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Ukraine alleges that Putin was involved in 2014 Malaysia passenger jet downing

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 passengers and crew. It was a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, downed over an area controlled by Russian-backed separatists. Investigations have shown that the plane was brought down by a missile supplied by the Russian military. Now, investigators say Russian President Vladimir Putin was personally responsible for the decision to supply it. NPR's Tim Mak was at The Hague this week for that announcement. Hi, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

SHAPIRO: The investigation's been going on for years. What has it uncovered?

MAK: So the investigation team is led by the Netherlands, and it's supported by investigators from Malaysia, Ukraine, Australia, Belgium - all countries which had victims from the flight. The investigators found the kind of missile that was used to bring the flight down, where it was launched from and the missile system - and the fact that the missile system was returned to Russia afterwards. Now, a Dutch court has already sentenced three men to life in prison in absentia for their roles in the downing of the flight. But this week, the investigation team said their probe has stalled after 8 1/2 years. They couldn't identify the specific soldiers that fired what are called BUK-TELAR missiles. That's the system that took down the plane. I asked Dutch prosecutor Digna van Boetzelaer why.

DIGNA VAN BOETZELAER: For war crimes, you have to know - we have to know more about what happened in that BUK-TELAR. What was the order? What did they know about their target? How was the information? And because we do not have the crew, we do not know that.

MAK: The answer to those questions, the investigators say, are in Russia. And the Russian government has declined to cooperate with these investigators, not to mention has previously denied having any involvement.

SHAPIRO: Well, what did investigators say about Russian President Vladimir Putin's role specifically?

MAK: Well, they held what could be their final press conference this week at The Hague. And they released a new piece of information, this time implicating Vladimir Putin personally. They said they had a phone call intercept from 2014 that indicated that Putin personally approved the delivery of the missile system used to shoot down the commercial flight. That call shows a Russian official alluding to Putin, investigators say, and announcing that only Putin personally would be able to make a decision as important as transferring powerful anti-aircraft systems to the Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. And they also played a second intercepted phone call that included Putin himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Russian).

PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAK: It shows Putin getting briefed by a pro-Russian separatist in 2017. That's three years after the downing of MH17. That's the flight that we're talking about. It illustrates how intimately involved Putin was in the war and all its details. Now, investigators clearly wanted to put all this information in the public record. But they admit two things - that the current evidence does not reach the high bar necessary to prosecute anyone else and that Putin himself has legal immunity under Dutch law because he's a sitting head of state.

SHAPIRO: Well, how are families of victims reacting to these developments?

MAK: Well, obviously, there's some frustration that the investigation is now stalled. I spoke to Pete Plug about this. His brother, his brother's wife and his nephew were on the plane. He said he was shocked about how important a role Putin had played in the shootdown personally.

PETE PLUG: He always denied any responsibility. He always denied that they were present in Ukraine. He lied. He lied. He lied. But now we heard and we saw it in the taped conversation that he absolutely was involved in what happens in Ukraine.

MAK: Plug said that having the truth out about Putin - about those responsible for the killing of his brother was almost as important as additional prosecutions. He said he wants Putin to admit Russia was responsible, that the admission itself would help give him and other victims' families closure.

SHAPIRO: NPR investigative correspondent Tim Mak at The Hague. Thank you.

MAK: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.