Russia Claims Ukraine Open Airspace Led to MH17 Crash

mh17 memorial
People take part in a commemoration ceremony at the site of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crash near the village of Hrabove, Donetsk region, Ukraine, July 17, 2015. Kazbek Basaev/Reuters

Russia's state air transport authority has blamed Ukraine's "inaction" for the downing of the MH17 passenger airliner above its territory two years ago, because it did not close its airspace, Russian state news agency Itar-Tass reports.

The Russian federal air transport agency (Rosaviatsia) blamed Kiev for the crash, in what is one of several conflicting versions of the events provided by Russian officials. The debate over the crash was reopened Wednesday, when the international team investigating the incident concluded a Russian missile shot the plane down.

One of the Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team's (JIT) findings highlighted that the Buk missile was Russian-made and fired from a territory not under the control of the Ukrainian government at the time. The territory of Pervomaisk, where the missile originated from, was under the control of Russian-backed militants at the time, shortly after violence between these forces and Kiev broke out in east Ukraine.

This has prompted an outcry from Russia, as the Ministry of Defence insisted their missiles were never in Ukraine, while Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov gave seemingly conflicting statements, telling U.K. media that Russia neither rejected nor accepted the findings as they were not final. Earlier the same day Peskov told Russian state media that Moscow rejected the findings because radars detected no missiles had been fired from rebel territory that day.

Meanwhile Rosaviatsia issued a different defense of Russia, blaming Ukraine for not knowing better than to leave its airspace open for commercial flights, during hostilities in its eastern region.

"Ukraine carries full responsibility for not closing its airspace," Oleg Storchevoy, head of Rosaviatsia declared. "Failing to implement this measure is the main reason for the crash."

This appeared to be a departure from previous explanations by Russian officials, who have accused Ukraine of actively shooting down the jet. In the early aftermath of the tragic incident, the Ministry of Defense alleged a Ukrainian air force jet shot the plane down, before Russian state media began reporting that Ukraine had brought MH17 down with a missile.

Steven Pifer, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine and expert on the Ukraine conflict for the Brookings Institution says the contradictory statements from Moscow are a strategy to cast doubts on the international investigators' findings, by shrouding the incident in conflicting conspiracies.

"The Russians can't keep their story straight," Pifer says. "In July 2014, the Russian Ministry of Defense released radar data that it said showed a Ukrainian Su-25 responsible for shooting down MH17. On Monday, the Ministry of Defense released supposedly newly acquired radar data, which it said showed no track of a Buk launch from separatist-controlled territory. It also showed no track of an Su-25. Meanwhile, the Russian manufacturer of the Buk missile seems to accept that MH17 was downed by a Buk, but claims it was not a Russian Buk," he adds.

"Moscow's spin does not seek to present a coherent alternative for what happened to MH17," he explains. "It simply tries to create a lot of smoke, in hopes the public will come to doubt every explanation—including the correct one."