Europe's Ground Zero: Fairy Tales and Fabrications in Eastern Ukraine
There's an eerie silence at the MH 17 crash site in eastern Ukraine, even as a civil war and propaganda battles rage around it. Few here seem concerned that the investigation into the tragedy could influence future ties with Europe.
Alexander Hug isn't really supposed to be here. He hasn't seen his wife and three children, aged four, three and nine months, for weeks and his family came to Kiev for a short visit. Instead of Kiev, though, Hug now finds himself on a road some 650 kilometers (400 miles) away from the capital -- in eastern Ukraine, among fields of wheat and sunflowers. The next village, about a kilometer away, is called Grabovo.
It's the site where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, fell out of the sky, likely after having been struck by an anti-aircraft missile.
"I experienced the Balkan wars and the Middle East, but what happened here was very extreme," the 42-year-old says, with typical Swiss understatement. But then he loses his composure after all. "This is an unbelievable tragedy of immense scope," he says. "An airplane crashes over a war zone, totally innocent vacationers fall from the sky, and then access to the disaster site is hindered."
Hug is the deputy head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitoring mission in Ukraine. He has been monitoring activities at Europe's easternmost edge for months now -- in the "People's Republics" of Donetsk and Luhansk that have been proclaimed by pro-Russian separatists. The expectation of the OSCE's 57 member states is that Hug will provide an objective look at what is happening in the region.
Hug first arrived at the scene of the crash 24 hours after the Boeing 777 went down at 4:20 p.m. on July 17. Since then, he has driven the 60 kilometer stretch between Donetsk and Grabovo on a daily basis. On this particular day, he is accompanying three Malaysia Airlines experts, the first who dared travel to the crisis area. They were only allowed access to the site with the permission of the rebels.
The visit took place last Tuesday, five days after the aircraft had been shot down. The rebels claimed that the remains of all 298 of the dead had been recovered, but the stench of death among the wreckage told a different story. Hug says he has seen "body parts all over the place."
Evidence for the depth of the tragedy that occurred here is everywhere. There is a Bali travel guide still lying there, as is the children's toy that was shown on television. There's also a folder with the floor plans for a new home -- a dream that had nearly been attained by a young Dutch family that perished in the crash.
Investigation Will Determine Future Relations
Grabovo is Europe's Ground Zero -- a crime that must be resolved, because the findings are likely to determine how Europe deals with a Russian that is supporting self-proclaimed separatists in eastern Ukraine, both paying and equipping them. Europe has already indicated that it is losing patience with Moscow, and on Tuesday imposed the toughest round of sanctions yet.
Here, though, nobody seems overly concerned about the implications of the crime, with the exception of Hug, a tall man of 6'4" wearing a blue-checkered shirt, a bullet-proof vest and a white OSCE armband as he directs the gaggle of journalists who have descended on the site. The other exceptions are the trio of Malaysian experts who can be seen roaming the fields with backpacks and cameras.
As had been the case for days, apart from Hug and the Malaysians, the crash site was devoid of any guards or teams of investigators and was open to anyone, including plunderers. The rebels have even taken away aircraft parts and presented them like trophies at checkpoints located kilometers away.
The world outside of eastern Ukraine may be shaken by this disaster -- indeed, the UN Security Council showed rare unanimity when it demanded that an international investigation be conducted. But none of that is tangible on the ground here. So far, little has been done to clarify what happened. Instead there has been a lot of finger-pointing. What is clear is that the death of 298 people has opened a new round in the battle over Ukraine, with each side now feeling its position has been validated.
One gets a sense for this about 10 kilometers away from Grabovo, where parts of the fuselage and luggage bins lie. Village residents have placed signs along the road reading, "Stop the genocide in Donbass," or "Rescue our children from the Ukrainian army!"
You can also get a sense for it on a road near Grabovo, where a woman wearing a summer dress and high heels suddenly appears holding shell fragments in her hand. Speaking to the gathered journalists, who represent publications from all over the world, she says she comes from Shakhtarsk and claims her hometown had just been shelled with such projectiles by the Ukrainian army. That, she says, should be investigated, adding that it was much more important. How she managed to get to us from Shakhtarsk, located over 20 kilometers away, and why she appeared just at that moment remains unexplained.
Then a rebel "press officer" wearing an exotic uniform comes down the street and talks about the West's crimes. "The usual rhetorical polemics," Hug notes.
On the same day, the Security Council of Russia held a meeting in Moscow to address the crash of Flight MH 17. Yet again, Putin repeated his allegation that "neo-fascist, fundamentalist forces had used arms to seize power in Kiev." He went on to describe the separatists as a "part of the population" that disagrees with the developments in Ukraine.
Russians Call the Shots
The disgruntled segment of the Ukrainian population that Putin refers to is represented near Grabovo by the woman in the summer dress and the 10 heavily armed men of the "People's Republic," who, while claiming to be protecting OSCE staff, are more likely present to keep watch over them. The armed men are wearing brand new camouflage uniforms with patches that read "Sevastopol, City of Heroes," and "The Crimean Spring." One, a young man with a headband and long hair holding a Kalashnikov in his hands and carrying a pistol in his waist belt, tells a Russian television team that he's also from Moscow. When asked where, he says he's from the city's Cheryomushki district. When asked what he does there, he responds by saying he sings in the church choir -- and he has the voice and looks to back it up. He means it seriously. But then he adds, "I'm here voluntarily."
He's just as Ukrainian as Alexander Borodai, the self-proclaimed prime minister of the "People's Republic of Donetsk" who also hails from Moscow. When Borodai handed MH 17's flight recorder over to the Malaysia Airlines experts, they referred to him as "your excellency," just to play it safe. For some time now, it has been leaders from Moscow and not local forces who have been calling the shots in the separatist republic. It's a subject that neither Putin nor the Russian media have shown much interest in addressing. Instead, the public defamation of Ukraine by Russia has reached new heights in the wake of the MH 17 crash.
That too is palpable in Grabovo. A correspondent for Russia's Channel One does a stand-up report from the edge of the wreckage area for the evening news. In it, he claims that the government in Kiev has done everything it could to prevent international experts from getting to the crash scene. Then a Russian news agency issues a report claiming that the Malaysian aviation experts and their OSCE escorts came under fire by Ukrainian fighter jets on their way to the crash site.
The reports are just as untrue as the majority of what Russian television stations broadcast from the separatist republics each day. There is, for example, the report that air traffic controllers, located 270 kilometers away in Dnipropetrovsk, a city under the control of a governor friendly to Kiev, instructed Flight MH 17 to change its path in order to make it easier for Ukrainian fighter jets to shoot it down. European air traffic safety regulators have long since refuted reports of a course change and have stated that the aircraft followed its originally planned route. Few residing between Moscow and Donetsk are interested in hearing that, however. People even believe the most absurd reporting on the disaster, like stories claiming that MH 17 had been carrying corpses when it took off from Amsterdam. It's a fairy tale that is repeated incessantly on countless Russian news broadcasts.
The separatists and Moscow alike have indignantly denied that a Buk surface-to-air missile shot MH 17 down. They have also vehemently denied that rebels could even have been in possession of the air defense system. They claim that evidence in the form of photos and recordings of conversations have been fabricated by the Ukrainians and the Americans.
But on Wednesday, Alexander Khodakovsky, a rebel leader in Donetsk and commander of the notorious Vostok battalion, told Reuters that rebels did in fact possess the Buk missile system and that it could have come from Russia. Khodakovsky later retracted his statements, but the recording of the interview shows that it is in fact precisely what he said.
OSCE official Hug has almost daily dealings with the rebels. Twice since April, he has had to intervene to secure the freedom of Western hostages held by them.
He says he only continues to speak with Borodai or his deputy, adding that they generally do what they say, "at least to a certain degree." He notes that "we've known for some time now that there is quarreling among the rebels and that there are differences between the political level and their armed forces." He describes it as a "thicket of alliances," with many acting on their own.
War Continues Unabated
In exactly this moment, heavy shelling begins around 20 kilometers away from Grabovo in Snizhne, the town from which it is believed the rebels fired the missile that brought down Flight MH 17. The impact of the rockets in Snizhne is visible from as far away as the crash site. Despite the tragedy, the war continues unabated here.
Just a few days later, rebels in the area again shoot down two planes, Ukrainian Air Force SU-25 fighter jets. In recent weeks, they have shot down 14 aircraft. Evidence is overwhelming that the Malaysian Airlines Boeing was among them.
The developments have led to political radicalization in Ukraine as well. Last week, President Petro Poroshenko ordered a partial mobilization for the third time, saying he needed 60,000 soldiers for deployment in eastern Ukraine. At the same time, he also got the opportunity for new elections after the parties backing him quit the government coalition. It is now likely that the final remaining members of parliament from the party of Poroshenko's deposed predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, will be voted out of office. In addition, the Communist Party, which remains strong in the separatist areas, is expected to be banned.
A 'Russian Lockerbie'
Behind the scenes in the Kremlin, away from the official television propaganda, uncertainty is beginning to spread. Putin himself has seemed agitated and nervous in his latest television appearances.
Voices claiming that Russia's intervention in eastern Ukraine has turned into a disaster are growing louder, as are those who consider the shooting down of MH 17 to be a turning point. Moscow-based journalist and columnist Yulia Latynina described the events as a "Russian Lockerbie." And the editor-in-chief of the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta is even predicting Putin's descent to the status of political "pariah" because he armed rebels in eastern Ukraine.
A program on radio broadcaster Echo of Moscow, which is at least half-way independent, came to the conclusion last week that the situation had blindsided Putin. Political scientist Stanislav Belkovsky said in the program that the president had come across as being quite optimistic prior to the shooting down of MH 17. The separatists had encircled the Ukrainian army south of Donetsk and Putin believed he was on the verge of being able to force the West to negotiate over Ukraine's fate. That, Belkovski believes, was the goal of Putin's interference in Ukraine all along. But the shooting down of the aircraft has altered the situation and Moscow's support for the rebels wound up costing the lives of 298 innocent people. "This has made clear once and for all that Putin can no longer disentangle himself from the separatists."
Alexander Hug is still at the site of the downed plane, with the wreckage in sight. He says he doesn't want to comment on any of this. "The OSCE has no political agenda," he says, "and that's what makes it possible for us to be in the combat area of the rebels." He says his most important mission is making sure that the world finally has access to the crash site in Grabovo.
In the meantime, supporters of the separatists continue living in their own world. On the way back to Donetsk, which was being shelled by the Ukrainian army at the time, a young man could hardly hide his excitement. He was very certain, he said, that Putin's troops, "would invade" this week. "Finally."
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