World Politics

MH17 murder charges won't hurt Russia as there's no appetite for more sanctions, experts say

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Key Points
  • Investigators in the Netherlands named four suspects — three Russians and a Ukrainian — on Wednesday that they will prosecute for the downing of the Boeing 777 aircraft.
  • Flight MH17 was heading from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur in July 2014 when it was shot out of the sky over territory held by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
  • All 298 passengers and crew on board were killed.
Rescuers stand on the site of the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.
Domonique Faget | AFP | Getty Images

New murder charges linked to the downing of the Malaysia Airlines MH17 jet are not likely to lead to any major repercussions on Russia, experts have told CNBC.

Investigators in the Netherlands named four suspects — three Russians and a Ukrainian — on Wednesday that they will prosecute for the downing of the Boeing 777 aircraft. Flight MH17 was heading from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur in July 2014 when it was shot out of the sky over territory held by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. All 298 passengers and crew on board were killed.

Lengthy investigations have been carried out by a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) — made up of investigators from the Netherlands, Australia, Malaysia, Belgium and Ukraine.

The suspects are Russians Igor Girkin, Oleg Pulatov, and Sergei Dubinsky, and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko. All are believed to have played key roles in the pro-Russian separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine at the time of the downing. They have been charged with causing the shootdown and the murder of all on board. A trial will begin in March 2020.

The Netherlands and Australia had already stated in May last year that they held Russia legally responsible for the deployment of a Russian-made Buk missile system (a surface-to-air missile system) that they believed was used to bring down the plane. Moscow has repeatedly denied any involvement in the downing of MH17.

'Realpolitik'

Russia is already operating under a raft of sanctions for its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and support for the pro-Russian uprising in eastern Ukraine around the same time.

But experts say that although the charges announced Wednesday, and Russia's alleged involvement, is under scrutiny (and will be more so when the trial starts next March) any culpability attributed to Russia for the downing of the flight, and deaths of all on board, is unlikely to have further consequences.

"The truth is that the MH17 revelations will have surprisingly little repercussions," Jason Bush, a senior analyst at Eurasia Group specializing in Russia, told CNBC Thursday.

"Logically, you might think that murdering 298 people would be a massive scandal, and it has been, but it's now five years on. Yesterday's news didn't tell us anything new either, we knew what had happened for years," he said.

Bush said that there was little appetite in either the U.S. or EU to impose more sanctions on Russia. "In fact, the truth is that the Russians and EU are keen to draw a line under tensions related to Ukraine," Bush said.

He said there were now "realpolitik" factors to take into account when it comes to how the EU will deal with Russia — with the bloc appearing to be turning toward a more pragmatic approach rather than an ideological or moral stance when it comes to their neighbor.

"The fact is that the EU is finding it hard to maintain sanctions against Russia. There are powerful business lobbies in France and Germany that are against them (sanctions), there are countries in the EU, like Italy, that are against them," Bush said. He thought it was more probable that the EU would impose sanctions on individuals deemed to be involved in MH17's downing.

"While additional EU sanctions or other punitive measures are unlikely at this time, by announcing their intention to try the individuals accused next March — likely in absentia — will ensure a continuing legal process that prevents the economic or political normalization of EU-Russia relations for the foreseeable future," Daragh McDowell, head of Europe at risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, said in a note Wednesday.

"The Joint Investigative Team and the Dutch government went far further than before in both assigning blame for MH-17's destruction and demonstrating Russia's control over the 'separatist' forces in eastern Ukraine," he added.

Max Hess, a senior political risk analyst at AKE International, told CNBC that there would be further impetus in the U.S. Congress to impose more sanctions on Russia but that these were unlikely to materialize. "Yes, it's a matter of concern to Russia but there's no indication that it will lead to any major change in the sanctions environment," he told CNBC Thursday.

Russia 'responsible'

On Wednesday, investigators issued international arrest warrants for the suspects that they said were responsible for procuring and organizing the deployment of the Russian Buk-TELAR (a vehicle that carries and launches the missile) believed to have been brought into eastern Ukraine from Russia and used to shoot down MH17.

Russia's Defense Ministry rejected all the accusations on Wednesday, saying that none of the Russian Army's air defense missile systems had ever crossed the border between Russia and Ukraine, news agency TASS reported.

The Donbass region in eastern Ukraine is still gripped by unrest prompted by a conflict between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian government.

Russian-backed separatists seized part of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions (that are in the wider Donbass area) in April 2014 and self-declared "People's Republics" in those areas. The move came shortly after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, prompting an international outcry and sanctions on Russia that remain today.