Flight MH17: Will Russia Get Away With It?

MH 17 crash.jpg
Alexander Ermochenko/epa/Corbis
Pro-Russian rebels stand guard at the crash site of Malaysian Airlines jet MH-17 near Donetsk, Ukraine, November 11, 2014

Following the entry of more than 120 Russian military convoys into Ukraine last week, the US and its European allies appear to have reached a turning point in their response to the Ukrainian conflict. On Sunday, at the G20 summit in Brisbane, Australia, US President Barack Obama used his strongest words yet about Russian military involvement, openly acknowledging that the Russians are providing “major arms” to the rebels. And on Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel went further, rebuking Russia for destabilizing Ukraine and for putting “the whole of the European peaceful order into question.” Yet even now the West is refraining from any actions against Russia beyond continuing the sanctions it already imposed months ago. According to Obama, “the sanctions that we have in place are biting plenty good.” If that is the case, why is Russia continuing to escalate its military activities in Ukraine?

One answer seems to be that the Russian government has learned that there is a great deal it can get away with in Ukraine. Take the astonishingly muted reaction to the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine on July 17—arguably the most egregious act of aggression in the entire Ukrainian conflict thus far. With the official investigation of the crash not scheduled to be completed until next summer, Western leaders have avoided directly confronting Russia about its part in the disaster. But a growing number of unofficial investigations —including a deeply researched new report issued last week by the independent journalist group Bellingcat—show unambiguously that a Russian missile system was used to down the passenger jet, killing all 298 people on board.

It appears that, early last summer, Ukrainian secessionists convinced the Kremlin that they needed help in downing Ukrainian military aircraft to prevent their defeat by Kiev. (They had only recently lost control of the city of Slovyansk.) But neither the Kremlin nor the rebels anticipated that the target on July 17 would prove to be a civilian plane. Just after the crash, the pro-Kremlin Russian newspaper Vzglyad reported that Ukrainian separatists actually took credit for downing what they called an AN-26 aircraft, a military transport plane, belonging to Kiev. Apparently unbeknownst to Vzglad, the aircraft in question was flight MH17.

The Malaysian Boeing 777 was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, flying at thirty-three thousand feet, when it crashed in territory held by separatists in eastern Ukraine. Among the passengers, about two thirds of whom were Dutch, were prominent AIDs researchers headed to a conference in Australia, as well as eighty children. International investigators have until now been unable to inspect the twenty-square-kilometer crash site because of continuing fighting between rebels and Ukrainian government troops, but they gained access to flight and cockpit recorder data from the plane, as well as satellite imagery and air control records. And finally, on Sunday they were able to begin gathering pieces of wreckage to ship back to Holland.

A preliminary report issued by the Dutch Safety Board on September 9 found that “a large number of high-energy objects” had “penetrated the aircraft.” Most experts have concluded that a Russian-made BUK missile, which functions by exploding near the target and showering it with shrapnel, had been fired at the plane. Photographs of the debris from the fuselage examined later by aviation experts have also confirmed that the damage to the plane was consistent with the type of damage caused by a BUK.

The BUK (Russian for beech) is a complicated anti-aircraft missile system devised by the Soviets in the seventies and modernized by the Russians. Operated by a crew of four, the system is mounted on a mobile, tank-like vehicle (a TELAR) that includes a radar tracking system, a launcher with four missiles, and other targeting equipment. The missile itself carries a seventy kilogram high-explosive warhead that is capable of reaching altitudes well beyond that of flight MH17.

The evidence that separatists in eastern Ukraine had and used a BUK missile system on July 17 is overwhelming. There were sightings by several journalists from the Associated Press, along with local residents, of a BUK missile in three different locations in rebel-held territory on July 17, all within firing distance of the flight path of MH17. In telephone conversations that were intercepted by the Ukrainian Security Service just after the crash, rebel soldiers reported that their side had shot down a passenger plane. (The Russian government later claimed that the recordings were phony, but they offered no evidence.)

Although several countries, including Ukraine, have BUK missile systems, the thirty-five-page Bellingcat report also demonstrates clearly that the BUK used to shoot down Flight MH17 was supplied by Russia. The separatists are known to have short-range missiles, but none that could hit an airliner at 33,000 feet. And, although they had posted images on the Internet of BUKs they had allegedly seized from the Ukrainian arsenal, the images were outdated and showed non-operational missiles. By using videos from Russian social media sites, the Bellingcat team was able to track the movements of a Russian military convoy that left a military base near Kursk, Russia in late June and travelled to the border with Ukraine. Unique identifying markings on the vehicles and sideskirt damage above the vehicle tracks show that the same BUK missile launcher that was later filmed by Paris Match in rebel-held territory on the day that flight MH17 was shot down. This BUK missile launcher was transported from the city of Donetsk to the city of Snizhne and unloaded three hours before the attack on MH17. The launcher was later filmed, minus one missile, being driven through rebel-controlled Luhansk. From this evidence, the Bellingcat team concludes that the BUK missile launcher photographed on July 17 had been brought from Russia and was then used to shoot down the Malaysian aircraft.

Why did the operators of the BUK assume they were firing at a military aircraft instead of a passenger jet? The BUK in question may have lacked the automatic disengagement system—a safety feature called the IFF, which identifies friendly or enemy aircraft—that prevents such mistakes from occurring.

In fact, the BUK system is complicated and requires at least a year of training to operate, which suggests that the Russian military not only handed over the BUK to the separatists but helped them with the missile launch. According to Rear Admiral John Kirby at the Pentagon: “[the BUK] is a sophisticated piece of technology, and it strains credulity to think that it could be used by the separatists without at least some measure of Russian support and technical assistance.” The BBC interviewed local residents who claimed to have talked to members of the crew that was operating a missile launcher on July 17 and said they were not Ukrainians, but Russians. “If these eyewitnesses are right,” the BBC reported, “then the BUK crew may have been part of the Kremlin’s ‘Ghost Army’ – reportedly thousands of Russian soldiers who have been secretly infiltrated into Ukraine and have tipped the military balance heavily in the rebels’ favour.”

Not surprisingly, the Kremlin and the Ukrainian separatists have consistently denied any part in the crash. Immediately afterward the Russian government embarked on an intense propaganda campaign pointing the finger at Kiev and its Western allies. On July 21, two of Russia’s top military officers gave a televised briefing in which they produced a photograph of what was supposedly a Ukrainian BUK system deployed not far from the area near the crash, claiming that the Ukrainian military was responsible. (A highly inflammatory documentary on the Russian television channel Zvezda ten days after the crash went one step further, suggesting that Kiev, in collusion with Washington, had actually intended to shoot down the plane President Putin was on as he returned from a trip to Brazil the day of the crash.)

At the same time, the Russian officers threw out an alternative theory—that a Ukrainian SU-25 fighter jet, supposedly detected by Russia’s air control flying close to MH17 just before the crash, fired a missile into the plane. In a mid-August report, the Russian Union of Engineers came out with similar claims about the Malaysian crash, insisting that the plane was attacked in mid-air by a fighter jet. Since the separatists did not have such jets in its arsenal and there were no Russian fighter jets in the area, the report concluded that MH17 was shot down by the Ukrainian military.

Just last weekend, a program on Russian Channel One again produced images to show that a Ukrainian fighter plane was near MH17 just before the crash. However, it did not take long for Russian commentators on social media to determine that the photographs were fakes. For one thing, the map images were created from composites of different satellite maps, including one from Google Earth in 2012. And the passenger plane in the photograph did not appear to be the Malaysian airliner; the Malaysia Airlines logo on the plane was in the wrong place. One writer on the Russian website Aviaforum observed that “we’d have a good laugh about it, if the topic wasn’t so tragic.” In fact, as many experts have pointed out, a missile from an SU-25 would not have been capable of doing the kind of damage that was visible on MH17.

Judging from Russia’s recent military incursions in Ukraine—and its increasingly provocative and bellicose actions elsewhere in the world—the Kremlin apparently is assuming that the US and its allies will not pursue harsher measures to restrain Putin. This should not come as a surprise. When was the last time a country provided the weapon used to shoot down a passenger jet in a neighboring country, with impunity?

Though economic sanctions, along with a sharp decline in oil prices, are contributing to serious economic woes in Russia, opinion polls suggest that the intensely patriotic Russian public continues to approve of President Putin’s aggressive policies abroad. Putin’s support could erode if the economic situation deteriorates further and more Russian soldiers die in Ukraine—especially if Russia continues to deny them official recognition, since its soldiers are not officially fighting. But in the meantime, the West should demonstrate the resolve that has been lacking in its dealings with the Kremlin. Whether this means much stronger economic sanctions or military assistance for Kiev, or both, Western leaders must keep in mind the lesson of Malaysian Flight MH17—that left undeterred, there is little the Kremlin won’t do in its efforts to assert its dominance over the former Soviet empire. As Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk observed last week: “[Putin] is testing the ground. He will move as far as the world will allow him.”