None of the defendants attended the trial. Those convicted were Igor Girkin, a former colonel of the FSB, Russia’s security service, who later served as defense minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic; Sergey Dubinsky, a former officer of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence, and Leonid Kharchenko, a Ukrainian commander of separatist forces in Donbas.
They were sentenced to life in prison, though they may never be captured.
The fourth defendant, Oleg Pulatov, who served in a special unit of the GRU, was acquitted for lack of evidence. Pulatov was the only defendant who sent lawyers to defend him in the trial, and he had previously asked the court to acquit him, saying he played no part in the incident.
The verdict draws a line under a years-long investigation into who fired a Buk surface-to-air missile that hit the Boeing 777 flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on July 17, 2014, leaving bodies and wreckage scattered across fields in eastern Ukraine.
The incident occurred during fighting between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces in an area where several Ukrainian military jets were shot down in the weeks preceding the destruction of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
Russia has long maintained that it was not a party to the conflict that unfolded in Donbas in 2014 and that it did not control pro-Russian fighters in Donetsk, where the four defendants held senior positions as part of the separatist militias.
The court, however, determined that Moscow financed and armed the separatist forces in the Donetsk People’s Republic and generally controlled the breakaway region and its authorities.
The court also found that the Buk launch was intentional but that the defendants thought they were firing at a military aircraft.
“The verdict cannot bring back those who died,” presiding judge Hendrik Steenhuis said. “But clarity has been provided on who is to blame.”
The Kremlin always adamantly denied any involvement in the destruction of Flight 17 and sought to smear the investigation of the incident as politically biased. It promoted various explanations for how the plane was shot down, from blaming the Ukrainian government to dismissing evidence in the case as fabricated.
Dutch investigators went to great lengths to debunk those claims, publishing a detailed timeline of the strike, laying out the role the defendants played in delivering the missile system to the launch location in Pervomaiskyi and the subsequent downing of the plane.
Many family members of the Flight 17 victims have suggested that Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine this year might have been averted had the international community pushed back harder against Moscow in the years after the plane was shot down.
“Despite evidence to the contrary, the West was happy to accept the idea that separatist groups in Ukraine weren’t just proxies for the Russian Federation, so they could turn a blind eye to Russian aggression,” said Eliot Higgins, the founder of investigative group Bellingcat which used open source intelligence to link the Buk missile system to Russia’s 53rd Anti Aircraft Missile Brigade and shared its findings with the Dutch investigators.
“This led to a frozen conflict in Eastern Ukraine which gave Russia time to prepare for a full military invasion of Ukraine, leading to international impacts to energy and food supplies,” Higgins added. “Had the West stood up to Russian aggression in 2014 we may have avoided the situation we’re in today.”
Just two days before the Flight 17 verdict was handed down, the nearly nine-months-long war in Ukraine saw one of its tensest moments when a missile landed in Poland, killing two people. Officials in Washington and Warsaw said it was likely a stray Ukrainian air defense missile that landed in the Polish-Ukrainian border area.
The U.S. National Security Council said in a statement that whatever the final conclusions of the investigation into the incident may be, “the party ultimately responsible for this tragic incident is Russia” as it launched the war.
Russia’s embassy in Australia quipped back, tweeting this statement was “all you need to know about MH17 investigation and trial.”
Girkin, who served as a commander of Kremlin-backed separatist forces in Donetsk, once boasted that he had “pulled the trigger of war” in Ukraine. For years he lived safely in Russia but recently dropped out of sight in Moscow and reportedly returned last month to the front line in Ukraine.
Girkin is believed to be the most senior military officer who was in direct contact with Moscow at the time the plane was shot down, and he allegedly helped transport the Buk missile system. He has previously said he felt “a moral responsibility” for the mass death of passengers but denied playing a direct role.
In mid-October, Girkin wrote on his popular Telegram blog that he had joined the “active army” once again. Girkin often uses the blog as a platform to fiercely criticize Russia’s military strategy in Ukraine. His wife, Myroslava Reginska, shared a photo of Girkin, who also goes by the nom de guerre Igor Strelkov, wearing a military uniform.
Following the reports that Girkin had returned to the front, Ukrainians launched a crowdfunding campaign to collect a $100,000 bounty for his capture.
If Ukrainian forces capture Girkin, the Netherlands would likely seek his extradition in hopes of delivering justice to the hundreds of family members who lost their loved ones on Flight 17.