The defendants did not attend the trial and are not in custody. Those convicted are Igor Girkin, a former colonel of the FSB, Russia’s security service, who later served as defense minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic; Sergey Dubinsky, a former officer of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency; and Leonid Kharchenko, a Ukrainian commander of separatist forces in Donbas.
They were sentenced to life in prison, though they may never be captured.
The fourth defendant, Oleg Pulatov, who served in a special unit of the GRU, was acquitted for lack of evidence. Pulatov was the only defendant who sent lawyers to defend him during the trial, and he had previously asked the court for acquittal, saying he played no part in the incident.
The verdict followed a years-long investigation into who fired a Buk surface-to-air missile that hit the Boeing 777 flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on July 17, 2014, leaving bodies and wreckage scattered across fields in eastern Ukraine.
The incident occurred during fighting between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces in an area where several Ukrainian military jets were shot down in the weeks preceding the destruction of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
Russia has long maintained that it was not a party to the conflict that unfolded in Donbas in 2014 and that it did not control pro-Russian fighters in Donetsk, where the four defendants held senior positions as part of the separatist militias.
The court, however, determined that Moscow financed and armed the separatist forces in Donetsk and generally controlled the breakaway region and its authorities.
The court also found that the Buk launch was intentional but the defendants most likely thought they were firing at a military aircraft.
“The verdict cannot bring back those who died,” presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis said. “But clarity has been provided on who is to blame.”
After the verdict was announced, victims’ family members cried and hugged each other.
“This is a good and balanced verdict, in which three people got the highest possible punishment and the role of Russia in this was confirmed,” said Piet Ploeg, who lost his brother, sister-in-law and nephew. “I feel relief as justice has been served.”
“We were applauding, we were happy that finally, after eight years, we could hear the truth,” said Thomas Schansman, whose 19-year-old son Quinn was on the plane. “There are many more people who could be behind bars for this but what I want now is for Putin and the Russian government to acknowledge their responsibility.”
The Kremlin not only denied involvement but sought to smear the investigation as politically biased. It promoted various explanations for how the plane was shot down, from blaming the Ukrainian government to dismissing evidence in the case as fabricated.
In Russia’s first official comment on the verdict, the Foreign Ministry dismissed the decision as a “political order.”
Dutch investigators went to great lengths to debunk Moscow’s claims, publishing a detailed timeline of the strike and laying out the role the defendants played in delivering the missile system to the launch location in Pervomaiskyi and the subsequent downing of the plane.
Many family members of the Flight 17 victims have suggested that Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine this year might have been averted had the international community pushed back harder against Moscow in the years after the plane was shot down.
“Despite evidence to the contrary, the West was happy to accept the idea that separatist groups in Ukraine weren’t just proxies for the Russian Federation, so they could turn a blind eye to Russian aggression,” said Eliot Higgins, the founder of Bellingcat, which linked the Buk missile system to Russia’s 53rd Antiaircraft Missile Brigade and shared its findings with the Dutch investigators.
Higgins added: “Had the West stood up to Russian aggression in 2014, we may have avoided the situation we’re in today.”
Two days before the verdict, a missile landed in a Polish village, near the Ukrainian border, killing two men. Warsaw said it was likely a stray Ukrainian air defense missile, but the incident was yet another example of Russia’s aggression having deadly consequences for innocent bystanders.
Girkin, who served as a commander of Kremlin-backed separatist forces in Donetsk, once boasted that he had “pulled the trigger of war” in Ukraine. For years he lived safely in Russia, but he recently dropped out of sight in Moscow and reportedly returned last month to the front line in Ukraine.
Girkin is believed to be the most senior military officer who was in direct contact with Moscow at the time the plane was shot down, and he allegedly helped transport the Buk missile system. He has previously said he felt “a moral responsibility” for the mass death of passengers but denied playing a direct role.
In mid-October, Girkin wrote on his popular Telegram blog that he had joined the “active army” once again. Girkin often uses the blog as a platform to fiercely criticize Russia’s military strategy in Ukraine. His wife, Myroslava Reginska, shared a photo of Girkin, who also goes by the nom de guerre Igor Strelkov, wearing a military uniform.
Following reports that Girkin had returned to the front, Ukrainians launched a crowdfunding campaign to collect a $100,000 bounty for his capture.