Ukraine’s grief over the shooting down of one of the country’s passenger planes is unmissable – a pile of flowers and candles, as well as photos of some of the 176 people who died on board covers an expanding space of the floor at Kyiv’s main Boryspil airport, where Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 was supposed to have landed on Wednesday.
The memorial is the first thing you see when you arrive in the Ukrainian capital. Photographs of the 11 Ukrainians who died on board the plane – nine of whom were crew members – dominate the front pages of newspapers.
Just as clear is the anger over Iran’s admission that it shot Flight 752 out of the sky shortly after the plane took off from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport. After days of Iranian denials, Ukrainians find themselves struggling to believe Tehran’s new version that the shooting down was an accident.
“People are very angry. Many do not accept the version that this was an unintentional attack. They don’t believe the version that this was some individual military guy who made this decision on his own,” said Taras Berezovets, a Kyiv-based political analyst.
The Russian-made Tor anti-aircraft system that reportedly shot down Flight 752 requires the operator to choose the specific target on radar, and while the Iranian military says it thought it was shooting at an incoming U.S. cruise missile, the plane should have been identifiable as civilian.
Mr. Berezovets said many Ukrainians are also upset the flight wasn’t cancelled on a morning that Iran – less than three hours earlier – had launched ballistic missiles at U.S. military targets in neighbouring Iraq, and when Iran’s military was bracing for possible American retaliation. Some Ukrainians are also questioning why President Volodymyr Zelensky was slow to embrace the reality that the plane had been destroyed by a missile, Mr. Berezovets said.
Mr. Zelensky’s office was upset that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other Western leaders made public statements accusing Iran before sharing their evidence with Ukraine, according to a Ukrainian official whose identity The Globe and Mail is not revealing because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Mr. Berezovets said some Ukrainians believe Russia, which has warm ties with Iran, put pressure on Mr. Zelensky not to side with the West against Tehran. Mr. Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin are in the midst of delicate negotiations aimed at ending the six-year-old war between the Ukrainian army and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
“We saw from the beginning that the line of Zelensky towards Iran was done under the influence of Russia,” said Mr. Berezovets, who hosts a politics show on a channel seen as close to the country’s opposition. “The popularity of Justin Trudeau is very high right now in Ukraine, because people see he did everything to protect Ukrainians – unlike the President of Ukraine.”
The suggestion was rejected by Mr. Zelensky’s spokeswoman, Iuliia Mendel. She said that – with Iran initially denying that it had shot down the plane and multiple theories circulating – the government was simply trying not to inflame the situation.
“Ukraine was not pressed by any side during these several days when the investigation was [in progress],” Ms. Mendel said “We did not want to play with the emotions of those who already had suffered.”
Some argue that while Canada and the United States led the way in terms of accusing Iran of shooting down Flight 752, it may have been Ukraine’s slower-and-steady approach to dealing with Tehran that yielded results.
Ukraine – which unlike Canada and the U.S. has full diplomatic ties with Iran – dispatched a team of investigators to Tehran the day after the crash. It was quickly clear to them what had happened, even if they waited to make an announcement.
“Even before Iran changed its position, we knew,” Oleksiy Danilov, the head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, told BBC’s Ukrainian service on Sunday. “We couldn’t [say] it immediately in public, we had to work more. Iran is a very complicated country and we worried very much so that they don’t send our specialists back to the country.”
Sviatoslav Yurash, an MP from Mr. Zelensky’s Servant of the People party who sits on the Ukrainian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, told The Globe that a key moment was a “calm” phone call on Thursday between Mr. Zelensky and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
“That allowed us to have an agreement to have a team in Iran right away, and put pressure on Iran with the facts on the ground,” Mr. Yurash said. “And now we see the result.”