Russian officials are conducting a “callous disinformation campaign” to obscure their role in the violence in Ukraine, according to the State Department’s top spokesperson.
Russia has long denied any involvement in the conflict, but the diplomatic clash with the United States was rekindled after international investigators this week concluded that a Russian military surface-to-air missile was used to shoot down a civilian passenger jet in 2014. Russian leadership dismissed the investigation as a mere smear, even as Western powers demanded Russian President Vladimir Putin accept responsibility and end the conflict.
“It is time for Russia to acknowledge its role in the shooting down of MH-17 and to cease its callous disinformation campaign,” Nauert told reporters Friday.
It was her second statement on the issue in a 14-hour period, in response to Russian claims that the Dutch-led investigation was biased. “It feels like a deja-vu, but if our partners have once again decided to speculate on the deaths of hundreds of people to achieve their political goals, I will leave it to their conscience,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said earlier Friday.
Putin’s office took a similar line. “The investigation was carried out in the Netherlands, this investigation team did not include the Russian side, though the Ukrainian side was represented,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “Certainly, without having the possibility to be a full-fledged party, Russia does not know to what degree the conclusions of this endeavor can be trusted.”
Dutch officials led the probe because the Malaysian Airlines jet was downed while flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lampur, killing 298 people. Nauert endorsed the findings Thursday, but took a more prosecutorial tone Friday morning.
“[T]he BUK missile launcher used to bring down the passenger aircraft is owned by the Russian Federation and was assigned to the Russian 53rd anti-aircraft brigade near Kursk,” she said in the statement. “It was brought into sovereign Ukrainian territory from Russia, was fired from territory controlled by Russia and Russia-led forces in eastern Ukraine, and was then returned to Russian territory.”
Russia, as a rule, denies any military involvement in the Ukraine crisis. But Lavrov admitted to joining the fray on at least one occasion, justifying the action as a defense of ethnic Russians against the Ukrainian central government. “Had we not done what we did, we would have betrayed our civilization which our forefathers developed over centuries and who then spread it over vast territories,” Lavrov said in July 2017.
Putin also admitted to intervening. “We never said there were not people there who carried out certain tasks including in the military sphere,” he claimed in 2015.
Russian officials had denounced previously any suggestion that they were involved. “I say every time: if you allege this so confidently, present the facts,” Lavrov said in 2014. “But nobody can present the facts, or doesn’t want to.”
Lavrov used that same defense in a conversation with Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok, likening the discussion to their denial of any involvement in the poisoning of a former Russian spy who was released to the United Kingdom after being convicted of treason.
“I asked him to provide facts to prove these allegations, but he failed to give any,” Lavrov said. “It is very much reminiscent of the Skripal case, when they said that Russians were ‘highly likely’ behind it but at the same time added that an investigation was still underway and would take some time.“
Nauert countered that the MH-17 disaster is of a piece with the broader violence in Ukraine.
“Russia’s aggression in Ukraine since 2014 has led to more than 10,300 conflict-related deaths, including those lost in the MH-17 tragedy,” she said. “It is more than time for Russia to end this violence.