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After Iran air disaster, Ukraine’s president is again unwittingly entangled in an international rift

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday places flowers at an airport outside Kyiv for the victims of the Ukraine International Airlines crash in Iran. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/AFP/Getty Images)
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The Ukrainian passenger jet that went down Wednesday in Iran left 176 people dead, including 11 Ukrainians.

Early Saturday in Tehran, Iranian officials admitted it was a “human error that caused the crash” of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, making a 180-degree turn after categorically denying any involvement.

As the evidence built up in the preceding days, with the United States and its allies citing intelligence that Iran had indeed mistakenly downed the plane, one person conspicuously felt out of the loop: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

On Thursday, as the United States and allies pointed toward evidence suggesting the plane had been hit by an Iranian missile, Zelensky’s office publicly called for the information to be shared with Ukrainian investigators.

“We call on all international partners, especially the governments of the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, to provide data and evidence relating to the disaster to the commission investigating the causes,” Zelensky said in a statement.

The next day, Zelensky announced that his government had spoken to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “Data from the United States contains important information to help with the investigation,” the Ukrainian president tweeted, without reference to missiles.

It’s a familiar but unwelcome position for the former comedian: stuck in the middle but struggling to stay informed. Since the political newcomer took office in May, he has found himself personally pulled into the impeachment proceedings against President Trump after the United States held back military aid from the country.

Ukraine has dealt for years with the fallout from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was shot down by Russian-backed rebels in the country’s east in 2014, killing all 298 people onboard.

“He’s trying to walk a thin line, as he has always been doing these past few months,” said Nina Jankowicz, a scholar at the Wilson Center, adding that Zelensky was aware that his country had to maintain a working relationship with Iran as well as its international partners in the West.

“He needs to be careful about what he says and what sort of accusations he’s throwing around,” Jankowicz said.

Katharine Quinn-Judge, a Kyiv-based analyst for International Crisis Group, said: “Zelensky has repeatedly stated that Ukrainian lives matter more to him than geopolitical narratives or alliances. This is a test of Zelensky’s ability to act on these principles.”

On Friday, Zelensky called for a full accounting from Iran, including financial compensation, in a statement on Facebook.

“We expect from Iran assurances of readiness for a full and open investigation, bringing the perpetrators to justice, returning the bodies of the dead, payment of compensations, official apologies through diplomatic channels,” he said. “We hope that the investigation will continue in the future without artificial delays and obstacles.”

After the disaster that took down the Kyiv-bound flight outside Tehran, the country had sent a team of 45 experts and search-and-rescue personnel to Iran — many of whom had also investigated the missile strike on the Malaysia Airlines flight.

But the Ukrainian team was walking not only into an aviation disaster; the Boeing 737 plane had been destroyed amid a new round of tension between the United States and Iran following a U.S. strike that killed Iranian military commander Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad last week.

The disaster had occurred just hours after Iran fired more than a dozen short-range ballistic missiles at military bases in Iraq hosting U.S. troops. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Thursday that evidence shows the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile.

Iranian officials at first refused this explanation: State media said an initial investigation suggested the plane had tried to return to the airport after takeoff because of a malfunction. Initially, the Ukrainian Embassy in Tehran posted a similar assertion but then promptly deleted the statement.

On Saturday, the General Staff of Iran’s Armed Forces apologized and explained that the plane had been flying toward a “sensitive military site” and the operator of the antiaircraft system had lost communication and made a hasty decision. The fire came from a base belonging to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Ukraine maintains diplomatic relations with Iran and the United States. Zelensky’s government has tried to stay out of impeachment proceedings against Trump. “We need to solve the conflict in the [rebel-held] east, and we don’t need to be involved in a conflict on the other side of the world,” Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko told The Washington Post in November.

Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who is a research fellow at Stanford University, said that the airline tragedy comes amid lingering concerns about the American relationship.

“The Ukrainians remain nervous about what impeachment and President Trump’s apparent skepticism about Ukraine mean for the depth and resiliency of U.S. support,” Pifer wrote in an email, adding that Pompeo had canceled two trips to the country in the past 10 weeks.

Iran’s admission provides a diplomatic dilemma for Ukraine and other countries. After the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, Western nations imposed crushing sanctions on Russia, whose military was later found to have provided the antiaircraft missile that hit the plane.

Speaking before Saturday’s news, Michael Carpenter, who worked on Ukraine issues at the Pentagon during the Obama administration, said it may ultimately prove difficult for Ukraine to collaborate bilaterally with Iran and that Zelensky’s government should instead partner with Western powers for an independent international investigation.

“Russia and Iran have strong incentives to obfuscate what really happened,” said Carpenter, now managing director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement.

Since Thursday, U.S. officials have expressed “high confidence” that the Boeing 737 that was downed near Tehran airport this week had been targeted by an SA-15 surface-to-air missile, part of a Russian-made air defense system also known as a Tor system.

Pifer noted that Ukraine itself had been the perpetrator in a similar incident.

“There may be some understanding in Kyiv, given the Ukrainian military’s accidental shoot-down of a Russian airliner over the Black Sea in October 2001,” he said. In that disaster, all 78 occupants of Siberia Airlines Flight 1812 were killed.

Another question remains: Why was Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 flying in the middle of hostilities? The Ukrainian government was criticized for not closing the airspace over the eastern part of its country, the site of a conflict, ahead of the downing of the Malaysia Airlines flight.

No one “was even aware of the presence of highly sophisticated anti-air missile capabilities,” Ukraine’s foreign minister at the time, Pavlo Klimkin, told reporters during a visit to the United Nations in 2015.

Questions also persist about why the Ukrainian airliner was allowed to take off from Tehran despite the tense hours. But flights from other carriers also departed from the city’s airport in the hours before the Ukrainian flight’s departure.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration issued a notice earlier prohibiting American carriers and commercial operators from flying in the airspace over Baghdad, the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman.

Ukrainian aviation authorities did not issue a similar notice for its carriers at the time. Iranian civil aviation authorities also did not close the airspace over the country.

Ukrainian authorities came under criticism after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down in 2014 for their failure to close the airspace over the conflict zone regions of Donetsk and Luhansk at higher altitudes.

Top Ukrainian officials were already thinking about flight safety in the region before Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 took off from Tehran’s international airport just after 6 a.m. Wednesday. Zelensky had been vacationing with his family in Oman over the Ukrainian holidays, and concerns arose about whether it would be safe for him to fly back to Kyiv.

According to a person familiar with the matter, despite discussion among top officials about the safety of Zelensky’s travel back from Oman, no one in the Ukrainian government moved to close the airspace for the country’s commercial carriers. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal political discussions.

Jankowicz of the Wilson Center said that Russian news agencies have already singled out Zelensky for criticism over allowing the plane to operate amid tensions.

“The blame is ultimate with the Iranian military for bringing down the plane,” she said, but Zelensky would have “criticism levied against him no matter what.”

Khurshudyan reported from Moscow. Paul Sonne in Washington contributed to this report.