I wrote a few days ago that the rebels in eastern Ukraine were holding the bodies of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 victims hostage in exchange for territory. It seems I spoke too soon, omitting an equally disturbing fact: Not only were the separatists using the bodies as collateral, but they were holding on to them, and the black boxes, as part of a public relations strategy geared toward legitimizing the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic.
News broke Monday that the separatists had agreed to turn over the black boxes to the Malaysian delegation dispatched to the scene. But come nightfall, according to multiple reports from the scene, nothing had been transferred, and “negotiations” between the Malaysians and the rebels were ongoing. What exactly they were negotiating is unclear, but judging from the proceedings that followed, it seems like the rebels want the MH17 wreckage to be the foundation upon which the Donetsk People’s Republic will be built.
After more than twelve hours of negotiations, both parties emerged for a press conference during which the leader of the Malaysian delegation thanked "His Excellency Mr. Borodai,” the prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, for turning over the black boxes. Borodai remarked that the agreement marked “an important day in the history of the Donetsk People's Republic," and proceeded to once again blame the Ukrainian government for downing the plane, the Kyiv Post's Christopher Miller reports. Borodai’s previous career in Moscow, let’s remember, was running public relations for a Russian oligarch, and this is not the first time he’s brought his professional expertise to the battlefield. The Malysian and separatist leaders both signed documents stamped with the official insignia of the Donetsk People’s Republic, and finally the separatists agreed to turn over the black boxes and the bodies.
The result of all this is that, as the Wall Street Journal’s Paul Sonne put it, Borodai and his cronies have won themselves a “tiny semblance of political legitimacy.” In doing so, they’ve all but compromised the investigation into the attack on flight 17. Now, OSCE investigators say the wreckage of the plane has been "hacked into" and many of the personal effects have gone missing. The Malaysians have control of the black boxes, which will be sent to the U.K. for analysis, but there’s no guarantee that the information they contain will help find out what took the plane down. While they could rule out a technical malfunction or clarify what kind of missile would have taken the plane down, as WSJ reports, they might not reveal much that has not already been gleaned from the wreckage. When Korean Air flight 007 was shot down in 1983, the black boxes recovered from the crash “yielded little of help or value,” Alexander Dallin writes in his book on the subject.
The fact that the rebels have successfully used MH17 as a political lever is heartbreaking, as the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Frans Timmermans conveyed to the U.N. Security Council in a moving speech yesterday. “Till my dying day, I will not understand that it took so much time for the rescue workers to be allowed to do their difficult jobs, and that human remains should be used in a political game,” Timmermans said. “I hope the world will never have to witness this ever again, anytime in the future.”