscow still made no mention of the MH17 anniversary.

“The United States government has long said that Russia is without a doubt responsible for shooting down MH17,” State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters when asked about the issue on Wednesday. “We have put out three statements in two and a half months and we think that that covered it,” she said.

“Our position on Russian culpability for this has not changed. Our policy on this has not changed.”

The anniversary is particularly sensitive for the Netherlands. Of the 298 killed in the plane’s downing, a large majority, 193, were Dutch. The U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands, Pete Hoekstra, wrote in a tweet on Tuesday, “Today my thoughts are with the families and friends of the victims of MH17.” But he made no mention of Russia’s role in shooting down the plane.

The Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team found that a convoy of vehicles from the Russian armed forces transported the missile from the Russian military base across the border into Ukraine. It was fired at the jet from a field held by pro-Russian separatists. It is still not yet known who launched the weapon.

The Russian military has rejected the findings of the investigation, and the Russian state media has been trained on denying Russia’s involvement.

The State Department draft was set to go out as early as Monday but was quashed at the last minute. Officials were told to “stand down” on releasing it because Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “did not approve” the language, according to one official familiar with the deliberations.

The statement said the evidence “conclusively proves” the missile came from a specific Russian military brigade, “was brought into sovereign Ukrainian territory from Russia, was fired from Russia-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine, and was then returned to Russian territory.”

Trump lavished praise on Putin in Helsinki Monday and stunned U.S. lawmakers and national security experts by siding with him against the U.S. intelligence community’s assessments of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Pompeo also traveled to Helsinki to take part in the summit.

On Tuesday, Trump said he misspoke regarding Russia’s interference. But he failed to address other instances during the 45-minute press conference in which he praised Putin and cast doubt on the FBI probe into allegations of his campaign’s collusion with Russia.

The debacle left top Republican lawmakers fuming. In response, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is summoning Pompeo for a public hearing next Wednesday to discuss the Helsinki summit, as well as the administration’s North Korea policy.

McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador in Moscow, said he’s also angry that the State Department had not yet commented on another budding dispute with Russia. 

On Tuesday, the Russian prosecutor general said he wanted to question McFaul and two other former U.S. officials as part of a Russian investigation into alleged financial crimes by American investor Bill Browder’s hedge fund Hermitage Capital.

Browder has been at loggerheads with Russian authorities for over a decade, after Russian tax officials allegedly stole $230 million in taxes that the fund had paid to the Russian government.

McFaul said that he was “pissed off” and “outraged” that the State Department had not yet issued a comment criticizing the request and defending him. Later that day, Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, called Russia’s claims against McFaul “absolutely absurd.” But the White House said Trump will consider allowing Russian authorities to question McFaul. 

The full text of the statement the State Department prepared but never issued regarding the anniversary of the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine:

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
Office of the Spokesperson
For Immediate Release
July 17, 2018

Statement by Heather NAUERT, SPOKESPERSON

Remembering the Shoot Down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17

Today marks the fourth anniversary of the downing of Malaysia Flight #17 (MH-17) over eastern Ukraine and the horrific deaths of 298 civilians.  We again offer our deepest condolences to their families.

Four years after the downing of MH-17, the world still awaits Russia’s acknowledgement of its role.  The United States has complete confidence in the findings of the Joint Investigation Team (JIT), including those announced on May 24, 2018, and in the JIT’s ongoing work.  Based on an extensive compilation of images and other evidence, the JIT provided conclusive evidence that the BUK Transporter Erector Launcher (TELAR) from which the missile that downed MH-17 was fired, came from Russia’s 53rd Anti-aircraft Missile Brigade, a unit of the Russian army.  Like a fingerprint, the combination of matching characteristics derived from the JIT’s images clearly and conclusively proves that the BUK TELAR that downed MH-17 came from the 53rd Brigade in Russia, was brought into sovereign Ukrainian territory from Russia, was fired from Russia-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine, and was then returned to Russian territory.

It is time for Russia to cease its callous disinformation campaign and fully support the next investigative phase of the JIT and the criminal prosecution of those responsible for the downing of flight MH-17.  We will never forget the 298 innocent civilian lives tragically lost on that day, and we call for justice on their behalf.

Update, July 18, 2018: The article was updated to include comments from the State Department spokeswoman and the U.S. embassy in Moscow’s brief publication of the draft statement on its website.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

Amy Mackinnon is an editorial intern at Foreign Policy. @ak_mack

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