One year after MH-17 downing: Any chance for a trial?

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over Eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014. 298 people on board were killed.


1. Looking one year back in what way has the downing of MH-17 influenced the Russia-Ukraine conflict?

2. Would you say that once there will be trial (respected by all involved) with the perpetrators? How optimistic/pessimistic are you about this?


Hylke DijkstraAssistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Maastricht University

1. Looking back at the tragic downing of MH17, I think it is fair to say that this event was the most striking evidence that Russia had crossed a line in Ukraine. It signaled a point of no return: a diplomatic solution between the West and East was no longer possible. While the reaction of the West, and The Netherlands in particular, has been modest, the downing of the MH17 has clearly brought the EU member states together in acting against Russia with economic sanctions and other means.

2. The Netherlands has used the past twelve months to retrieve the human remains and to carry out an in-depth investigation. It has remained fairly quiet on the diplomatic front in function of these two objectives. Now that the investigation is coming to a close, one can expect more assertive action in trying to achieve justice for the victims. The Netherlands and others have pursued the idea of a UN tribunal, but it seems that Russia is likely to block such efforts in the Security Council. Other ways of prosecution will therefore have to be found. What strikes me as important is to identify which people were responsible for these crimes. Having solid evidence where the missile came from is not enough; we need to know who did this. If the investigation can uncover the persons responsible, I have good hope that in the long run they will face their day in court.

Mark Galeotti, Clinical Full Professor of Global Affairs, Center for Global Affairs, New York University

1. On the battlefield, not at all. Politically, though, it was of crucial importance. It galvanised European opinion against Russia and helped strengthen the case for serious and lasting sanctions. It was also important in Moscow, in that the shoot-down gave Putin an opportunity to detach himself from the rebels and seek a diplomatic solution; by choosing not to do so, he really locked himself into this war and now needs to have something he can call a “victory” at home if he is ever to withdraw from the Donbas adventure.

2. I cannot see there being any such trial unless and until there is a new regime in Moscow. The current Russian government cannot and will not engage in any such tribunal — assuming it is a genuinely independent trial with all the access and information it needs — as it would not only unmask the scale of Russian involvement in the Donbas rebellion but also become a symbol of Kremlin duplicity.

Juliane Fürst, Senior Lecturer in Modern European History, University of Bristol

1. I am surprised how little impact this massive event actually had. The Dutch are upset and Putin lost a nation there, but the indignation has been very muted. The Russian strategy was to sit it out and just pretend. And to a certain extent they were successful. The world has moved on and so has the conflict. Indeed, it is the Right Sector and the like which are now under scrutiny (and rightly so), but, of course, it makes it look like as if everybody – the Ukrainian soldiers and the separatists – are the same, just on different sides.

2. Never. There is absolutely no indication that in the near future there will be a Russian government willing to look at the shooting down of the plane in a way that is not guided by national pride and defensiveness.

Sean RobertsLecturer in International Relations and Politics, University of Portsmouth

1. It is difficult to say if the downing of MH-17 marked a significant moment in the tactical reality of the conflict in the east of Ukraine (e.g. did it stop the Ukrainian central government from using heavy transport aircraft, did it stop the separatists from further using surface to air missiles?). But, from a strategic point of view, it was significant, as it marked a set-back in the Kremlin’s efforts to mobilize international opinion in favour of their version of events surrounding Ukraine’s regime change and subsequent conflict in the east of the country. One of the more consistent lines of thinking coming from Russia, up to the downing of MH-17, was that sanctions would be short-lived. The idea was that, just like the sanctions imposed on China following the Tiananmen Square massacre, the West and the international community would lose interest and heart and back-track, especially as the conflict was localized and involved ‘legitimate’ Russian interests. This line of thinking now looks a little optimistic. The downing of MH-17 widened the conflict, it helped to turn international opinion against Russia and, ultimately, it provides a pretext/genuine reason to extend and/or increase sanctions in the future. In short, the downing of MH-17 escalated the conflict.

2. Unlike the Maidan shootings or the Odessa killings, MH-17 was a tragedy on an ‘international’ scale, so pressure for a credible investigation and trial are greater. But, in the circumstances of continuing armed conflict in the east of Ukraine and a full-blown information war between Russia and the West, I am not optimistic that this episode will be brought to its logical conclusion. There can be no objective investigation in the current political climate, and the Ukrainian central government has shown itself to be totally inept when it comes to resolving these cases.

Stanley SloanDirector, Atlantic Community Initiative, Visiting Scholar in Political Science, Middlebury College

1. The downing of MH-17 does not seem to have had a critical influence on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The evidence apparently suggests that the missiles were fired by the Russia-supported separatists. Very few in the West believe the Moscow-managed propaganda attempts to suggest other options. The tragic incident brought international attention to the war and most likely provoked some additional sympathy for Kiev in Europe and elsewhere. However, the bottom line would seem to be that this once again shows the potential for even relatively small conflicts to produce humanitarian disasters.

2. I am seriously pessimistic that there will ever be a trial of the perpetrators. Positively identifying the individuals who gave the order to fire the missile and those who actually did so may be difficult. It might be even more challenging to bring identified suspects to trial, given the potential for them to be hidden away inside Russia. The fact that Russia shares at least some moral blame for the affair unfortunately makes it even less likely that an internationally-sanctioned trial will ever take place.

Rajan Menon, Professor, City College of New York

1. Absent the downing of the plane? EU unity on sanctions (far more costly for Europe than for the U.S.) would have been much harder to achieve.

2. I’m not optimistic about speedy convictions and trials given the degree of political mistrust between Moscow and the West.



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