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The Week In Russia: A Crash Near The Border

A rescue worker surveys the site of a Russian military plane crash in the Belgorod region on January 24.
A rescue worker surveys the site of a Russian military plane crash in the Belgorod region on January 24.

I'm Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

Welcome to The Week In Russia, in which I dissect the key developments in Russian politics and society over the previous week and look at what's ahead.

Nearly a decade after the downing of MH17, a military transport plane that Moscow says was carrying 65 Ukrainian POWs crashes in a region bordering Ukraine. Meanwhile, one of the Russians convicted of murder in a Western court over the MH17 disaster is sentenced in Russia – but not for that crime.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

10 Years, Two Crashes

When a passenger jet carrying 298 people blew to pieces in the air over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, there was a flood of disinformation and competing claims about the case, but the facts ultimately came to light.

MH17 was shot down by a missile from a Russian launcher that was brought into territory held by Moscow-backed anti-Kyiv forces three months into the Donbas war and spirited back into Russia shortly afterward.

It’s unclear how much the world will ever know for sure about a plane crash on the other side of the border on January 24, when a Russian military transport jet slammed into the ground in the Belgorod region.

Russia said that there were 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war on board, along with six crew members and three guards. It said there were no survivors, something that footage of the fiery crash strongly supported.

But the veracity of some of Russia’s other assertions about the plane – such as the claim that it was carrying POWs and the claim that it was shot down by Ukraine -- may never be established.

Why not?

For one thing, unlike MH17, the Il-76 crashed in Russia. There is zero chance that Moscow will heed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s call for an international investigation -- with the possible exception of a scenario in which the Kremlin would agree to such a probe for the purpose of imagery but set about to thwart it in various ways.

Claims And Blame

If any of Russia’s main claims about the crash is shown to be false, the whole narrative – the assertion that Ukraine killed its own citizens in a reckless attack on Russia -- would fall apart.

The Russian narrative would be severely undermined if Kyiv’s claim that Moscow had not given Ukraine proper notification of the flight in advance, as it said has been done for previous prisoner swaps, proves to be accurate. That would suggest that Russia – deliberately or negligently – put the plane and everybody on board at risk of a Ukrainian attack.

Regardless of the cause, there are obviously many differences between the Il-76 crash and the downing of MH17, which killed all 298 passengers and crew on board the commercial flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur – men, women, and children from the Netherlands and nine other countries.

One difference is that while a single, coherent Russian narrative took shape very soon after the crash this week, Russia presented an array of sometimes conflicting claims and insinuations after MH17 crashed in an area held by Russia-backed forces.

Eventually, they all fell apart. In terms of efforts to bring people involved in the shoot-down to justice, the main results so far are the murder convictions and life sentences handed down in absentia to two Russians and one pro-Moscow Ukrainian separatist by a Dutch court in November 2022.

That ruling came nine months after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine – which, in turn, followed almost eight years of war fomented by Moscow in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. The downing of MH17 drew the world’s attention to the Donbas war, which had started three months earlier.

Given the enormity of the war in Ukraine since the full-scale invasion -- the biggest in Europe since 1945 -- the events of 2014 can seem distant and are sometimes forgotten, despite their direct link to the current phase of the conflict.

'Cowardly Mediocrity'

But a key figure in Russia’s seizure of Crimea and the start of the Donbas war was in the news again this week: Igor Girkin, who is one of the two Russians convicted of murder by the Dutch court for the downing of MH17.

Girkin, who was better known at the time by his made-up name, Strelkov, was convicted by a Russian court on January 25 – not in absentia this time, as he has taken refuge from international justice in Russia – and sentenced to four years in prison.

But not for MH17.

Girkin -- a Russian nationalist who supports Russia’s war on Ukraine but has criticized the way Putin has waged it, calling him a “nonentity” and a person of “cowardly mediocrity” -- was convicted of making public calls for extremist activities.

The conviction was a signal to other nationalist hawks whose criticism of the Kremlin comes from the opposite side as that of the much-persecuted liberal opposition. It suggested that Putin felt it could be dangerous to leave Girkin without punishment.

But the relatively moderate statute and sentence may indicate that the Kremlin does not want to come down on Russians who are in favor of aggression against Ukraine.

The Clampdown

By contrast, critics who oppose the war have received longer sentences – in some cases much longer.

Vladimir Kara-Murza, an opposition politician who accused what he called the “dictatorial regime in the Kremlin” of committing “war crimes” in Ukraine shortly after the full-scale invasion, was convicted of treason and sentenced 25 years in prison last April.

The trials of Kara-Murza and other critics of the war are part of a clampdown that has intensified in the last decade and has been ramped up still further by the state since February 2022.

The state has targeted opposition activists, civil society, independent media, and all forms of dissent – and in some cases, Western journalists.

Alsu Kurmasheva, an RFE/RL journalist and dual U.S.-Russian citizen who was prevented from leaving Russia last June and was arrested in October, spent her 100th day behind bars on January 25.

Kurmasheva has been charged with failing to ask the Russian government to register her as a “foreign agent” and of spreading falsehoods about the Russian military. She and RFE/RL deny the charges – which carry maximum prison terms of five and 10 years, respectively -- and say Moscow is punishing her for her journalistic work.

One day later, a Moscow court denied a request for U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal correspondent held in pretrial detention since March 2023 on an espionage charge that he, the newspaper, and the U.S. government reject, to be released to house arrest. He could be sentenced to 20 years in prison if convicted.

That's it from me this week.

If you want to know more, catch up on my podcast The Week Ahead In Russia, out every Monday, here on our site or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts).


Steve Gutterman

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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About This Newsletter

Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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And be sure not to miss Steve's The Week Ahead In Russia podcast. It's posted here every Monday or you can subscribe on iTunes or on Google Podcasts.

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