A Dutch-led investigation has concluded that the powerful surface-to-air missile system used to shoot down a Malaysia Airlines plane over Ukraine two years ago, killing all 298 on board, was trucked in from Russia at the request of Russian-backed separatists and returned to Russia the same night.
The report largely confirmed the Russian government’s already widely documented role not only in the deployment of the missile system — called a Buk, or SA-11 — but also in the subsequent cover-up, which continues to this day.
The report, by a team of prosecutors from the Netherlands, Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and Ukraine, was significant for applying standards of evidence admissible in court while still building a case directly implicating Russia, and it is likely to open a long diplomatic and legal struggle.
With meticulous detail, working with cellphone records, social media, witness accounts and other evidence, the prosecutors traced Russia’s role in deploying the missile system into Ukraine and its attempts to cover its tracks afterward. The inquiry did not name individual culprits and stopped short of saying that Russian soldiers were involved.
Announcing their findings at a news conference in Nieuwegein, in the Netherlands, the investigators were clear, however, that they planned to identify suspects and to determine who they think gave the orders and what their intentions were, in preparation for bringing criminal indictments.
The evidence presented in the report strongly implicated the Russian authorities in a broad sense. The inquiry was the most detailed investigation to date of the attack on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, a Boeing 777 flying to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, from Amsterdam. It is unlikely that anyone not connected with the Russian military would have been able to deploy an SA-11 missile launcher from Russia into a neighboring country.
MALAYSIA AIRLINES FLIGHT MH17
But in implicating Russia, the report raised perhaps a bigger question: What does the Netherlands plan to do about that?
Russia, a nuclear-armed superpower, has already vetoed a Dutch-backed request to the United Nations to establish an international tribunal. Russia’s Constitution, in any case, prohibits the extradition of Russian citizens to stand trial abroad. And in the vanishingly unlikely event that suspects are handed over, it is unclear where they would stand trial.
The prosecutors’ findings could be a factor in whether the European Union softens sanctions against Russia, but some members are already chafing at their effect on trade and calling for resuming full economic cooperation.
Fred Westerbeke, the chief investigator, said that some evidence was being withheld on Wednesday to avoid alerting suspects, and also that more information was needed to build an open-and-shut case against individual suspects and to diagram the chain of command behind the order to deploy and launch.
“We cannot and do not want to tell you everything yet, as that might play into the perpetrators’ hands,” he said, according to a translation. He invited witnesses from eastern Ukraine to come forward, saying they might be granted leniency in exchange for testimony. Identifying the suspects, Mr. Westerbeke said, was a question “for the long haul.”
The report brought to light intriguing new evidence of the missile launcher’s route from Russia to Ukraine and back to Russia, if not identifying precisely who ordered that journey.
Investigators suggested that a cooperating witness was a rebel soldier who had guarded the missile convoy on its quick return to Russia after the launch.
They published new photographs of the launcher, perched on its flatbed trailer, being towed around eastern Ukraine by a white Volvo truck that had been commandeered from a heavy-equipment rental company in Donetsk.
The investigators said they had found a missile nose cone and fin by sifting through thousands of pieces of debris from the crash scene, listened to about 150,000 intercepted telephone calls and examined half a million photographs.
One of the eeriest pieces of evidence emerged last year and was highlighted again on Wednesday. The pilots had no chance of saving the plane, and were perhaps the first to die, because the missile exploded yards from the cockpit. But one carried to earth in his body a pivotal clue: a butterfly-shaped piece of shrapnel, a trace from a type of warhead installed in Buk missiles in Russia’s arsenal, but not Ukraine’s. Both countries possess Buk missiles, but the model types are distinct.
It would have been a hard piece of evidence to fake. Plastered onto the shrapnel shard, investigators said, were microscopic traces of glass of the type used by Boeing on its airliner cockpits, indicating clearly that it had passed through the plane’s windshield before lodging in the pilot’s body.
In Moscow on Wednesday, in anticipation of the report, President Vladimir V. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, issued a statement to reporters decrying “speculation” about the plane, but it did not refer specifically to the report.
“This whole story, unfortunately, is couched in a huge amount of speculation, unqualified and unprofessional information,” Mr. Peskov said. “There are irrefutable facts. In this case, it is important to draw conclusions with due account of the latest published information, that is, the primary data from radars that detected every airborne object that could take off or be in the airspace above militia-controlled territory.”
Those radar images, released by the Russian military on Monday, showed nothing near the airliner, Mr. Peskov said. “If any missile had existed, it could have been fired only from another territory,” he said. “I do not say which exact territory it could be. It is specialists’ business.”
The Dutch-led inquiry seemed to refute that claim, as well as a series of sometimes contradictory explanations and chains of events floated by the Kremlin and the Russian news media. Those claims included that the C.I.A. filled a drone with bodies and crashed it to discredit Russia, or that Ukrainians were trying to shoot down Mr. Putin’s plane but hit the civilian airliner instead.
The radar images released this week contradicted a similar image that Russian officials showed two years ago, which depicted two dots: one for the airliner and a second for a Ukrainian fighter jet that Russia suggested could have shot it down. At the news conference, the investigators said Russia had not responded to their request for “primary original radar data.”
Flight 17 was destroyed on July 17, 2014, amid intense fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine. The disaster deepened the already strained relations between Russia and the West. Among the casualties, the largest group were Dutch.
Just a few days later, the United States government concluded that the plane had been brought down by a Russian-made surface-to-air missile launched from rebel-held territory and most likely provided by Russia to pro-Moscow separatists.
The Dutch Safety Board determined in October 2015 that the plane had been shot down by a missile fired from a Buk surface-to-air system.
The report of the Joint Investigation Team, led by Mr. Westerbeke, the Netherlands’ chief public prosecutor, corroborated that finding. It concluded that the weapon used in the attack had been brought to Ukraine from Russia, though it drew no conclusions about who gave the orders to move the weapon or, most important, to shoot.
The investigators did, however, provide a timeline leading up to the destruction of the plane.
First, in intercepted telephone conversations from the evening before the attack, separatists in eastern Ukraine were heard requesting the Buk missile system in order to defend themselves from Ukrainian airstrikes. Later, according to the intercepted conversations, they were told they would receive the weapons system that night.
Second, the investigators found that a convoy of trucks brought the missile system, along with a large military vehicle that is used to launch the missiles, from the Russian border to the spot from which the missile was launched. The team said it had used intercepted phone calls, social media posts and witnesses’ testimony to piece together the route that the convoy took. It stopped in Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, where several witnesses saw the trucks, including a white one carrying the missile-launching vehicle.
Third, the inquiry identified a patch of farmland where the missile was launched, about eight miles southeast from where the plane crashed.
Finally, the investigators pieced together what they said was the path the missile system took on its way back to the Russian border. They said they had spoken to a separatist who confirmed part of the return route.