The Downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17: Russia in the Dock

By Dr Jonathan Eyal, International Director and International Studies Director
RUSI Analysis | 18 Jul 2014

Did Russian rebels in Ukraine mistakenly shoot down the Malaysian airliner? Russian President Vladimir Putin will try to deny any responsibility, but at the very least his country bears a moral culpability for the episode, and Russia will pay a heavy diplomatic price for this tragedy.


As befits his previous intelligence training – albeit not at a very high rank – Russian President Vladimir Putin is a master of obfuscation, and clearly hopes to brazen out the crisis surrounding the destruction of Malaysian Airlines’ flight MH17 in the same manner he has dealt with many of his previous crises: by implying that Russia is not responsible, while at the same time giving nothing away which could be subsequently refuted by any evidence to the contrary which could emerge. ‘I want to note that this tragedy wouldn’t have occurred if there had been peace on this land’, Mr Putin told a hurried meeting of his country’s ministers yesterday, before adding that ‘of course, the government on whose territory this occurred is responsible’. Or, put slightly differently ‘who did it is less important than the fact that it happened, and it happened on someone else’s turf’.

Yet it is unlikely that Russia will be able to maintain this position much longer. For evidence into who supplied and operated the precision weapons used in shooting down the civilian airliner is sure to accumulate in the days to come. And, awkwardly for Mr Putin, evidence continues to mount that local rebels tied to Moscow were responsible for the destruction of the MH17 flight.

Civilian aircraft at a regular cruising altitude of 10 kilometres – as the MH17 was at the time when it was brought down, almost two hours into its flight out of Amsterdam in the Netherlands – are not easy targets. They cannot be hit by shoulder-held missiles or anti-aircraft artillery which are out of range, they are only vulnerable to precision weapons such as the BUK missile batteries which are in the Russian military service, but which were also supplied to all of Russia’s neighbours. And, while the BUK missiles are mobile and do have their own operating radar, they rely on more integrated radar systems to hit a faraway target like a civilian airliner.

Since these are only available to states rather than various rebels and since the fighting in Ukraine is not officially between governments, the assumption was that global civilian aviation was safe from the internal civil war which has disfigured this country since February. That is why neither national nor regional flight control agencies, nor bodies such as the International Civil Aviation Organisation ever advised airlines to avoid fights over Ukraine; after all, no overflight ban is enforced over Afghanistan, a country which has experienced a decade of far bloodier military confrontations.

The Likely Culprits

What appears to have happened is that pro-Russian rebels mistakenly aimed at the MH17 flight, probably in the belief that it was a Ukrainian military transport jet of the kind they regularly attack. But it’s impossible to believe that they could have successfully hit their target without radar and other logistical support from the Russian military which, again, was probably unaware of the plane’s real identity. US intelligence agencies, which hold the largest quantity of electronic evidence available to piece together the final minutes of flight MH17, privately concede that this explanation is the most likely.

The race is on to collect as much evidence on the scene of the disaster as possible, and that would be the focus of the emergency UN Security Council debate which will take place today. But that, too, is easier said than done. For the area in which the MH17 place crashed is also one in which pro-Russian rebels operate, and some of them may now try to hide material evidence: there are persistent rumours in Ukraine that rebels have already spirited away key bits of evidence, such as the aeroplane’s ‘black box’ which records every action undertaken by the crew before the plane’s crash.

Still, incriminating evidence against Russia keeps popping up. Igor Strelkov, the Russian rebels’ commander in the area where the plane was hit, is on record as boasting about the downing of what he considered to be a Ukrainian aircraft at about the same time as the destruction of the MH17 flight. The Ukrainian authorities have also released a recording of a phone conversation between ethnic rebels and their patrons back in Moscow, in which they appear to admit to the destruction of the Malaysian Airways’ flight. But there is no independent confirmation of the accuracy of these recordings.

A Game Change

Within days, however, the real debate will shift from one about producing the right evidence and culprits, to more about what can be saved from the rapidly-deteriorating relations between Russia and the West.

The tragedy will stain Russia’s relations with the world for years to come. Nations determined to keep on good terms with Russia – such as China or Vietnam which relies on Russian weapon supplies and wishes these to continue – will keep quiet. And there will always be some plausible deniability, giving other countries enough room for manoeuvre to avoid accusing Russia directly for this disaster. But the culprits for the crime will be pursued by international investigators and tribunals. And many Russian officials will be added to the ‘wanted’ lists of police forces around the world. The story will linger, and won’t be pretty for Russian diplomats.

Given the fact that the majority of the victims are European citizens, it is also getting increasingly difficult to see how France would be able to deliver the Mistral ships which Russia ordered for its navy, or how Britain could continue shielding Russia from financial sanctions. And, given the fact that scores of US citizens were also killed on the MH17 flight means that the US Congress will demand greater sanctions on Russia, making any improvement in relations with Washington highly unlikely.

The MH17 tragedy has, therefore, the potential to be a game-changer. But the snag is that this could go in either direction: it could either force Russia to move to a quick compromise over Ukraine, or it could precipitate a more vicious round of fighting in Ukraine which escapes anyone’s control.

Putin could decide to stop supplying weapons to the rebels, and even remove some of the higher-edge hardware supplied to them. He may also consider accepting a mission by the OSCE which will observe the border between Ukraine and Russia, in order to prevent further supplies of weapons to the separatists in Ukraine. But that will entail Mr Putin eating a great deal of humble pie, by accepting that his gamble to support the creation of a separatist army which can be permanently be relied upon to do Russia’s bidding inside Ukraine had failed.

Given Putin’s past record, it’s much more likely that he will just decide to brazen out this crisis by pretending that it has nothing to do with him. Yet, try as hard as he may, there is no escape from the conclusion that the supposed master-tactician in the Kremlin has now ended up shooting himself in the foot, that a Ukraine crisis which Putin thought he could control is now escalating in ways he never imagined.


Obama Points to Pro-Russia Separatists in Downing of Malaysia Airlines Plane
NYT | JULY 18, 2014

WASHINGTON — President Obama said Friday that the United States believed the Malaysia Airlines jetliner felled over eastern Ukraine had been shot down by a surface-to-air missile from an area inside Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists. He demanded a prompt international inquiry as signs emerged that separatists were impeding an assessment of the crash site by outside monitors.

Mr. Obama’s remarks at the White House were the strongest public suggestions yet from the United States of who was responsible for the downing of the plane, which exploded, crashed and burned on Thursday on farmland in eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people aboard.

Mr. Obama said the loss of life was an “outrage of unspeakable proportions” and a “global tragedy.” He vowed to investigate exactly what had happened to end the lives of “men, women, children, infants who had nothing to do with the crisis” in the region. He also said that at least one American was among the dead.

“We are going to make sure the truth is out,” Mr. Obama said, referring to what he described as a trove of misinformation that had already shrouded the plane crash.

“We don’t have time for propaganda,” he said. “We don’t have time for games.”

The president said the violence in the region must not obstruct an independent investigation of the plane’s destruction, and he called on Russia, Ukraine and the Russian-backed separatists to agree to an immediate cease-fire. “Evidence must not be tampered with,” Mr. Obama said. “Investigators need to access the crash site. And the solemn task of returning those who were lost onboard the plane to their loved ones needs to go forward immediately.”

While separatists guarding the crash site allowed some Ukrainian government rescue teams to enter and begin collecting bodies, they were less cooperative with a team of monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe who wanted to secure a safe route for the investigation and salvaging operations.

Reuters quoted Thomas Greminger, chairman of the O.S.C.E.’s permanent council in Vienna, as saying that armed separatists had prevented the monitors from gaining full access to the site. “In the current circumstances, they were not able to help securing this corridor that would allow access for those that would want to investigate,” he was quoted as saying.

There were reports that some separatists had fired at the monitors, but the O.S.C.E. said in a Twitter message that those claims were untrue.

Mr. Obama spoke after Samantha Power, the American ambassador to the United Nations, told an emergency Security Council meeting on the Ukraine conflict that there was “credible evidence” that pro-Russia separatists and their Russian associates in eastern Ukraine were responsible for the crash.

The Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200 — Flight 17, from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia — was at a cruising altitude of 33,000 feet on a commonly used air route over eastern Ukraine when it was struck on Thursday.

Both Russia and the separatist groups deny any responsibility, and some rebel leaders suggest that Ukraine’s armed forces may have shot down the plane. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has implicitly blamed Ukraine’s government, saying it created the conditions for the separatist uprising that has escalated into a major crisis. But Mr. Putin has not denied that a Russian-made weapon may have destroyed the aircraft.

Mr. Obama resisted blaming Mr. Putin personally, saying that the United States did not know who had fired the missile. But he made clear that he held the Russians responsible for failing to stop the violence that made the downing possible.

“We know that they are heavily armed and they are trained,” Mr. Obama said. “That is not an accident. That is happening because of Russian support.” He said it was “not possible for these separatists to be functioning the way they are” without Russian support.

He said that the loss of the plane was a direct result of the fighting in the region, and that the violence had been “facilitated in large part because of Russian support.”

Mr. Obama said Mr. Putin could decide not to allow heavy armaments or troops to flow across the border from Russia into Ukraine. If Mr. Putin does that, he said, “then it will stop.”

In her remarks at the United Nations, Ms. Power said, “We assess Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 carrying these 298 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was likely downed by a surface-to-air missile, an SA-11, operated from a separatist-held location in eastern Ukraine.” She said the United States could not “rule out technical assistance by Russian personnel” in operating the system.

Asked later to respond to the American accusations of Russian support, Vitaly I. Churkin, Russia’s United Nations ambassador, declined to comment.

The 15-member Security Council called unanimously for a “full, thorough and independent international investigation” into the cause of the crash. Jeffrey D. Feltman, the United Nations under secretary general for political affairs, told the council that 80 children were among the dead.

Ms. Power’s assertions were echoed by two senior Defense Department officials, who said the Pentagon and American intelligence agencies had concluded that an SA-11 missile, fired from an area near the Russia border, had downed the plane.

That conclusion was based on an analysis of the launch plume and trajectory of the missile, as detected by an American military spy satellite. The analysis did not pinpoint the origin of the missile or identify who launched it. But a senior Defense Department official said the Americans believed the missile had been launched “from several kilometers inside the Ukrainian border.”

Ukrainian officials, who have called the downing a terrorist attack carried out by the separatists, have referred to the missile by a different name, Buk M1. The Ukrainian armed forces have Buk M1 missiles, which separatists may have purloined.

“The analysts are still trying to get detailed granularity on that,” a senior Pentagon official said. “Those are the million-dollar questions.”

There was also no indication on Friday of a motive, though most American analysts have concluded that the missile operators believed they were firing at a Ukrainian military plane, not a civilian jetliner.

American officials identified the lone American passenger known to have been aboard as Quinn Lucas Schansman, a dual citizen of the United States and the Netherlands.

In Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, the Foreign Ministry announced that it planned to transport the victims to a special laboratory in the northeast city of Kharkiv, outside of rebel control, and was arranging visas and free hotel accommodations in Kiev and Kharkiv for relatives of the victims, whose nationalities spanned more than nine countries.

Source: Ukrainian Council of National Security and Defense

Ukrainian officials also said that some of the work of emergency responders at the crash site, near the mining town of Grabovo, had been hindered by the separatists, but that workers had recovered 181 bodies by midday on Friday. More than half of the passengers were Dutch.

Kostyantyn Batozsky, an adviser to the Donetsk regional governor, said in a telephone news conference that the aircraft voice and data recording devices had been recovered by Ukrainian emergency services workers whom the rebels had granted access to the crash site. But he said he did not know the current location of the devices or who had possession of them.

At the same time, Aleksandr Borodai, the pro-Russian rebel who leads the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, told reporters that his group had the so-called black boxes and intended to turn them over to officials at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which will be helping to secure the scene. Mr. Borodai said that Dutch and Malaysian officials had informally asked his group to leave the debris and bodies untouched.

The fighting in eastern Ukraine between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian separatists has involved the successful use of missiles against aircraft at higher and higher altitudes.

Russia’s Defense Ministry, in denying any responsibility, noted that units of the Ukrainian Army possessed the Buk M1 air-defense missile launchers mentioned as the possible weapon that felled the jetliner. Much of the speculation surrounding the crash has focused on that system, particularly because the pro-Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine bragged on social media in late June that they had taken possession of a Buk system after capturing a Ukrainian military base.

The crash remained the subject of intense debate in Grabovo as residents tried to come to grips with what had unfolded in the fields where they work, just yards from their homes.

Two villagers said quietly that they had seen the flash of a rocket in the sky around the time the plane went down. A man named Victor, who said he was too afraid to give his last name, said that he had been in his garden at the time and that he had seen “the light coming from a rocket.”

He said it had come from the direction of Snizhne, a city where the Ukrainians have been bombing rebel positions frequently for more than a week. “It was a rocket, I’m sure of it,” he said.

The other villager, Sergei, 15, who also did not want to give his last name, said he had been swimming in a nearby river when he saw what appeared to be a rocket being launched into the sky. He said he had jumped out of the water, hopped on his motorbike and sped home.

As a cloudy dawn came, the full horror in the field was on display. Small white pieces of cloth dotted the grassy farmland, marking the spots of bodies.

Four rebels in fatigues wandered through the ruins, looking through people’s belongings, guidebooks and bags. Asked who was responsible for the crash, they looked incredulous and said that it had of course been the Ukrainian military.

“This wasn’t ours,” said a rebel who identified himself only as Alexei, looking at an overhead bin in the grass with a rifle over his shoulder. “Why would we do this? We’re not animals.”

The smell of flesh hung heavily near a broken hulk of metal on the road where a body lay splayed. A foot with part of a leg was on the road.

The plane appeared to have broken apart at a great height, and pieces were scattered across fields for several miles. The two wings lay akimbo, as if pushed forward on impact. The plane had been full of fuel when it crashed, and the fire near the engine was fierce, turning the twisted metal remains into molten pools that hardened by morning.

“This is direct provocation of the E.U. and the U.S.,” said a rebel, Alexander Nikolaevich, who was walking along the road near the scene. “You see our weapons,” he said, pointing to his aging gun. “We started to win the war, and the fascists did this to stop us.”

When asked if the fight would continue, he said, “A little bit.”

In Malaysia, there was mourning on a Ramadan Friday. Malaysians, shocked at the loss of a second Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200 — it has been just four months since a plane disappeared en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur — wondered openly why Flight 17 had been flying over an area where increasingly powerful surface-to-air missiles were being used.

In a statement delivered before dawn in Kuala Lumpur, Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia noted pointedly that the International Civil Aviation Organization had declared the airspace safe and that the International Air Transport Association had not restricted travel there. “We must, and we will, find out precisely what happened to this flight,” Mr. Najib said.

Ukrainian and European air traffic controllers had continued to route civil flights over the contested area even as the fighting worsened, and even as flights directed by Russian controllers had apparently started to avoid it.

Ukrainian intelligence officials have pointed to a fighter named Igor Bezler, the militia leader in the eastern town of Gorlovka, saying he was heard in an intercepted phone call saying that his men had “shot down a plane” on Thursday. Several assassinations are believed to have happened under Mr. Bezler’s watch soon after his forces took Gorlovka, and he took responsibility for killing a number of Ukrainian militiamen in the town of Volnovakha some weeks ago.

According to Russian Internet sources, he was born in 1965 in Crimea and studied in Russia. He served in the Russian military but moved back to Ukraine in 2003, where he began to work as the head of security for a factory in Gorlovka. Biographies also note that he had worked in a company that performed burial services but was fired in 2012. He has been wanted by the Ukrainian authorities since April.

Mr. Bezler’s nom de guerre is Bes, which in Russian sounds like the first syllable of his last name, but also means demon. There are rumors that he does not get along with other militia leaders and that he has had street battles with the Vostok Battalion, though rebels have dismissed those allegations.

In a slickly produced video called “Heroes of Novorossii,” the name of the self-declared insurgent region, Mr. Bezler was shown wearing a light blue beret. He had blue eyes and a long mustache. In a recent interview with the Russian news agency RIA Novosti, he claimed to be holding 14 Ukrainian soldiers hostage and said the Ukrainian military had fallen apart, “much like the condition of the Russian military in the early 1990s.”

In the interview, Mr. Bezler said he was a Russian passport holder but had a residency permit in Ukraine. He said he sang the national anthem of the Soviet Union every morning and usually went to bed around 10:30 p.m. He confirmed that he had worked as head of security for the Gorlovka factory and claimed that he had been fired from the burial services company over a fight with the local mayor, who he said was demanding bribes.

The crash was another setback for Malaysia Airlines, which has already been struggling to recover from the loss of Flight 370, which vanished on March 8 during a red-eye flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The enduring mystery over that flight has severely hurt demand for Malaysia Airlines tickets, forcing the airline to offer budget-carrier prices even though it bears the costs of a full-service airline.

Michael D. Shear reported from Washington, Somini Sengupta from the United Nations and Sabrina Tavernise from Grabovo, Ukraine. Reporting was contributed by Eric Schmitt from Washington, Keith Bradsher and Christopher Buckley from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, David M. Herszenhorn from Kiev, Ukraine, Neil MacFarquhar from Moscow, and Rick Gladstone from New York.


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