KYIV, Ukraine—Ukrainians of all generations know what it’s like to have a war in their homeland.
In World War II, Ukraine was the deadliest battlefield of the deadliest war in human history. And today, just 400 miles southeast of Ukraine’s capital city of Kyiv, Ukrainian soldiers remain hunkered down in trenches and improvised forts, facing their sixth straight winter at war against Russian forces in the country’s embattled Donbas region.
Tragedy struck Ukrainians again on the morning of Jan. 8, when a pair of Iranian surface-to-air missiles shot down a Ukrainian airliner outside Tehran, killing all 176 passengers and crew on board. The shoot-down happened only hours after Iran had fired ballistic missiles at bases in Iraq housing U.S. troops.
“I’m already used to military losses, but it’s terrible when completely innocent people die,” said Anatolii Stepanov, a Ukrainian conflict journalist. “I am truly sorry for these people who died on the plane.”
Tehran originally denied that its armed forces had shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, claiming, instead, that a mechanical failure caused the Boeing 737-800 to crash.
Yet, Ukrainian investigators on the ground in Iran immediately found telltale evidence of a missile strike in the aircraft’s wreckage. And data from U.S. satellites indicated that two Iranian surface-to-air missiles had struck the Ukrainian airliner.
With evidence of a shoot-down swiftly mounting, Tehran finally came clean on Jan. 11. In an extraordinary public mea culpa, the Islamist regime’s leaders admitted that their forces had shot down the Ukrainian jet due to “human error.”
The Iranian operator of the Russian-made, Tor M-1 surface-to-air missile system confused the Ukrainian airliner for a U.S. cruise missile, Iranian officials said. Yet, Tehran’s admission of guilt didn’t come without an attempt to also deflect some of the blame onto the U.S.
“Human error at time of crisis caused by US adventurism led to disaster,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted.
In Ukraine, the United States was not widely seen as complicit in Iran’s military blunder in shooting down Flight 752.
Rather, many Ukrainian officials questioned why Tehran left Iranian airspace open to civilian air traffic while the country’s air defenses were on high alert for retaliatory U.S. airstrikes or cruise missile attacks.
“Yes, I feel angry toward Iran,” said Iryna Vereshchuk, a Ukrainian member of parliament.
“After the Iranian authorities delivered a missile strike against Americans in the region, it would be just common sense to stop any passenger air traffic,” Vereshchuk told The Daily Signal in an email.
Iran has long used its proxies across the Middle East to attack and harass American personnel and interests, as well as those of U.S. allies.
A tit-for-tat escalatory cycle came to a head Jan. 3 when President Donald Trump authorized a targeted drone airstrike that killed Qassim Suleimani, commander since 1998 of Iran’s Quds Force, the unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that conducts military and spy operations outside Iran.
In retaliation for Suleimani’s death, Iran launched some 15 ballistic missiles Jan. 8 against U.S. targets in Iraq. Iran’s air defenses subsequently braced in anticipation of a U.S. counterpunch. All the while, civilian air traffic continued to fly.
On social media platforms, many Ukrainians criticized Tehran for effectively using civilian airliners as a way to shield Iran’s armed forces from American airpower.
“It’s hard for me to believe that this was just a simple mistake by the Iranian military,” Stepanov told The Daily Signal. “I do not consider this an instance of Ukraine getting caught in the crossfire. For almost six years Ukraine has been in a state of unconventional war. And this is, perhaps, just another one of its episodes.”
Russia maintains de facto military and political control over the two so-called separatist territories in eastern Ukraine. Despite a February 2015 cease-fire, fighting in the Donbas continues. Ukrainian combat casualties maintain a steady rate of about one death every three days, which has persisted for years.
“Again, we grieve for the dead. We are dealing with yet another tragedy—we just cannot seem to stay away from world events,” said Oleksandr Engel, a Ukrainian veteran, in reference to the downing of Flight 752.
“After almost six years of war, another difficult and crucial year awaits us,” Engel said.
Iran’s admission of guilt three days after shooting down Flight 752 stands in stark contrast with Moscow’s ongoing denials that its armed forces were responsible for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine’s eastern warzone in July 2014.
A Dutch investigative team concluded there was “no doubt” a Russian Buk surface-to-air missile, operated by a Russian ground crew from within territory controlled at the time by pro-Russian separatists, shot down the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 airliner, killing all 298 passengers and crew.
For its part, Moscow continues to deny its responsibility for the MH17 disaster.
Therefore, despite the widespread anger and frustration toward Tehran for its tragic blunder, many Ukrainians also expressed a sense of relief that Iran had at least partially come clean.
“The one thing that we definitely didn’t want to happen is for this tragedy to become the subject of yet another disinformation campaign,” said Oleksandra Tsekhanovska, a research officer at the Kyiv-based Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group.
“As for now, I can only say that the most important thing for us is to establish all the facts and get clear answers,” Tsekhanovska said of the ongoing Flight 752 investigation.
“One can never get used to tragedies like this. Never,” Vereshchuk, the Ukrainian member of parliament, told The Daily Signal. “But the families of those who were on board the plane deserve to know the truth, irrespective of the politics.”
Iranian personnel said they’ve recovered Flight 752’s black boxes—the devices used to record an aircraft’s voice and flight data, which are often a key piece of evidence used by accident investigators to determine the cause of an aviation mishap.
However, as of this article’s publication, Ukrainian officials were still calling on Iran to hand over Flight 752’s black boxes for an independent investigation.
“I am genuinely offended by the reluctance of the Iranian authorities to immediately give us the plane’s black boxes,” said Stepanov. “It seems to me humiliating for my country.”
“The coming days and weeks will show how willing the Iranian authorities are to support the type of investigation expected by the grieving nations,” wrote Michael Bociurkiw, a global affairs analyst, in a Thursday op-ed for The Globe and Mail.
“It will also show whether a regime known more for brutality than compassion can provide a sense of dignity for the innocent men, women and children senselessly killed in the crash,” added Bociurkiw, who was a Canadian member of the international team of observers that investigated the MH17 crash site in 2014.
With the memory of MH17 in mind, some Ukrainian officials have also questioned why Ukraine International Airlines—the nation’s flag carrier—allowed its jets to keep flying within Iranian airspace just hours after Iran fired its missiles at U.S. forces in Iraq.
Shutting down Ukrainian flights over Iran “would have allowed us to prevent this tragedy,” said Andrii Ryzhenko, the Ukrainian navy’s deputy chief of staff for Euro-Atlantic integration.
“We have experience from MH17… Ukrainian state authorities shouldn’t have allowed any flights in [Iranian airspace],” Ryzhenko told The Daily Signal. “Logic and a realistic sense of danger must always be a full concern for the security of our people. In this case it was probably not a priority factor. A very sad tragedy.”
Ukraine International Airlines officials defended their decision to let Flight 752 go ahead, saying that its personnel received no advanced warning from Iran about an increased surface-to-air missile threat.
“If you play at war, you play as much as you want, but there are normal people around who you had to protect,” Ukraine International Airlines Vice President Ihor Sosnovsky told reporters in Kyiv.
“If they are shooting from somewhere to somewhere, they were obliged to close the airport. Obliged. And then shoot as much as you want,” Sosnovsky said of Iran’s air defenses on the morning of Jan. 8.
The Ukrainian airline has since announced that it’s suspending all flights to Tehran “until further notice.” The Ukrainian Aviation Administration also banned all flights in Iranian airspace.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration issued a prohibition Jan. 8 banning U.S. aircraft from operating in Iraq, Iran, the Persian Gulf, and the Gulf of Oman, citing “heightened military activities and increased political tensions in the Middle East, which present an inadvertent risk to U.S. civil aviation operations due to the potential for miscalculation or misidentification.”
However, experts say most U.S. carriers already avoided the region prior to Jan. 8.
The Iranian ground crew operating the Russian-made, Tor surface-to-air missiles, which U.S. intelligence suggests brought down the Ukrainian airliner, should have been able to tell from their radar data that they were looking at a civilian aircraft, experts say.
A Boeing 737 on departure, like the Ukrainian flight, would be flying at an airspeed of about 250 knots, and a rate of climb of about 2,500 feet per minute. For a well-trained Tor surface-to-air missile operator, a plane flying like that would clearly not be an American warplane or cruise missile.
Therefore, if Iran’s account is to be believed, then the Iranian ground crew demonstrated “extraordinary incompetence,” said Oleksiy Melnyk, a former Soviet Air Force fighter pilot and Ukrainian air force commander who is now co-director of Foreign Relations and International Security Programs at the Razumkov Center, a Ukrainian think tank.
“Even an inexperienced ground crew should have easily been able to tell from their radar data that they were looking at a civilian airliner,” Melnyk told The Daily Signal. “It’s really hard to understand how this happened.”
Iran’s version of events took another hit Tuesday when The New York Times verified a new video showing that two Iranian missiles struck the Ukrainian jet some 30 seconds apart.
The time interval between the two missiles casts further doubt over Iran’s claim that the shoot-down of Flight 752 was a single, accidental mistake by an Iranian ground crew member who had only seconds to differentiate the Boeing 737-800 from a U.S. cruise missile.
“We hope that we’ll be able to bring to criminal accountability the perpetrators of this crime. And we are not just talking about some poor soldier who pushed the button,” Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Vadym Prystaiko told CNN.
“We made it clear when [Ukrainian] President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy talked to [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani that we want to know who gave the order, the whole link. We have to find out who is responsible for the deaths of our people,” Prystaiko said.
On Wednesday, Kyiv announced that it would give a compensation payment of $8,319 to each family of the 11 Ukrainians who died on Flight 752. Ukrainian officials also demanded that Tehran compensate the victims’ families.
“No compensation will dull the pain of this tragedy, but we stand for justice,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk said on Wednesday.
According to a Ukraine International Airlines manifest, 63 Canadians were aboard Flight 752. The flight also carried passengers from Iran, Ukraine, Sweden, Afghanistan, Germany, and the United Kingdom. No U.S. citizens were listed on board.
On Thursday, representatives of countries that lost citizens on Flight 752 met at the Canada House in London to begin drafting a plan to demand compensation from Iran for the victims’ families.
“We are judging Iran every day. Iran has a choice, and the world is watching. They can take a path and allow us to get to the bottom of things,” Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said at Thursday’s meeting in London.