Six years ago this week, a Russian-made missile shot Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH17), a civilian passenger plane with 298 people on board, from the sky over war-torn Ukraine. Last week, the Dutch government, acting on behalf of the 193 Dutch nationals on the flight, announced it was taking Russia to the European Court of Human Rights. A criminal trial against four suspects involved in transporting the missile system that downed MH17 began in Amsterdam in March.
The destruction of MH17 on July 17, 2014, sparked outrage and accusations. Russia — and Russian separatists in Ukraine — continue to deny any responsibility. Dutch prosecutors have accused Russia of undermining the investigation.
But what do people in southeast Ukraine and Crimea think happened to this flight? We asked this question in December 2014, and again five years later. The results show very different views on who is to blame.
Here’s what we now know
From the outset it was evident Russian-backed separatists, who originally boasted of downing a Ukrainian military aircraft, were involved with the plane’s destruction. After arguments over access to the wreckage, a Dutch-led joint investigative team was created to establish the cause of the crash. Pioneering investigative reporting by the open source intelligence group Bellingcat brought crucial evidence to light.
In October 2015 the joint investigative team concluded a Buk surface-to-air missile launched from pro-Russian separatist-controlled territory in Ukraine downed the aircraft. Thereafter, a criminal investigation led the Dutch-led team to conclude the missile system came from Russia, and the Russian government was culpable in the downing. This evidence is the basis for the MH17 trial against three Russians and a Ukrainian unfolding in Amsterdam.
While factual evidence about who is responsible for downing MH17 has grown enormously during the past six years, so has the “information war.” There has been no consistent story from Russia on MH17 but instead a continued effort to deny and deflect blame.
In 2015, we reported here in the Monkey Cage the results of a survey that we organized in six oblasts of southeast Ukraine and in Crimea (the part of Ukraine annexed to Russia in March 2014), which asked respondents why MH17 crashed.
Our results at that time revealed significant ethnic divides in blame attribution in the six southeast oblasts. Half of ethnic Ukrainians blamed either the Donbas militants or the Russian military. By contrast, majorities of ethnic Russians and Ukrainians in Crimea blamed the Ukrainian military. In a subsequent publication, we revealed those who watched Russian media were much more likely to hold the Ukrainian military responsible for the crash, rather than any other cause.
Five years later, what do people think happened?
Using the same survey companies and procedures as in 2014, we posed the same question in December 2019 throughout Ukraine. Below is a graph of the results of eight possible answers. The changes over five years in southeast Ukraine and Crimea are striking.
What do Ukrainians think happened to flight MH17?
In face-to-face surveys carried out by Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) and Levada Marketing Research (Moscow), we asked 2,750 respondents in southeast Ukraine and in Crimea in December 2014 and another 3,037 respondents throughout Ukraine and in Crimea in December 2019/January 2020 the question: “Have you heard about the catastrophe of the Malaysian aircraft in July 2014 in eastern Ukraine? And if so, in your view, what caused it?”
Large regional differences in blame attribution are evident across Ukraine’s regions. More respondents gave “don’t know” answers in 2019 than 2014, though respondents in Crimea widely blamed Ukraine for the downed flight.
The results underscore significant and well-known regional differences across Ukraine about MH17. We noted a jump in the number of respondents in Crimea who say they never heard of MH17. This group constitutes a quarter of those sampled there in 2019. Nearly 40 percent of the respondents in southeast Ukraine said it was “hard to say” who was to blame — again, another jump over the 2014 survey.
A large number of respondents in the Ukrainian government-controlled Donbas also gave a “hard to say” answer — a sign that respondents in the region, the area closest to the actual site of the tragedy, did not want to answer the question. Other data in 2019 from the enumerators showed half of the respondents in this region were “generally uncomfortable with the questions in the survey” compared with less than 15 percent in the Western region.
We observed many respondents in Crimea continued to hold Russia and the Donbas militants blameless. By contrast, one in five respondents in southeast Ukraine still blamed the Russian military for the MH17 downing, though fewer respondents blamed Russia and the Donbas militants in 2019.
Only in west and central Ukraine did a majority of respondents hold the Russian military responsible for MH17’s destruction while less that 20 percent there chose the “hard to say” option.
MH17 reveals an ugly truth
What is going on here? It might be tempting to say that MH17 crashed a long time ago and many people in Ukraine have forgotten about it. But the Ukrainian media covers the ongoing contention over MH17 — and the incident features prominently in Ukrainian government narratives of victimization at the hands of the Russian government. There is even a MH17 exhibit within the Donbas war display in the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War. Television channels in Russia cover MH17, too, but do so in ways that police its blame attribution.
What the results show, we believe, are some respondents avoiding a sensitive question. In Crimea, respondents declared ignorance of the MH17 incident while in southeast Ukraine and in government-controlled Donbas respondents said it was “hard to say” who was to blame. Among other regions, blame attribution follows established patterns. The leading theory among residents of Crimea holds Ukraine’s military responsible while the leading theory among residents in the west and center of Ukraine holds the Russian military responsible.
For better or worse, MH17 continues to be a political football in Ukraine. Many respondents would rather avoid the unpleasant questions it raises. This position, in effect, considers the destruction of MH17 an open question. But the technical and circumstantial evidence suggest otherwise.
MH17 remains a politically contentious issue because it reveals an ugly truth about the war in the Donbas: Direct Russian military intervention supported separatists in Ukraine. The doomed flight is an enduring source of friction with the West because Russia stands accused, in effect, of shooting down a civilian passenger aircraft and not coming clean about it.
Gerard Toal, professor of government and international affairs at Virginia Tech’s campus in Arlington, is the author of Near Abroad: Putin, the West and the Contest for Ukraine and the Caucasus (Oxford University Press, 2019), which won the ENMISA Distinguished Book Award in 2019.
John O’Loughlin, college professor of distinction at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is a political geographer with research interests in the human outcomes of climate change in sub-Saharan Africa and in the geopolitical orientations of people in post-Soviet states.
Kristin M. Bakke is a professor of political science and international relations at University College London and associate research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo. Her current research focuses on postwar state-building and wartime legacies, as well as geopolitical orientations in post-Soviet states.
The authors acknowledge funding for this work from a joint National Science Foundation/Research Council UK grant (NSF award #1759645; ESRC award # ES/S005919/1).