MOSCOW — Within hours of Iran’s stunning admission Saturday that its missile mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane, Ukraine made a big reveal of its own. The country put out photos taken a day earlier of the plane’s parts riddled with small holes suggesting shrapnel damage.
Well before Iran finally admitted the plane was shot down, Ukraine had realized that a missile destroyed Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 just outside of Tehran on Wednesday, killing all 176 on board. But Ukraine’s leadership had to tread a careful diplomatic path with that knowledge.
“The argument already didn’t exist for them to deny all this,” Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, told The Washington Post on Saturday.
Soon after the plane went down, U.S. officials and leaders from Canada and Britain told the world Thursday that they believed the plane was likely shot down by Iran. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked for that information to be shared with him but held off announcing any of Ukraine’s conclusions — a strategic decision, according to Danilov.
“We came to this conclusion before the Americans and Canadians,” he said.
Ukraine wanted its investigators to gather hard evidence of their own to prove that a missile had downed the plane, Danilov said, suggesting that their work ultimately pressured Iran into accepting responsibility. They were also careful to avoid sharp criticism of Iran during this time to ensure its cooperation in the probe.
Caught between the United States and Iran after a U.S. drone strike in Iraq killed the leader of the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Zelensky had the difficult task of securing the “cooperation of Western backers and Iran without being drawn into either side’s narrative of the Iran-U.S. conflict,” said Katharine Quinn-Judge, a Kyiv-based analyst for International Crisis Group.
Just four days after the plane went down, Zelensky announced that he and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, “agreed on full legal and technical cooperation, including compensation issues.”
“Once again Zelensky walked a thin diplomatic balance beam and came out without falling flat on his face,” said Nina Jankowicz, a scholar at the Wilson Center. “For a political novice, he seems to have a keen sense of exactly how to appease opposing factions in order to protect Ukraine’s interests.”
Ukraine now has the kind of closure from Iran it still hasn’t received from Russia for the July 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was shot down by a missile launched from rebel territory in eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 on board.
A joint investigative team from Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine identified a Russian military unit in charge of the antiaircraft missile system and has pursued prosecution of the Russian and Ukrainian citizens allegedly involved. Russia has continued to deny any part in the incident.
“When an airplane departed from a European capital five-plus years ago, Europe still hasn’t finished its investigation into this catastrophe and can’t say who’s guilty in this case,” Danilov said. “In our case, a lot less time has passed in order to understand what happened.”
A Ukrainian team of 45 experts and search-and-rescue personnel, including some who worked on the Malaysia Airlines case, arrived in Tehran early Thursday to investigate the cause of the crash and identify the bodies. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko said at a news conference in Kyiv on Friday that “as it happens with these cases, the investigation team is not happy.”
“They want to have more access, they want to have more rapid access,” Prystaiko said. “They want to have more info, and so and so forth. Whether this is justified as the requests, that is very difficult to tell.”
Photos purporting to be from the crash site posted on social media showed remnants of a missile from the Russian-made Tor air-defense system, known in NATO parlance as the SA-15 Gauntlet. Russia has exported the surface-to-air missile system to a number of countries, including Iran in 2005. It is designed to hit targets in the short to medium range. Danilov wrote on his Facebook page Thursday that he was interested in investigators scouring the crash site for that.
But among the challenges investigators faced was that the crash site was quickly cleared and bulldozed with parts of the plane taken to a nearby hangar. Ukraine didn’t get access to the black box until Friday. Prystaiko said that along with examining pieces of the plane and the chemical residue on it, investigators were also “analyzing the bodies of the people who perished in the crash” in a hospital.
Zelensky said DNA samples from relatives of the 11 Ukrainians who were on the plane were collected to help identify their bodies.
“Modern technology, the rapid exchange of information, the work with the information resources that we have today in the world — they give the ability to find answers to very difficult questions,” Danilov said. “We believe that they already understood that the option that it wasn’t them didn’t exist anymore.
“The analysis of the information that we had here — not in Tehran but in Ukraine — already pointed to fact that they had nothing to stand on,” he added.
Avoiding a bigger international rift is a significant hurdle cleared for Zelensky, a 41-year-old comedian who received overwhelming support in Ukraine’s election last spring. Less than a year into his term, he was been personally pulled into the impeachment proceedings against President Trump and has also been negotiating with Russia, France and Germany on ending the conflict with a swath of separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine.
In a video address to Ukrainians on Sunday night, Zelensky’s tone was solemn but triumphant.
“We worked systematically, without hysteria, for one thing: to achieve results, to find out the truth about the circumstances of the crash,” he said.
Stern reported from Kyiv.
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