HRABOVE, Ukraine — More than a week after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down in Ukraine, near the Russian border, the catastrophe appears to have done little to change the dynamics on the ground.
Many local residents support the Ukrainian-based pro-Russia separatists who U.S. and Ukrainian officials say launched the missile that downed the plane. And though most locals deplore what happened to the civilian airliner, some simply don’t believe that the rebels did it.
“It was shot down by Ukrainians. There were two planes behind [the Malaysia flight]. That’s what I heard,” said Oleg, 50, a resident of the village of Hrabove, where the bulk of the plane’s wreckage came to rest. Oleg, who would not give his last name because he feared for his safety, watched over the debris site one recent day with an 80-year-old rifle.
“This is our help from Russia,” he said, shaking the rifle — not advanced antiaircraft missile systems capable of downing jets at high altitudes.
Nor has the downing of the Boeing 777-200 slowed the pace of combat. Battles continue to rage around rebel-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine, including on Sunday, so close to the main debris site that international observers canceled a visit there. Residential neighborhoods in Donetsk have been shelled from the direction of Ukrainian military positions. U.S. officials said Friday that some 15,000 Russian troops were massing at the border with Ukraine, a fresh sign that Russian President Vladimir Putin, rather than stepping away from his support of the separatists, may be doubling down. Ukrainian and NATO officials have said that Russia has been shelling Ukraine from over the border and there were fresh reports of heavy weaponry and vehicles flowing over the border over the weekend, a charge that Russia has denied.
The rebels themselves, who have denied involvement in the attack on the passenger jet, say that they have no intention of backing down anytime soon.
In Torez, a city 13 miles from the border with Russia, Ukrainian intelligence officials say they have evidence that a Buk antiaircraft missile launcher was rolling down the road several hours before Flight 17 was hit, and they published a photo that they say backs their account.
But none of the residents clustered around a main square on a recent day admitted to seeing such a vehicle. Their alternative theories sound far more like those on Russian state television, which is widely available here while Ukrainian channels have been blocked.
“Who do you believe?” asked a worried-looking woman inside a construction supply store on the main street. “I heard a lot of people saw Su-25s behind that plane,” she said, referring to Ukrainian Sukhoi fighter jets that some in separatist-held territory blame for the attack.
“Why should we trust England” to analyze the flight data recorders from the Malaysian jet, asked a customer at the store. “They’re controlled by America.”
At the Pitstop Market gas station, where the clearest photo of a Buk launcher appears to have been taken, gas station attendants agree that it looks as if the photo was shot from their parking lot. But they are far from certain that the image is evidence, as Ukrainian intelligence says it is, that rebels shot down the passenger jet.
“The only thing you can trust is what you see with your own eyes,” said Sergei Senchenko, an attendant who was working at the station on July 17 but says he did not see the launcher, although he says he was told about it.
“As far as I heard, it was just passing by,” Senchenko said. He said that there was so much military traffic down the road that residents no longer saw individual vehicles as exceptional.
“It’s a fact that an hour ago a jet was bombing Snizhne,” he said, referring to a nearby rebel-held town where the Buk missile launcher was also allegedly spotted on July 17. “But the Ukrainians say they’re not flying near the crash site.”
“The situation is that some people are blind and don’t see Buks. But some people don’t see planes,” he said.
The rebels, meanwhile, strongly deny involvement in the attack and say that they have been strengthened, not weakened, in the days that have followed.
“Look — it’s our first international agreement,” said Sergei Kavtaradze, a deputy to rebel leader Alexander Borodai, as he pulled out a copy of the signed agreement about the handover of the black-box data recorders between Malaysian officials and the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic.
The protocol was stamped with the seals of the Donetsk People’s Republic and with the “National Sekurity Council” of Malaysia. Such stamps are a ubiquitous feature of post-Soviet bureaucratic life. And as the agreement was signed, the head of the Malaysian delegation, Col. Mohamed Sakri, thanked “His Excellency Mr. Borodai” for the handover. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak spoke by telephone with Borodai to arrange the transfer, a highly unusual step given that national leaders do not often make direct deals with another country’s rebels. The Malaysians then asked British experts to analyze the instruments.
Kavtaradze said that after months of conflict, no one in eastern Ukraine would be able to return to life as it was before war.
“In the upcoming years, these people will not want to live within the government of Ukraine because already a lot of blood has been shed. Infrastructure has been destroyed,” Kavtaradze said. Like Borodai, Kavtaradze is a Russian citizen who until earlier this year was living in Moscow. Kavtaradze said that he was a volunteer in Donetsk, and that he had a PhD in conflict management and conflict resolution.
This conflict, he said, couldn’t end with the old status quo. More likely, he said, was a resolution that mirrored that of Transnistria, a pro-Russian breakaway region of Moldova that has existed as a quasi-independent state, supported by Russia and not officially recognized by any U.N. member country, since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
“Some kind of Transnistria, that’s possible,” Kavtaradze said. “Those who want things to be as they were, it’s really impossible.”
A rebel military commander said that he hoped that the conflict would soon move to the negotiation table, but he said that rebels were capable of holding out longer than the Ukrainian military.
Fighting “could have been avoided if certain serious international players had not interfered,” said Alexander Khodakovsky, one of the few Ukrainian citizens in a top leadership position among the rebels. “We could have defended our position, our adherence to Russia, to ideology and the entire complex of views which we have, using parliamentary methods.”