The finding by the Dutch Safety Board last week that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down by a Russian-made missile doesn't come as a surprise – there was little doubt as to what caused a Boeing 777 carrying 298 souls to fall out of the sky in pieces on July 17, 2014, over eastern Ukraine.
But the confirmation, based on a painstaking investigation in which the plane's cockpit was reconstructed out of recovered wreckage, is still important. It gives certainty to the families of the victims, who now have an official and incontrovertible version of what happened. It provides a lesson on the risks of failing to close air space over conflict zones. And it puts Russia in the hot seat, where it belongs.
The Dutch Safety Board was not mandated to point fingers. Its role was to establish the cause of the crash. The reconstruction of the cockpit, along with all available data, prove beyond a doubt that a Russian-made Buk surface-to-air missile exploded just off the front of the plane as it cruised at 33,000 feet. The pattern of shrapnel holes in the cockpit, and the shrapnel found in the bodies of three of the crew, match that found in this highly advanced Russian warhead.
The Board was also able to show that the missile was fired from inside a 320-square-kilometre area on the eastern edge of Ukraine – an area at the time controlled by Russia-backed rebels.
It is unlikely that whoever fired the missile deliberately targeted a foreign, civilian aircraft. It was probably a mistake made by Russian-supported rebels who thought they were aiming at a Ukrainian plane. But the finding still makes Russia squirm, because Russia has always insisted, ludicrously, that its troops, weapons and proxies are not occupying parts of Ukraine. The fact that one of its missiles fired from inside Ukraine brought down Flight MH17 puts the lie to that claim.
It also explains why Russia refuses to accept the Safety Board's finding on the type of missile and warhead that was fired, insisting instead that it was an older model used by the Ukrainian military. Russia claims Ukraine shot down the plane, to make Russia look bad. The claim has never looked more ridiculous.
Another finding from the report is that there was a widespread failure on the part of Ukrainian authorities to recognize the growing dangers posed by routing commercial flights over the eastern part of their country.
Before July 17, the Ukrainian government had closed lower air space because of repeated attacks on its jets, but it left a high-altitude lane open for civil aviation.
"Ukraine had sufficient information to close the air space to civil aviation prior to July 17," the report found. "None of the parties involved recognized that the armed conflict in the eastern part of Ukraine would entail risks to civil aviation. Passengers should be able to trust the airline to have done everything possible to operate a flight safely. States should ensure that air space will be closed if it's unsafe to civil aviation."
While nothing here absolves Russia, it is still fair to say that the tragedy could have been avoided had the air space been closed. We now know that it should have been – and that despite the obvious danger, dozens of commercial flights flew over eastern Ukraine in the days leading up to the crash. In fact, there were four other flights nearby when Flight MH17 was hit. Ukraine should have warned international airliners to stay out the crossfire. But it was Russia that put Ukraine in its sights, and MH17 in the line of fire.