BRUSSELS — A Dutch-led international team of investigators said Thursday that a missile that downed a Malaysia Airlines jetliner over eastern Ukraine in 2014 came from the Russian military, opening the possibility that Dutch prosecutors could sue the Kremlin in connection with the attack that killed all 298 on board.
The long-running inquiry already had established that a Russian-made Buk antiaircraft missile downed Flight 17, but it had not previously made a direct link to the Russian military. The Kremlin always has denied involvement in the incident.
Criminal charges against the Russian military or Russia’s government probably would exacerbate tensions between the Kremlin and the West even further, implicating Russian officials in the deaths of European tourists on their way to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The attack on July 17, 2014, led to a crushing round of Western sanctions against Russia.
Since then, the Kremlin has clashed with Europe and the United States over issues such as Russia’s support for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, the attempt to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the nerve agent poisoning in March of a former Russian spy in Britain.
The investigative team “has come to the conclusion that the Buk TELAR by which MH17 was downed originated from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade from Kursk, in the Russian Federation,” said Wilbert Paulissen, the head of the crime squad of the Dutch national police. “All of the vehicles in the convoy carrying the missile were part of the Russian armed forces.”
However, they left open the possibility that the missile could have been fired by another party.
At the time of the attack, eastern Ukraine was seething with multiple armed groups. That spring, separatist fighters opposed to a new pro-Western government in Kiev seized control of broad patches of territory in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland. They were operating with Russian support, and Western journalists also spotted at least some Russian troops moving into eastern Ukraine that summer. The Russian government has long denied direct involvement in the conflict.
Investigators have been working to determine whether Russian troops shot down the plane or whether it was Ukrainian rebels to whom the antiaircraft system had been supplied. The missile system is technically complex, and Western diplomats have long said they doubted that the rebels would have had the technical expertise to target the high-flying jet.
The investigative team said Thursday that the Buk missile system was towed to Ukrainian territory shortly before the attack and towed back to Russian territory shortly afterward.
Paulissen added that the investigators possessed “legal and convincing evidence that will stand in a courtroom.”
Vladimir Chizhov, Russian ambassador to the European Union, dismissed the findings Thursday, saying, “This is an old story that was thrown into the informational environment back then, in 2014,” the Interfax news agency reported.
Rebels in eastern Ukraine on Thursday also denied possessing Russian weapons systems, Interfax reported, citing Eduard Basurin, a rebel official.
Flight 17 took off from Amsterdam and passed over eastern Ukraine on its way to Kuala Lumpur, packed with Dutch tourists. In video footage from immediately after it was shot down, rebel fighters can be seen gathering in the sunflower fields where the bulk of the fuselage fell, celebrating what they thought was the downing of a Ukrainian military aircraft. Their celebration turned to concern when they realized that it was a civilian jetliner.
The debris of the plane stretched across dozens of miles. Corpses rotted in the hot July sun. Dutch-language travel guides and card games from the children aboard the flight were scattered across the crash site.
Of the 298 people killed, 196 were Dutch, 42 were Malaysian, and 27 were Australian. The victims represented more than 30 nationalities, including a joint Dutch American citizen.
The investigators Thursday offered only open-source video and photographic evidence to support their conclusion that the missile came from a Russian military antiaircraft system. Portions of the evidence already had been reported by the Bellingcat research group. But the international investigative team said that its findings stood independently and that it possessed additional information to buttress its conclusions that it would announce only in eventual courtroom proceedings.
“We are entering the last phase of the investigation,” Dutch prosecutor Fred Westerbeke said.
Anybody charged criminally in connection with downing the plane would face justice in Dutch courts, but it is unlikely that Russia would be willing to extradite citizens to face charges, and eastern Ukraine remains in the hands of pro-Russian rebels, inaccessible to Western law enforcement.
Separately on Thursday, the European Union announced the settlement of a long-running investigation of Gazprom, the Russian natural gas giant, in connection with unfair business practices in Eastern Europe. The seven-year inquiry had deep political implications because Eastern European countries accused the Kremlin of using energy supplies as a weapon against governments that opposed Russian policies.
The settlement announced by Margrethe Vestager, the European Union’s antitrust official, allows Gazprom to avoid multibillion-dollar fines in exchange for a pledge to allow gas to flow freely through Eastern Europe at market rates. The measures are intended to help the region, which is highly dependent on Russian gas, to be more resilient against political pressures on energy supplies.
Quentin Ariès contributed to this report.