Flight MH17: will the Dutch go after Putin for a war crime?

For Putin, this is the worst collision between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War

Column LAST UPDATED AT 13:50 ON Fri 18 Jul 2014

In the mid-afternoon of Thursday 17 July 2014 a war crime was committed in the skies over southeastern Ukraine when the passengers and crew of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 – all 298 of them – were blasted to death by a Russian-built ground-to-air missile. 

These facts now are incontrovertible. The exhaust trails of the SA11 or SA17 BUK medium-range air defence system have been identified by US intelligence, Washington has announced. And the evidence is backed by eye-witness accounts from serious news agency reporters.

President Vladimir Putin does not even seem to be disputing that it was a ground-to-air missile launched from within eastern Ukraine that was responsible. However, he has tried to claim, somewhat spuriously, that the “responsibility for such an act ultimately lies with those over whose territory it occurs” – pointing the finger deliberately at the government in Kiev.

By this token Scotland and the Scots were responsible for the bomb that downed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988.

But aren’t the Russian separatists who look to Putin’s Moscow claiming that this very territory belongs to them? And who supplied, sold, begged, borrowed or stole the missile system for the shooters? Isn’t Putin and his military command nominally in charge of such pieces of kit and of training the men who operated the equipment in the self-proclaimed autonomous Russian enclaves of Luhansk and Donetsk?

I am advised that the Dutch, who lost 151 nationals in the disaster, could well decide to prepare a charge of voluntary or involuntary mass murder of 298 innocent civilians before the International Criminal Court or the War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague. And Putin and his Kremlin team would doubtless be named as accessories.

For Putin, this is the worst collision between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War - because it is on terms he really does not want.

Habitually he has claimed that Russia and its allies have been victims of conspiracies and plots by the US, Nato, and the EU to surround them and deprive them of their birthright and wealth. But this time it is 298 civilians, some of them heading for holidays and quite a number going to a major Aids conference in Australia, who are the victims.

In the swirl of rumour and gossip, and the battery of accusations flying between Kiev, the separatists and Moscow, several points are now becoming clear.

Flight MH17 came down in open farmland near the town of Grabovo, an area claimed by the separatists. International reporters from the Associated Press and Reuters got quickly to the scene and interviewed eyewitnesses, who saw the burning plane fall from the sky.

Two AP reporters say they saw a SA17 BUK missile – known as a ‘Grizzly’ by Nato – on its launching truck in the area, and it had been there for some days.

This is the third aircraft to have been shot down in the enclave in a week. The previous two are thought to be a small fixed-wing plane and a Ukraine Forces transporter, both of hit at a much lower height.

The news agency reports are invaluable, clear, detailed and graphic. The reporters saw and photographed charred wreckage and sections of wing and fuselage with Malaysian Airlines markings. “This reporting is more valuable than any government intelligence agency could produce – quick, thorough and open,” a former analyst for the British government’s defence intelligence told me this morning.

Then comes the more circumstantial material, which must be treated with caution – and it will be tested by international agencies to breaking point.

A report from the Kiev Post claims a Russian military intelligence officer Igor Bezier, a commander of the forces of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic, phoned his intelligence superior in Russia, Colonel Vasili Geranin, yesterday and described shooting down the airliner. “They shouldn’t f***ing be there – don’t they know there’s a war going on,” said the caller.

A second phone intercept released by the Kiev Post purports to be between two militants , ‘Major’ and ‘Grek’, who have just returned from the crash site. “Holy S***,” says one, realising they have shot down a civilian plane. Other calls from militants report seeing bodies strewn across the field. They sound shocked.

This could explain why the rebels seem keen to be seen to be playing by the rules in allowing international observers to the crash site. Agence France Presse is reporting that the separatists say they have recovered both black box flight recorders, which are being sent to the Academy of Aeronautical Science in Moscow.

Needless to say, the international air control authorities, as well as the Malaysian and other governments involved, will insist that the boxes go for independent analysis elsewhere, such as the air accident laboratories in the UK, even if all they are likely to show is that the plane was hit externally by a catastrophic detonation of one or two missiles.

One of the most bizarre aspects of the tragedy is the strange reaction of President Obama, who, by coincidence, was told the plane had gone down during a scheduled phone call with President Putin about sanctions. Later he announced it to the world during a speech he was making in Chicago. “It looks like it might be a terrible tragedy”, he said, almost dismissively.

At first it was reported that 23 Americans had died in the explosion, but this total could rise, given that 41 of the dead remain unidentified. Hillary Clinton has now weighed in, demanding that Europe must get tough about sanctions against Russia, implying it is time to quit the backsliding.

Clinton's jibe seems pretty much beside the point now. Even the Russian rebels seem to sense this. For they know that the responsibility for training the crews that shot down Flight MH17 lies with Moscow and its forces: it requires sophisticated training in the management of radar targeting for the weapons for be used effectively.

This is where the music stops for Putin – particularly in his familiar refrain that the rebels are freedom-lovers who seek to govern their own space against the ‘fascist’ oppressors in Kiev

Either Putin is in charge of the men who shot down Flight MH17, or they are bandits out of his control. Either way his strategy for Crimea and Ukraine appears to be blowing up in his face. If the crisis now hits the money markets of Moscow and Petersburg, the show may be over for the personal rule of Vladimir Putin, the autocratic wolf in pseudo-democratic sheep’s clothing, par excellence. ·