The Week In Russia: A Long War

I’m Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL’s Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

Welcome to The Week In Russia, in which I dissect the key developments in Russian politics and society over the previous week and look at what’s ahead. To receive The Week In Russia newsletter in your inbox, click here.

The investigation onto the downing of Flight MH17 in 2014 found ‘strong indications’ that Russian President Vladimir Putin was involved — but ends without reaching ‘the high bar of complete and conclusive evidence.’ More than eight years later, the war rages in the Donbas and beyond.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

A Probe Implicates Putin

As February 24 approaches, some reports refer to that date last year as the beginning of Russia’s war against Ukraine. But an announcement in The Hague this week served as reminder that the invasion Moscow launched that day was in fact a major escalation of a war that started eight years earlier.

At a press conference on February 8, international investigators said there were ‘strong indications‘ that Russian President Vladimir Putin was involved in the downing of MH17, the Malaysia Airlines passenger jet that crashed in territory held by Moscow-backed forces in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region on July 14, 2014 — three months after fighting fueled by Kremlin efforts to foment anti-Kyiv sentiment broke out there following Russia’s occupation of the Crimean Peninsula, also part of Ukraine.

In stirring up separatism across the neighboring country’s east and south, Putin’s goal was the same as it was when he ordered the invasion last February: to gain control over Ukraine, or as much of it as possible, after Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych abandoned office and fled following months of massive pro-European, anti-corruption protests known as the Maidan.

The rallies had been triggered by Yanukovych’s decision in November 2013 — which came at the last minute but followed a monthslong mixture of pressure and incentives from Putin — to scrap plans to sign a major deal tightening ties with the European Union and instead pursue more trade with Russia.

All 298 people aboard MH17 were killed. Adults and children from the Netherlands, Malaysia, Australia, and seven other countries headed from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, they were some of the earliest civilian victims of the war in the Donbas and Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Local workers transport a piece of wreckage from Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 at the site of the plane crash near the village of Hrabove, in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, in November 2014.

During an international probe into the crash, the Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT) concluded that the passenger jet was shot down by a Buk missile that had been brought into separatist-held territory from Russia and then quickly taken back across the border after the downing of the Boeing 777.

‘Strong Indications’

And the investigation led, last November, to in-absentia murder convictions in a Dutch court for two Russians and one Ukrainian separatist for their roles.

In its February 8 announcement, the JIT said there were ‘strong indications that the Russian president decided on supplying the Buk to the separatists.’

Among those indications: Recorded phone calls in which Russian officials said that only the Russian president could make the decision to provide military support to the separatists in the Donbas.

‘There is concrete information that the separatists’ request was presented to the president, and that this request was granted,’ the JIT said, but it added that ‘It is not known whether the request explicitly mentions a Buk system.’

However, the JIT said it was ending the investigation because while ‘a lot of new information has been discovered about various people involved, the evidence is at the moment not concrete enough to lead to new prosecutions.’

‘The high bar of complete and conclusive evidence’ had not been reached, it said.

People walk among the debris at the crash site on July 17, 2014.

While it fell short of a watertight finding that Putin was involved, the JIT’s announcement might have had a greater impact under different circumstances — had he not launched the unprovoked invasion in February 2022, that is.

Still, it now stands out as one of the deadliest attacks since 2014 — even amid what U.S. President Joe Biden, in his State of the Union address on February 7, called the ‘murderous assault’ on Ukraine that Putin unleashed almost a year ago.

The single deadliest attack in the war was the air strike on the main theater in Mariupol, in the Donbas, in April, when it was packed with people seeking shelter amid an onslaught that razed the city and led to its capture by Russia. In a journalistic investigation published in May, the Associated Press reported that evidence suggested about 600 people were killed.

In his address, Biden called the Russian invasion a ‘test for the ages.’

Words Of War

Putin is slated to deliver his own state-of-the-nation speech on February 21. Like the U.S. president, Russia’s president is required by the constitution to deliver an address to parliament every year — but Putin skipped 2022 and has not given the speech since April 2021.

Putin’s choice of a date for his speech is fitting in a grim way: On February 21 of last year, three days before the morning the first missiles hit, he delivered a dark, ominous address that was laden with resentment — and convinced many who had doubted Russia would launch an invasion that there was no reason to doubt it any longer.

‘This whole speech is…laying the groundwork for the wholesale occupation of Ukraine,’ analyst Sam Greene tweeted at the time. Or, as military expert Michael Kofman put it the same day: ‘This is the first step in what will likely be a large-scale Russian military operation to impose regime change.’

‘Free Ukraine’

The military operation began less than 72 hours later, but regime change didn’t happen: what is widely believed to have been a bid to swiftly subjugate Ukraine failed dramatically. Russian forces that had pushed toward Kyiv were driven back and retreated across Ukraine’s norther border weeks after they had rolled in.

Russia has taken additional territory in the Donbas and parts of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions in the south, but Ukraine reversed some of the gains last fall and recaptured the city of Kherson — the only regional capital Moscow’s forces had seized since the invasion.

Biden’s speech, and Putin’s expected address later this month, come a time when the prospects for an end to the war seem no more certain than ever, and perhaps less so. Deadly fighting is raging in the Donbas, and Russia may be gearing up for a major new offensive — or may have already set it in motion.

Kyiv, meanwhile, is beseeching the West for more weapons to use in its defense — a chief element of speeches President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has made during a trip this week to London, Paris, and Brussels, where he told an EU summit on February 9 that ‘free Europe cannot be imagined without free Ukraine.’

That’s it from me this week. If you want to know more, catch up on my podcast The Week Ahead In Russia, out every Monday, here on our site or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts).


Steve Gutterman

RFE/RL intern Ella Jaffe contributed to this report

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Washington DC 20036