It was supposed to be an effective public relations move, creating doubt and sowing distrust among the Western European public. Two days before the presentation of the report of the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) on the downing of the Malaysian airliner MH17 above Ukraine on July 17, 2014, the Russian authorities held a major press conference at which they alleged that their investigation had led to conclusive evidence that it actually had been the Ukrainians who shot down the Boeing, killing almost 300 people on board.
What should have been a major “publicity move” completely backfired. Instead of creating doubt it convinced even those who had maintained doubts throughout the past two years that the Russian authorities had enveloped themselves in blatant lies and falsifications, and that their behavior was nothing but a clear indicator that they had something terrible to hide. In that sense, the publication of the JIT report did not result in any major outburst of reactions or change of heart. The evidence had been building up, and much of the details that were included in the JIT report had earlier been released by Bellingcat investigators.
Also in The Netherlands, from where the overwhelming majority of killed passengers came, the majority of people reacted calmly, accepting the conclusions as something they already knew and had come to terms with. Relatives of those killed now had confirmation that their close ones had been killed by Putin and openly said so. The Russian maneuvers before the presentation strengthened their disgust and anger vis-à-vis the Russian leadership, and the determination to bring those guilty to justice.
Yet here lies one of the major complications: how will one bring those responsible before a criminal court? The reaction of the Dutch authorities was a good indicator of the complexities that are ahead. Just as that it is clear the MH17 was shot down by a Russian BUK, it is also clear this BUK was operated by Russian servicemen, and that Russian servicemen do not operate without direct and clear orders from above.
And thus The Netherlands finds itself in the same position as Britain after the Litvinenko murder in 2006, when a former FSB operative was killed with Polonium in London and it was very clear to the British government that a direct implication of the Kremlin in the killing would have serious political consequences.
Of course, the political climate in 2006 was different than ten years later. The world is now looking at an aggressive dictatorial Russian state that since 2006 invaded Georgia and Ukraine under the disguise of being “peacekeepers”, that supports criminal gangs under the guise of “separatist movements”, is waging war in Syria on behalf of the war criminal Assad and is turning Aleppo into another Grozny. The majority of political leaders have now understood that Putin’s Russia is a menace and a threat and that if he is not stopped in one way or another peace and freedom in Europe will be at stake. In 2006 the majority of leaders still saw Putin as a man they could do business with. US President Bush even claimed that he looked him in the eye and was “able to get a sense of his soul”, finding him trustworthy and reliable.
In the case of Litvinenko, it took his widow eight years to get a public inquest into his case. The British government was in no hurry whatsoever, in particular because from the onset it was clear that Litvinenko had not drunk radioactive tea by coincidence and that the trail led all the way to the Kremlin. Finally, in July 2014 the public inquest commenced (“coincidentally” after the annexation of the Crimea and the start of the Russo-Ukrainian War in the Donbas), and in January 2016 Judge Richard Owen published his conclusion, which left no doubt: “I have further concluded that the FSB operation to kill Mr. Litvinenko was probably approved by Mr. Patrushev, then head of the FSB, and also by President Putin.”
Russia was already sanctioned because of the war in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, the political climate was already below zero and thus the effects had become manageable.
Prime-Minister Rutte of The Netherlands now faces a similar dilemma: any strong reaction will lead to a further deterioration of relations with Russia, and big firms like Philips are already in line urging the Prime-Minister to be careful and not spoil business even further.
So far Rutte has not indicated he will behave differently than the British in 2006. Yes, the Dutch Foreign Ministry called in the Russian Ambassador after the outcome of the JIT investigation was publicly ridiculed by the Russian Foreign Ministry, but apart the reaction has so far been rather lame.
Equally lame has been Rutte’s reaction to the outcome of the April 2016 referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, the outcome of which would probably have been different if the conclusions of the JIT investigation had been known. Although the referendum was supposed to be merely advisory, Rutte cornered himself beforehand by stating that the outcome would determine the Dutch positioning. As we know the outcome was negative for the Agreement, partially because of the fact that Ukraine was portrayed as a hotbed of corruption and right-wing extremism (and doubts were cast over whether Ukraine was not guilty of downing the MH17), and thus Rutte got stuck. Either he ignores the vote, and becomes politically unreliable, or he doesn’t and becomes a political pariah within the European Union. In both ways, Rutte had become a victim of his own shortsightedness and inability to take bold decisions.