It only took a few hours of examining the crash site of flight 752 outside Tehran for a team of Ukrainian experts to ascertain that the Ukrainian Airlines jet had been brought down by a missile, security officials in Kyiv say.
In Ukraine, the tragedy has been met with a shocked sense of deja vu on two fronts. First, there are the inevitable comparisons with MH17, brought down over the east of the country by a Russian missile five years ago. But there is also an overarching sense of confusion over how – yet again – the country has been dragged into a conflict not of its own making.
“Ukraine seems to have a dark cloud over it,” said Alina Polyakova of the Brookings Institution. “It’s fighting a war against Russia, and has become part of the political war in the US. This tragedy again puts Ukraine in the middle of conflicts that have nothing to do with it.”
While the plane’s shooting down had a terrible cost in human life, Ukraine’s unwanted starring role in the US impeachment disaster has come with costs to military aid, political alliances and reputation.
“It’s a catastrophe,” said Pavlo Klimkin, who was the country’s foreign minister until last August. “Ukraine now has the reputation of a place that can cause all kinds of trouble. It’s the opposite of everything we were working for.”
The Trump administration’s engagement with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy has been borderline contemptuous. Zelenskiy has still not been offered a White House meeting, and a recent planned visit from secretary of state Mike Pompeo meant to show support to Ukraine was cancelled due to the escalating tensions in the Middle East.
The way the Americans shared evidence with Ukraine over the missile that hit the plane seems to fit the pattern. On Thursday, sources in Washington were briefing journalists that they had evidence the Iranians had shot down the plane. Sources in London briefed the same to the Guardian, and Canada’s Justin Trudeau was confident enough to make a public statement blaming Tehran.
But nobody had bothered to share the evidence with the Ukrainians, leading to Zelenskiy authoring a plaintive Facebook text on Friday morning calling on western nations to share their intelligence.
Eventually, he had a meeting with the head of the US embassy in Ukraine, Kristina Kvien, which in itself tells a story. She is a temporary replacement for William Taylor, who returned home recently after appearing at impeachment hearings and questioning the decision to withhold military aid for Kyiv. He, in turn, replaced Marie Yovanovitch, who was abruptly withdrawn from Ukraine by Donald Trump after a series of allegations by the president’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, against her.
The wreckage of the Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800 which crashed near Tehran, killing 176 people.
At home, Zelenskiy has been criticised for remaining cautious while other leaders accused Iran publicly, but it is hard to see what he could have done without being shown evidence.
It is also possible that his cautious rhetoric on who was responsible for shooting down the plane actually played in Ukraine’s favour. It meant the Ukrainian investigation group on the ground was given access to the site, where they appear to have found enough evidence of a missile attack to bounce the Iranians into publicly admitting on Saturday morning what they had known since Wednesday.
Without that hard evidence, the Iranians may have decided to play the same gruesome and offensive game as the Kremlin has over the shooting down of MH17, denying involvement in defiance of all the evidence.
But even if Ukraine’s sad involvement in the Middle East tensions will not drag on for months and years, there remains the longer-term issue of how to handle relations with the US, and it is not clear what Kyiv can do to extricate itself from the mess.
Trying to remain neutral in US domestic issues led to Trump’s notorious threats to withhold aid to the country. But currying favour by giving Giuliani and others around the White House what they want could result in a new round of distrust with a new US administration, should Trump lose the election later this year.
“Who wins the election will mean a lot for Ukraine in terms of solidarity and engagement,” said Klimkin.
He said “creative ideas” were needed for Ukraine to re-establish good ties with Washington.
Privately, Zelenskiy and his team must be praying for an uneventful year, followed by a change in the White House and a new chapter of US-Ukraine relations under a Democratic president. On the basis of the past few months though, Kyiv may not get what it wants.
“I don’t even know what to expect next. When will the country finally have a period of being lucky?” asked Ukrainian journalist Kristina Berdynskykh in a post on Twitter.
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