Five years after a Malaysia Airlines jetliner was shot down over Ukraine, killing 298 people onboard, Dutch prosecutors charged four militants associated with the Russia-backed separatist movement in eastern Ukraine for their involvement in the tragedy.
The Dutch-led Joint Investigations Team said in a news conference Wednesday that three Russians, Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, Oleg Pulatov and Sergei Dubinsky, and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko will be tried for murder in the Netherlands starting March 2020.
The charges are the first brought by a team of international prosecutors in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
Girkin, who has frequently given interviews in Moscow since 2014, said in a post on the Russian social media site VKontakte that the rebels had nothing to do with the downing of Flight 17.
“The Rebels did not bring down the Boeing,” he wrote. “I am not giving any comments regarding this tragedy or the progress of the investigation.”
The Boeing 777 was traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on July 17, 2014. While over rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine, the jet was hit by a missile, killing everyone on board. Passengers included 193 Dutch citizens, as well as those from Australia, Indonesia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand.
The plane exploded in midair, causing bodies and pieces of the plane to rain down on the fields and villages of eastern Ukraine. Separatist fighters have granted investigators very little access to the crash site.
In announcing the charges Wednesday, the international team said it was the “most complex criminal investigation ever to be conducted.” The team includes investigators from Australia, Malaysia, Belgium and Ukraine.
Investigators last year confirmed that Flight 17 was struck by a Buk Russian missile brought to Ukraine by militants with the pro-Russia separatist group in the hours before the plane’s downing.
The Kremlin has denied that the missile was from Russia and has suggested that it belonged to the Ukrainian military.
Russia has denied any association with the flight tragedy. In a press call Wednesday ahead of the announcement of the charges, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Russia was not involved in the investigation, despite being willing to do so.
“Russia has not been given the opportunity to take part in it, although from the very beginning, from the first days after this tragedy it showed the initiative and was eager to join the investigation into this awful crash,” Peskov told reporters. “I have said everything I want to on this topic.”
The investigative team worked with Bellingcat, an open-source investigative collective, that placed all four suspects at a particular location in eastern Ukraine on the day of the airliner’s downing.
The men also played crucial roles in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which began in May 2014 when a group of Russia-backed militants declared independence for two Ukrainian regions in the country’s east along the Russian border.
Girkin was the minister of defense for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. Dubinsky and Pulatov served in the rebels’ military intelligence unit. All three Russians charged previously served in the Russian military. Kharchenko, the Ukrainian, was the commander of a rebel battalion.
Together, the four suspects formed a chain that linked the separatist leadership to Russia, the investigators said, placing the blame directly on Moscow for allowing the rebels to transport the Buk missile to the separatist-held territory in eastern Ukraine.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine continues, with more than 13,000 people killed, and some 2 million displaced. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who was elected in April, has pledged to end the military conflict. A cease-fire treaty known as the Minsk agreement has not held, with both sides in the conflict blaming the other for continued attacks.
The conflict has devastated the economy of eastern Ukraine, where coal mines and metallurgy plants once accounted for 20% of the country’s economy.
The United States and Europe have placed sanctions on Russia for its involvement in the conflict as well as Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014. In meetings this week in Europe, Zelensky urged European leaders to continue pressuring Moscow to end its aggression against its former Soviet neighbor.
Investigators said work on the case continued and did not rule out that more prosecutions could follow in the near future.
Ayres is a special correspondent.