A year ago the world received the awful news of the destruction of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 and the deaths of all 298 passengers and crew.
The plane, shot down over the Donetsk region in Eastern Ukraine amid fighting between pro-Russian separatist militias and the Ukrainian army, was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. Most of the victims were Dutch. Australians mourned the 38 Australian citizens or permanent residents killed on board.
Dutch and Australian police at the crash site, August 2014. (Wikipedia.)
A year on, a swirl of questions remains: above all, who pulled the trigger, and why?
The preliminary Dutch Safety Board report last September ruled out technical fault or crew actions, confirming that MH17 was brought down by 'a large number of high-energy objects', the shrapnel released by a surface-to-air missile. The Dutch report didn't say who might have fired the missile, but a US investigation has pointed the finger at a Russian-made BUK surface-to-air missile launched from rebel-held territory.
Still unclear is whether the missile was launched by rebel units in control of Russian army equipment or by regular units of the Russian army operating on Ukrainian territory. The Kremlin has strenuously denied the presence of Russian forces on Ukrainian soil. In the immediate wake of the crash the Russian Government presented evidence purporting to show that two Ukrainian army BUK launchers were operating in the area at the time. Those photographs have been widely rejected as fabricated. But Russia continues to hold Ukraine responsible on the grounds that MH17 came down in Ukrainian air space.
It is frequently recalled in Russia that in 2001 a Ukrainian army S-2000 missile shot down a Russian airliner (Siberian Airlines flight 1812 en route from Tel Aviv to Novosibirsk) over the Black Sea, with the deaths of the 78 people on board. Though it denied responsibility for eight days, the Ukrainian Government eventually admitted that a mistake had taken place during training exercises.
Certainly, there is a history of missile strikes, accidental and otherwise, on airliners. And my view at the time was that MH 17 was one such accident, the trigger pulled by under-trained rebels.
On the day of the crash, rebel commander Igor 'Strelkov' Girkin crowed about shooting down what was believed to be a Ukrainian army transport plane on the Russian social network site, vKontakte. The post was later removed. Eighteen victims' families have recently filed a US$900 million civil damages case against him in a Chicago court.
Yesterday, however, I spoke at length to Valery Ivashchenko, a former Ukrainian defence minister in political exile in Denmark since 2013. A military engineer by training, Mr Ivashchenko considers it 'impossible' for a missile of such complexity to have been operated by the rebels. 'All the evidence points to the Russian army', he said. He suggested that the Russian soldiers who fired the weapon may have since been shot as part of a Kremlin cover-up. Others have suggested the same thing.
The final Dutch report is to appear in October. But the search to bring the malefactors to justice is already on.
Earlier this week, the Netherlands, Belgium, Malaysia, Ukraine and Australia tabled a proposal for the UN Security Council to support the creation of an international tribunal to try the perpetrators. According to Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, such a tribunal 'would send a clear message that the international community will not tolerate acts that threaten international peace and security by endangering civil aviation.' As a permanent member of the Security Council, however, Russia seems likely to block it.
Though the plane's destruction did nothing to change the underlying causes of the conflict, news of MH17 had an almost immediate and ultimately far-reaching impact on how the conflict was perceived. The shift was particularly sharp in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel had privately been ahead of public opinion for months in assessing the threat to peace posed by Russia and the rebels who received its support.
Germans have a strong tradition of scepticism about NATO and, particularly in the old East Germany, sympathy for Russia is stronger than elsewhere in Western Europe. Yet whereas in the months before MH17 the German public had favoured an even-handed approach to Russian sensitivities in Ukraine, after the tragedy it swung solidly behind support for sanctions.
In the US, too, MH17 unleashed a wave of outrage and facilitated a renewed push by US President Barack Obama to coordinate US and EU sanctions regimes; until the shock engendered by the deaths of so many innocents, European sanctions had lagged behind the US in scope and severity.
In Australia, the reaction was one of almost universal shock, anger and dismay. The Government had most of the country behind it when it decided, at short notice, to send an Australian Federal Police contingent to the crash site to retrieve the victims' remains. Australia at the time had no diplomatic representation in Kiev. The impending arrival of 50 armed Australian military police thus set off a flurry of at times undignified diplomatic activity as Foreign Minister Julie Bishop scrambled to make sense of the shifting sands of Kiev politics. This was coupled with sponsorship of a UN Security Council resolution demanding the withdrawal of both warring parties from the crash site. Owing to continued fighting, however, it took several days for the AFP to reach an area where some of the victims' bodies could be retrieved.
In many Australians' eyes, Russia's support for the rebels and its obstruction of international efforts to identify who fired the missile left Russian President Vladimir Putin with blood on his hands. In this spirit, Prime Minister Abbott made his famous threat to 'shirt front' Mr Putin when he arrived in Brisbane for last November's G20 Summit.
One part of the world where MH17 had relatively little impact was China. In May 2014, Russia's Gazprom and China's National Petroleum Corporation had signed a $400 billion gas deal for the delivery of 30 years of Russian gas to China over new pipelines in Eastern Siberia. They followed that up with a second deal in November during Mr Putin's visit to China en route to Brisbane, as if to confirm that, in the midst of Russia's growing difficulties with the West, China would henceforth provide an alternative source of political and economic support.
Today the MH17 crash site lies within an area under de facto rebel control, according to the February Minsk Accord. The separatist rebellion in the Donbass that was the setting for the plane's destruction has so far claimed some 6000 other civilian lives.