Russia supplied missile launchers to separatists, U.S. official says

Michael Birnbaum and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post | July 19, 2014

KIEV, Ukraine — The United States has confirmed that Russia supplied sophisticated missile launchers to separatists in eastern Ukraine and that attempts were made to move them back across the Russian border after the Thursday shoot-down of a Malaysian jet liner, a U.S. official said Saturday.

“We do believe they were trying to move back into Russia at least three Buk [missile launch] systems,” the official said. U.S. intelligence was “starting to get indications . . . a little more than a week ago” that the Russian launchers had been moved into Ukraine, said the official.

The official’s comments, made on condition of anonymity to speak about intelligence matters, came as a top Ukrainian counterintelligence official said his service has conclusive proof that Russia supplied the missile that shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over territory controlled by the separatists.

Aviation investigators from around the world were converging on Kiev on Saturday hoping to begin their work, but it remained unclear when they would gain full access to a mammoth site deep in rebel-held territory in the eastern part of the country. Ukrainian officials warned that the chance for an impartial inquiry was quickly slipping away as bodies were moved and at least some plane remnants were loaded onto trucks.

International observers were allowed only brief access to the site on Saturday and were restricted in their movements by the heavily armed rebels, some of whom appeared drunk, witnesses said.

“Their key task is to destroy possible evidence,” said Andriy Parubiy, head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council. “It will be hard to conduct a full investigation with some of the objects being taken away, but we will do our best.”

Ukraine and Western officials have said that Russia is providing support and equipment to the rebels.

The Kremlin has denied that it has sent weapons to the rebels, and it has continued to take a strong line against the West even after the plane crash, issuing sanctions Saturday against 13 Americans in retaliation for U.S. sanctions that were announced the day before Thursday’s attack on the plane.

Ukrainian officials said that at least 38 of the 192 bodies that have been discovered had been removed from the scene and taken to the nearby rebel-held city of Donetsk.

Temperatures have been in the 80s and the bodies have been rapidly decomposing, witnesses said.

Konstantin Batozsky, an adviser to Serhiy Taruta, governor of the Donetsk region, said these actions by the rebels were meant to undermine an independent investigation and to “make all the procedures illegitimate.”

Vitaly Nayda, counterintelligence chief of Ukraine’s security service, offered photographs and said Ukraine has evidence of the movement of three Buk M-1 antiaircraft missile systems from rebel-held territory into Russian territory early Friday, less than 12 hours after the plane was downed. Ukrainian officials have said that a missile from a Buk M-1 launcher was used to shoot down the aircraft.

Two of the antiaircraft systems were spotted entering Russia from Ukraine at 2 a.m. Friday, he said. One had its full complement of four missiles, but the other was missing a missile, he said. Two hours later, he said, a convoy of three vehicles that included one of the launchers and a control truck crossed into Russia.

The U.S. official said they could not confirm the exact time cited by the Ukrainians.

Nayda said that Ukrainian military services had not left any operational Buk M-1 launchers in territory where the rebels could have seized them when they took over bases and territory in eastern Ukraine this year. He suggested they must have come from Russia and said Ukraine has evidence that at least one launcher system was on its territory Monday.

The rebels have denied possessing the launchers, although social media files linked to a rebel leader, Igor Girkin, appeared to boast of having the systems. The claims were deleted this week after the plane was shot down.

A top rebel leader said Saturday that his side was not tampering with the evidence, even as rebels on the scene appeared to be loading at least some parts of the plane onto trucks. The leader said he was eager for international investigators to come as soon as possible.

“Currently in this area there are no active hostilities,” Alexander Borodai told reporters in Donetsk. “But the situation may deteriorate at any time.”

Fighting raged elsewhere in the region Saturday, especially in Luhansk near the Russian border, where 16 civilians were killed, according to the city council’s Web site.

The attack on the plane and the subsequent treatment of the crime scene appear to be hardening European attitudes against Russia.

Most of the 298 victims were Dutch citizens, and the chaos Saturday drew a harsh condemnation from Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who said he had told Russian President Vladmir Putin “that the opportunity is fading to quickly show the world that he is serious about wanting to help.” The Netherlands had previously been cautious about criticizing Russia, a major trading partner.

Rutte also lashed out at the rebels, saying he was “shocked by the images of completely disrespectful behavior” at the crash site. “This is outright disgusting,” he said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke to Putin on Saturday, asking him to “use his influence on the separatists” to arrange a cease-fire to allow investigators to pursue their work, a step the Kremlin said it supported.

Liow Tiong Lai, Malaysia’s minister of transportation, said his government is “deeply concerned the crash site not been properly secured and the integrity of the site has been compromised.” Blocking access to the site “cannot be tolerated,” he said.

Boeing 777, which killed 192 Dutch citizens, 44 Malaysians, 27 Australians, 12 Indonesians, 10 Britons, four Germans, four Belgians, three Filipinos, one Canadian and one person from New Zealand. One passenger held dual Dutch-U.S. citizenship.

In an op-ed column in the Sunday Times, British Prime Minister David Cameron said: “The growing weight of evidence points to a clear conclusion: that flight MH17 was blown out of the sky by a surface-to-air missile fired from a rebel-held area. If this is the case then we must be clear what it means: this is a direct result of Russia destabilising a sovereign state, violating its territorial integrity, backing thuggish militias and training and arming them.”

Cameron then called on Europe’s leaders to take action, saying that “for too long there has been a reluctance on the part of too many European countries to face up to the implications of what is happening in eastern Ukraine.”

The pro-Russian separatists had said Friday that they would allow the victims’ bodies to be transported out of rebel-held territory because they did not have enough refrigerated facilities for all of them. But Ukrainian officials said Saturday that they were still trying to negotiate safe passage for teams of investigators and international observers.

A spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said a team of 24 international observers had seen people moving bodies and putting them in body bags. The team was sharply restricted in what it could do and see, he said.

Rebels “have what they describe as experts, so-called experts here,” OSCE spokesman Michael Bociurkiw said. “They’ve brought body bags and they’re moving the bodies to the side of the road, as far as we can tell.”

“We don’t know who they are,” Bociurkiw said of the people moving the bodies. “We are unarmed civilians, so we’re not in a position to argue heavily with people with heavy arms.”

Karen DeYoung in Washington; Ferry Biedermann in Amsterdam; Annie Gowen in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and Karoun Demirjian in Moscow contributed to this report.



Why Putin Let MH17 Get Shot Down
Russia has been escalating its war in Ukraine for weeks. The urgency to win turned to recklessness.
James Miller
The Daily Beast | 07.18.14

President Putin has been recklessly escalating the crisis in eastern Ukraine since he was embarrassed and outmaneuvered by the Ukrainian president three weeks ago. Allowing a passenger jet to be shot down is the act of an increasingly desperate man.

The Kremlin ordered tanks, heavy weapons and Russian fighters to pour over the border stoking up the crisis until tragedy struck. We should have seen it coming; on Wednesday morning the front page of Foreign Policy magazine had a headline that should have sent shockwaves through the geopolitical landscape: Russia Is Firing Missiles At Ukraine.

The story followed several Russian citizens posting videos to social media which they said show GRAD rockets being fired from Russian territory toward Ukraine. By triangulating the different camera angles, my team at The Interpreter proved that the unguided rockets were indeed being fired into Ukraine from Russia. Thursday morning, there were reports that a group of Ukrainian soldiers had been hit by the rocket fire and were actually receiving medical treatment on the other side of the border, ironically enough in the same town from which the rockets had been launched in the first place.

This should have been huge news. How could things in Ukraine have deteriorated to the point where Putin was now engaged in such a reckless act of aggression? Of course, it was huge news… but for only a few hours. Quickly this headline was buried under the news that another Malaysian airlines flight was missing, and evidence is steadily growing that either Russian-backed separatists or Russia itself may have fired the missile that brought it down.

While much of the media is trying to figure out who shot this aircraft down, with what weapon and where it was obtained, it might be more instructive to focus instead on the ‘whys’ of this incident.

Why would Putin want to shoot down a commercial airliner? And if it was an accident, why would Putin allow the separatists to have a weapon this powerful without having full control over how it was used?

The answer to that question reveals that the situation in Ukraine, and in Moscow, is much, much worse than many had feared.

The first thing we have to understand is that the Kremlin spent a lot of time and money to bring down, either deliberately or accidentally, Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. The prime suspect is a Buk surface-to-air missile system. This is not a shoulder-fired weapon easily smuggled across the border, a point-and-shoot heat-seeking weapon that could be used with little training by anyone who got their hands on it. This is an advanced and battle-proven series of highly sophisticated vehicles which coordinate to track targets with radar and fire missiles so advanced that they were designed to knock smart bombs and cruise missiles out of the sky. Whoever launched this weapon was highly trained and extremely well-equipped.

How, then, could such an advanced weapons system mistake a civilian airliner for a Ukrainian military aircraft? The short answer is that while the Buk system is able to work in isolation, it was never meant to. These types of advanced anti-aircraft systems would typically be used as part of a whole-military response to a threat, utilizing a nation-wide radar system, airborne radar systems, and a coordinated command and control structure that would identify targets and call the shots.

The firing of GRAD rockets and the shooting down of a civilian airplane are part of a pattern, a last-ditch desperate attempt to salvage a win in eastern Ukraine at any cost. In the last several weeks, Russia has pumped dozens of tanks, self-powered howitzers, armored vehicles and militants across the border to the Russian-backed insurgents.

Almost three weeks ago Ukraine’s government and the separatists had entered into at least a tentative ceasefire, and Russia believed the separatists could diplomatically outmaneuver Kiev. But Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, did not extend the ceasefire, as even his European allies thought he would. Instead he launched a sudden strike on the separatists, retaking a series of key rebel strongholds.

Putin was the one who had been outmaneuvered, and the effort to covertly support the separatists in eastern Ukraine was falling apart. Now the veil has fallen. Russia is almost overtly supplying the separatists with military support. But Putin’s urgency in Ukraine has turned to recklessness, and Thursday’s events are the recklessness of Putin epitomized.

Why the urgency? Putin had been seeing surging popular support at home despite the flat-lined economy, the loss of a major ally in Ukraine’s ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, and the problematic Winter Olympics that popularized the Twitter hashtag #SochiProblems. The reason was the perception that Putin had won a decisive victory by annexing Crimea and standing up to the West.

But in recent weeks Moscow’s thinkers and pundits have written that they believe Putin’s support could collapse. A failure to achieve further victory in Ukraine has led analysts to predict that Putin’s support could drop significantly, and Russia’s leading pollsters already see evidence that these predictions could be right.

Since sanctions have had little effect on the economy but have dinged Putin’s support among his elites, he feels he needs the overwhelming support of the masses. Putin needs his war, and he needs to win, and without flooding eastern Ukraine with serious firepower and driving up civilian casualties it’s not clear if Putin can salvage a win at this point without openly invading, and doing so may carry significant costs that undercut the gains.

And Putin has actually helped create the engine of popular uproar that both empowers him and hangs like a Sword of Damocles over his head. In recent months, editorially-independent but state-owned news agencies have been turned into Kremlin-run propaganda machines, efforts have been undertaken to censor the Internet, and even independently-owned media companies have seen their editors thrown out and replaced with the Kremlin’s people.

The Russian media landscape is now a nearly unified voice of disinformation and hate, spreading the narrative that the world is locked in a great battle between East and West, a battle which will be lost unless Putin is allowed to win it. With every passing week Putin becomes more like the totalitarian dictators who helped divide the world along these lines just a few generations ago, and he is now a victim of his own mechanisms.

And there is no sign that this cycle will be broken any time soon. If Putin thinks his efforts to regain the upper hand in eastern Ukraine have gone too far, he’s certainly not reflecting that in his rhetorical answer to this tragedy. Instead, Putin blamed Ukraine for the downing of the aircraft, saying, “This tragedy would not have happened if there had been peace on that land, or in any case if military operations in southeastern Ukraine had not been renewed,” in televised comments.

“Without doubt the government of the territory on which it happened bears responsibility for this frightening tragedy,” he said, adding that he had urged the Russian authorities to do everything possible to help with the investigation into the incident.

“We will do everything that we can so that an objective pictured of what happened can be achieved,” Putin said.

“This is a completely unacceptable thing.”

But providing an objective picture is not what the Kremlin and its media apparatus is known for. Instead, the Russian media are already conducting a disinformation campaign about the facts, while the Western world lines up to (justifiably) blame Russia for this mess. While the unified rejection of Russia’s actions are absolutely necessary, and while stronger sanctions need to be inflicted on Russia to change the economic calculus of such reckless hostility, such actions will only serve as evidence to the Kremlin’s pundits and the people who listen to them that this is all just one giant conspiracy to isolate and weaken Russia.

The cycle will continue. Putin’s recklessness in eastern Ukraine will only grow. Many more lives, often of civilians stuck in the crossfire, will be lost. In the warped cycle of disinformation and power that Putin has created, this senseless violence makes perfect sense, and hundreds or even thousands of civilian casualties are just collateral damage.


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