The Missile That Will End the War

Why the downing of MH17 is the beginning of the end for Ukraine’s separatists and a nightmare for Vladimir Putin.
Mark Galeotti
Foreign Policy | JULY 18, 2014

There is little room for doubt that a missile fired by separatist rebels brought down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, killing 298 innocent people. It seems that the rebels didn’t realize they were targeting a civilian airliner. Indeed, intercepted telephone conversations between rebel commanders reflect their surprise and dismay: They presumably had thought it was a Ukrainian government military aircraft (that is certainly what rebel "minister of defense" Igor Strelkov claimed). But it is hardly relevant whether the downing of MH17 was a deliberate atrocity or a murderous mistake. Regardless, this disaster poses the greatest challenge yet for the Kremlin in its months-long covert war in Ukraine, one likely to bring the war to a close soon — if not without more bloodshed.

While there are undoubtedly grounds for resentment in eastern Ukraine — and while most of the rebel fighters are locals — the rebellion is, for all intents and purposes, a Russian creation. Since the insurgency began, Russia has armed, encouraged, facilitated, and protected the rebels while maintaining an official air of detachment. Strelkov is a known Russian intelligence officer; weapons and volunteers have been moved across the border into Ukraine on a constant basis; and Moscow has threatened retaliation if the Ukrainian government takes tough measures against a rebellion within its own borders. Despite all that, the Kremlin claims that Ukraine’s woes are simply an internal matter.

Moscow cannot and will not continue to be able to pretend not to be involved, in the wake of MH17’s deadly descent.

Of late, the Kremlin had been showing signs of impatience and uncertainty when it came to eastern Ukraine. Separatist leaders, including Strelkov, have been grumbling about a lack of support from Moscow. Kremlin mouthpieces duly smeared them back. Eduard Bagirov, one of Putin’s main political managers, went further and publicly warned that Strelkov would be "squashed like a flea" if he didn’t come to heel.

However, compelling evidence emerged at the same time that the Russians were upping the ante in Ukraine. After the fall of Slavyansk, until then the epicenter of the rebel military, Russian forces apparently launched short-range rocket strikes on Ukrainian positions, and the U.S. government stated that the rebels had started to receive more heavy equipment from across the border, including artillery and armored vehicles.

This may well have included the Buk surface-to-air (SAM) missile system that apparently brought down MH17. Although the rebels subsequently claimed not to have any such systems, they incautiously had tweeted a picture of at least one in their arsenal at the end of June. The Buk may have been stolen from Ukrainian government stocks, as they and Moscow claim. Or it may have come directly from Russia. It makes little difference. The fact is that without Russian protection (and perhaps technical assistance), the rebels would not have been in a position to launch the fateful missile.

And that one missile has redefined this six-month-old war.

So long as the conflict was Ukrainians fighting Ukrainians (even with Russian support), it would only generate "grave concern" in Europe and an expanding but manageable sanctions regime from the West. This was irksome for the Kremlin, to be sure, but nothing that it could not bear, especially given the unlikely conviction among many within President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle that the West lacked the stamina and resolve to maintain its pressure long term. But the shooting down of MH17 provides both a powerful symbol of the wider risks of allowing this conflict to continue as well as ample ammunition for hawks eager to see a tougher Western line.

The Kremlin has a time-honored playbook for dealing with inconvenient truths and Putin quickly turned to it when MH17 came down. At first, there was simple denial (for the first few hours, the Russian media simply reported a mysterious crash, with no mention of a missile), while efforts were made to cover tracks (those social media posts by the rebels about having Buk SAMs and even having shot down a plane were hurriedly deleted). Then the Russians began introducing hints of conspiracy, such as the flimsy claim that two Ukrainian fighters had been shadowing MH17. That gave way to outright role-reversal, not least the bizarre claim that the Ukrainians shot it down, thinking it was Putin’s personal jet.

In his first statement on the tragedy, Putin blamed Kiev, saying, "The state over whose territory this occurred bears responsibility for this terrible tragedy." His reasoning, apparently, is that the Ukrainian government is at fault for resisting an armed, foreign-backed rebellion within its own borders. "This tragedy would not have occurred if there were peace in this land, if the fighting had not renewed in the southeast of Ukraine," Putin said.

To a large extent this was the Russian propaganda machine on autopilot. Although the Crimean and Ukrainian operations have shown how effective even seemingly crude information warfare can be in distracting, bamboozling, and blunting Western concern, it is hard to see how Moscow can spin this one away.

The initial evidence indicates that MH17 was shot down on the initiative of one particular Cossack unit. For all of Strelkov’s efforts to assert tight central control over the rebels, they remain a loose and often undisciplined collection of forces ranging from local thugs to deserters from the government security apparatus to Russian volunteers. It is unlikely that Strelkov and what passes as the rebel government would be able to arrest and discipline those who fired the missile, even if they were willing to. Indeed, according to the telephone intercepts, the Cossack commander’s own response was uncompromisingly callous: If they flew over a rebel-held area, "That means they were carrying spies. They shouldn’t be f–ing flying. There is a war going on."

Absent some decisive and conciliatory moves from the rebel leadership in Donetsk, political pressure will shift to Moscow as the political context of the war shifts in two crucial ways. Kiev’s determination to crush the insurrection will be redoubled and this time will receive much more evident encouragement from the West. It will now be hard even for the most Kremlin-friendly figures in Europe to advocate concessions to the rebels and thus, by extension, Moscow. Already, government forces have been receiving limited nonlethal support, above all from the United States. But after seeing what the rebels are capable of, there is now a chance that Western countries will offer Kiev weapons, trainers, and even special forces to bring an end to the conflict. For Putin, the only thing more dangerous than backing away from a conflict in Ukraine would be losing one.

The pressure will grow to further expand sanctions to punish Russia for continuing to incite the insurrection. This week, the United States extended its sanctions on Russia. The European Union, which on the whole has been more cautious, is now likely to toughen its line as well. President Barack Obama’s warning in his statement today that "time and again, Russia has refused to take the concrete steps necessary to de-escalate the situation" was a clear statement of where he believes the blame lies. It also leaves the door open for further measures if Moscow does not quickly change its position.

Then what does Putin do? What has become clear is how limited the Kremlin’s direct control is over many of the rebels. Even Strelkov — a retired Russian intelligence officer who should still be under Moscow’s thumb — is showing signs of recalcitrant independence. Besides, even if Strelkov were to follow Kremlin orders, there is no guarantee he could force a toxic and unruly rebel coalition to accept peace, especially as it is unlikely that Kiev will now offer amnesties, something President Petro Poroshenko had floated before as a way to bring an end to the stalemate.

Putin could double down and try to help the rebels win quickly, before sluggish Western democracies can act to bolster Kiev. But turning the tide would require something much more dramatic than providing covert men and materiel, such as an air campaign or even an invasion by Russian troops. It is hard to see even today’s more belligerent Putin being willing to pay the political and economic price for this. Russians rejoiced at their near-bloodless reunion with Crimea, but a bloody war in eastern Ukraine would be very different. Polls show that 73 percent of Russians oppose intervention.

Putin will almost certainly have to back away from the insurgency. And mere rhetoric will not be enough. He will actually need to take concrete steps to close the borders and stop the supply of weapons if he is to convince the West that he is serious about distancing himself from the men who brought down MH17. In these circumstances, re-energized government forces will probably be able to win the war militarily, and sooner than would otherwise be the case.

If the war ends sooner, however, it may also be bloodier. The rebels will have their backs to the wall, especially because most of them will probably have no option to retreat into Russia or receive asylum. Kiev may also feel more able to resort to the kind of artillery and airstrikes that won the battle for Slavyansk, regardless of the inevitable civilian casualties, when they move against the remaining strongholds of Lugansk and Donetsk.

Either way, it doesn’t look good for Moscow. Putin has increasingly framed himself as the guardian of Russians around the world and the master of post-Soviet Eurasia. No matter how the state-controlled media spin it, a reversal in eastern Ukraine will undermine him both at home and in Russia’s neighbors. The tragedy of Flight MH17 has reshaped the political context of the Ukrainian conflict. It also represents an unexpected and unwelcome challenge to Putin himself.


Smoking Guns: Russian Separatists Shot Down Malaysian Flight MH17; Putin Must Be Held Responsible
Paul Roderick Gregory
Forbes | 7/18/2014

Around 4:20 pm, a Malaysian 777 carrying 295 passengers and crew disappeared over east Ukrainian air space a few miles from the Russian border. It disappeared in virtually the same location as the Ukrainian military transport AN-26 shot down by a missile a few days before.

The social website of the self-appointed military commander, Colonel Igor Strelkov, of the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk, first celebrated the downing of the plane with the following 5:07 pm announcement on the Strelkov web site.

“In the Torez region, they have destroyed an AN-26 transport plane. Its wreckage landed near the ‘Progress’ mine. This will teach them: Do not fly in ‘our skies.’ And here is the video confirming the ‘crash of the bird.’ The bird fell on open fields. It did not damage inhabited sectors. Peaceful people did not suffer. And there is information about a second destroyed plane; looks like an SU.” (With widespread wreckage perhaps those on the scene thought they had shot two for one?).

Shortly thereafter, the Strelkov website issued an announcement with capitalized letters:

ATTENTION. This announcement declared that the news of the downing of the AN-26 was not official but came from residents and militia members on the scene. The only official announcements are published under the banner: Strelkov INFORMS. In other words, Strelkov asks his readers to forget the earlier announcement of the successful downing of a fascist Ukrainian plane.

Ukraine intelligence services intercepted a series of purported phone calls from officers of the separatists to their superiors. Readers can listen to the YouTube. It’s in Russian, with English translations. Below I provide some excerpts.

The first call, from field commander “Bes (Demon)” to a Russian military intelligence colonel, Vasiliy Geranin, reported that a plane had been downed some 15 minutes earlier. Bes did not know the details but his people were going to photograph the site.

“Major” then reported to “Grek” at 5:32 pm that the plane had been destroyed by “Kazaks” at the check point Chernukhino and that the wreckage was that of a civilian plane, with a catering kitchen, bodies, chairs, documents. When asked whether the plane carried weapons, the answer was “no weapons.”

The third call at 5:42 from “Warrior” to “Kozitsin,” “Warrior” confirmed that it was a civilian plane, although the downed plane had earlier been called an AN-26 transport, that there was “a sea of bodies” of women and children and Indonesian university students, and was marked as an civilian Malaysian carrier. “Kozitsin” showed little concern and declared “the plane must have carried spies. We are in a war after all.”

The story that Russian mercenaries shot down the 777 by mistake makes complete sense. It appears to be confirmed by the commanding separatist officers and by those on the ground. It shows the shift in mood from celebration to foreboding as they learn they had killed hundreds of civilians.

Below is the video of heavy military equipment including missiles purportedly fleeing the scene from which the Malaysian 777 was shot down.

As to the availability of BUK missiles at check points like Chernukhino, the Associated Press reported that a similar launcher was seen by its journalists near the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne earlier Thursday. The BUK missile system can fire missiles up to an altitude of 22,000 meters (72,000 feet).

In its July assessment, the U.S. State Department warned that Russia continues to accumulate significant amounts of equipment at a deployment site in southwest Russia. This equipment includes tanks of a type no longer used by the Russian military, as well as armored vehicles, multiple rocket launchers, artillery, and air defense systems….More advanced air defense systems have also arrived at this site. The State Department warned that: “We are concerned much of this equipment will be transferred to separatists, as we are confident Russia has already delivered tanks and multiple rocket launchers to them from this site.”

The London Daily Telegraph reports that Ukraine will present evidence of Russian military involvement in the Malaysian Air 777 crash. The military leader of the terrorists Igor Girkin (Strelkov) commented directly after the plane crash, believing that it was a Ukrainian jet that had been destroyed. As noted above, he later attempted to retract his earlier statement. Per the Telegraph, the Associated Press is reporting that one of its journalists saw a launcher that resembled a Russian BUK system—the kind that Ukrainian government says carried out the strike—in the vicinity.

Putin’s propaganda machine will launch a furious effort to blame Ukraine, the CIA, the U.S. State Department, or dark forces that have it in for Malaysian Airlines. It will find many conspiracy buffs to support its wild yarns. However, the true story is simple: The Russian mercenaries, having celebrated their downing of two Ukrainian air force planes, were ready for another triumph. They set their radar sights on an incoming plan which they assumed to be a Ukrainian military transport and shot it down. Within a few minutes, the separatist authorities and their Kremlin handlers knew they had shot down a civilian plane. They did not seem that shaken. As officer Kozikhin retorted: “Well the plane must have carried spies. Do they not know there is a war going on?”

Will the Russian downing of the Malaysian Air 777 and the loss of almost three hundred innocent lives make a difference in Russia’s war against Ukraine? Yes. If Putin has any sense, he will withdraw all his officers and intelligence agents from the scene. He will try to convince the world this was not Russia’s fault, but he cannot succeed in so doing. The attention of the world is now on east Ukraine, and news reporters can scarcely be denied free access. Even if denied access, there is plenty of evidence in the form of YouTube videos, intelligence reports, and eyewitness accounts that prove that Russia had already invaded Ukraine with tens of thousands of troops and heavy military equipment – facts that the West did not see or did not want to see. I doubt that the Russian public will be so enamored with Putin once they learn that his loyal people’s militias marauding in east Ukraine killed three hundred innocent people.

With respect to Putin, there are two interpretations: One is that he controls Russia almost single handedly with his noted vertical of power. If so, he must be held personally responsible for what his agents did. The second interpretation is that Russia is falling apart as mercenaries move themselves and heavy military equipment at will within Russia and across its borders.

Neither places Mr. Putin in an exactly favorable light. Let’s see how he squirms out of this.


After the Crash
Posted by David Remnick
The New Yorker | July 18, 2014

Geography, motive, communications intercepts, and all manner of circumstantial evidence suggest that the likeliest suspect in the horrific deaths of two hundred and ninety-eight people aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was the curiously well-armed and well-coördinated military outfit loyal to Moscow in eastern Ukraine. Various government and intelligence officials in Kiev say that they have evidence, including a series of damning tapped conversations among pro-Russian forces, that the separatists shot down the plane, which crashed near Grabovo, a coal-mining town in the Donetsk region.

Ukraine’s President, Petro Poroshenko, said, “We are calling this not an incident, not a catastrophe, but a terrorist act.” U.S. intelligence officials have told the Times and other media outlets that whoever was behind the destruction of the airliner, which was flying at more than thirty thousand feet, bound to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam, likely fired a sophisticated Russian-made surface-to-air missile that was either snatched from the Ukrainian Army or supplied by the Russians.

But let’s stop here and register the proper cautions and caveats: There has been no investigation, no conclusive proof. (And there won’t necessarily be a proper and convincing investigation, either, considering the deliberately chaotic and militarized state of eastern Ukraine these days, and Russia’s clear interests.) We shouldn’t pretend to know for certain what we don’t.

What’s far more certain is that Vladimir Putin, acting out of resentment and fury toward the West and the leaders in Kiev, has fanned a kind of prolonged political frenzy, both in Russia and among his confederates in Ukraine, that serves his immediate political needs but that he can no longer easily calibrate and control. Putin’s defiant annexation of Crimea and the destabilization of eastern Ukraine inflated his popularity at home. Despite a flaccid economy, his approval rating approaches levels rarely seen beyond North Korea. But the tactically clever and deeply cynical maneuvers of propaganda and military improvisation that have taken him this far, one of his former advisers told me in Moscow earlier this month, are bound to risk unanticipated disasters. Western economic and political sanctions may be the least of it.

The former adviser, Gleb Pavlovsky, is one of the most enigmatic political actors in Moscow. Born in Odessa, he was arrested in 1982, when he was thirty-one, for illegally distributing dissident literature. He marred his reputation in dissident circles, however, when he confessed to his “crimes” and spared himself a long term in the gulag at hard labor. Instead, he was sentenced to internal exile for a couple of years in the northern provinces, where he worked as a painter and stoker.

In the Gorbachev years, Pavlovsky was the editor-in-chief of the liberal magazine Twentieth Century and the World, and after the fall of the Soviet Union he refashioned himself as a “political technologist.” For both Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, he was a highly influential and darkly skillful spin doctor, a political P.R. man. Putin finally severed his relations with Pavlovsky, in 2011, but not before Pavlovsky acquired an insider’s view of a Kremlin dominated by Putin and the siloviki, members of the security forces.

When I met Pavlovsky in Moscow a couple of weeks ago, he seemed especially concerned about the lack of strategic thinking by Putin, and about the consequences of the feverish anti-Ukrainian, anti-American, and generally xenophobic programming on state television, from which nearly all Russians derive their news and their sense of what is going on in the world.

Putin’s incursion into Crimea and his manipulation of the situation in eastern Ukraine, Pavlovsky said, “was an improvisation, though the logistics and plans existed a long time ago.”

Since returning to the Presidency, Pavlovsky said, Putin has “created an artificial situation in which a ‘pathological minority’—the protesters on Bolotnaya Square [two years ago], then Pussy Riot, then the liberal ‘pedophiles’—is held up in contrast to a ‘healthy majority.’ Every time this happens, his ratings go up.” The nightly television broadcasts from Ukraine, so full of wild exaggeration about Ukrainian “fascists” and mass carnage, are a Kremlin-produced “spectacle,” he said, expertly crafted by the heads of the main state networks.

“Now this has become a problem for Putin, because this system cannot be wholly managed,” Pavlovsky said. The news programs have “overheated” public opinion and the collective political imagination.

“How can Putin really manage this?” Pavlovsky went on. “You’d need to be an amazing conductor. Stalin was an amazing conductor in this way. Putin can’t quite pull off this trick. The audience is warmed up and ready to go; it is wound up and waiting for more and more conflict. You can’t just say, ‘Calm down.’ It’s a dangerous moment. Today, forty per cent of Russia wants real war with Ukraine. Putin himself doesn’t want war with Ukraine. But people are responding to this media machine. Putin needs to lower the temperature.”

Pavlovsky was especially concerned about one of the pro-Russian military leaders in eastern Ukraine, a former (and possibly current) Russian intelligence officer known to most by his nom de guerre, Igor Strelkov. (Strelkov’s real name is Igor Girkin.)

A wildly messianic nationalist who cultivates an air of lumpy intrigue, Strelkov has found his way to the battlefields of Chechnya, Serbia, and Transnistria. He is now helping to run the separatist operation in Donetsk. Like the radical nationalists and neo-imperialists in Moscow, who have easy access to the airwaves these days, Strelkov has a singular point of disagreement with Putin: the Russian President hasn’t gone nearly far enough; he has failed to invade and annex “Novorossiya,” the separatist term for eastern Ukraine. Pavlovsky said that people like Strelkov and his Moscow allies are as delusional as they are dangerous, somehow believing that they are taking part in grand historical dramas, like the Battle of Borodino, in 1812, or “the novels of Tolkien.”

“Strelkov is well known for leading historical reënactments of Russian military battles, like you have in the States with the Civil War reënactors,” Pavlovsky said. “It used to be a fantasy world for people like him, but now they have a realm for their imaginations.”

If it turns out that men like Strelkov and his fellow soldier-fantasists were responsible for the destruction of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and all the people on board, the fever in Russia and Ukraine may intensify beyond anything that Vladimir Putin could have predicted or desired. It is long past time that Putin ended both the inflammatory information war in Russia and the military proxy war in eastern Ukraine that he has done so much to conceive, fund, organize, and fuel. There are hundreds of corpses strewn across a field today in eastern Ukraine. What is Vladimir Putin’s next move?


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