Initial evidence points to rebels and Russia over Malaysian plane downed in Donetsk

By bne IntelliNews July 18, 2014


Initial evidence points to Russian-backed rebels in East Ukraine as having shot down a Malaysian passenger jet on July 17 with the loss of nearly 300 lives, although the rebels and Russian state media are putting the blame on the Ukrainian side. The tragedy will further ratchet up international pressure on Moscow to cut support for the rebels or face sterner sanctions, while prompting Kyiv to intensify its military campaign against them.

The Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 with call sign MH17 crashed in rebel-held territory near the Russian border of East Ukraine with the loss of all 298 passengers and crew. Wreckage of the plane, including numerous bodies, came down near the village of Grabovo around 50km from the Russian border, scattered over a large area. The plane was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, and most passengers are believed to have been from the Netherlands. Flight trackers show that the plane indeed disappeared from radar screens at a height of 10,000 metres over Ukraine's rebellious Donetsk region at around 17:30 local time.

Joy turned to ashes in the mouths of the Russian-backed rebels in East Ukraine, as initially the self-styled defence minister of the Donetsk People's Republic, Igor Strelkov, posted on a Russian social network that his forces had downed a Ukrainian military transport plane, Antonov-26.

“In the district of Torez [in the east of Donetsk region] a An-26 has just been shot down, and is lying somewhere behind the mine 'Progress'," read the  announcement under Strelkov's name. "We warned them not to fly in our skies… The bird fell behind the slag heap, and did not strike housing. Peaceful citizens did not suffer." Strelkov later deleted the post and said that announcements under his name were being relayed directly from the field and did not have authoritative nature. He denied having claimed responsibility for shooting down the plane.

Such disclaimers did not stop Russia's state-owned and vociferously pro-rebel media running the story as another rebel success against Ukrainian forces, following the downing of a transport aircraft July 14. Reporters from Russia's notoriously jingoistic Lifenews channel arrived first at the scene of the crash, apparently simultaneous with rescue workers, apparently also in the belief they would report on a rebel victory.

The tone changed sharply as the rebels realized what aircraft had been destroyed: according to a recording made by Ukraine's security service of a conversation between a local rebel commander and his superior released to media, the rebel commander reported that the “Cossacks from the Chernnukhino blockpost" had brought down a plane, described as “100% civilian,” mentioning the passport found of an Indonesian student. Authenticity of the transcripts could not be independently confirmed, but as they also absolve the rebels from having deliberately downed the plane, they have a ring of truth.


Rebels recorded conversation on downing of MH17

Rebels swiftly retracted their previous boasts, refuting any involvement with shooting down the aircraft. Representatives of the Donetsk People's Republic told Russian TV that they that they had no weaponry that could have downed a plane at the height at which the Malaysian plane had been cruising. But this also ran counter to previous boasts by the rebels that they had secured Soviet-made BUK (Nato: Gadfly) land-air rockets, capable of carrying out such a strike. The story had also been run by Russian state media: on June 29 the Russian state-run Ria Novosti claimed that “the sky over Donetsk will be defended by land-air missiles Buk” following capture of a Ukrainian air defence base together, it was claimed by Russian media, with its air defence rocket systems.

Rebels and Russian state-owned media are sticking to the new line that a Ukrainian fighter jet shot down the plane, referring to Ukraine's 2001 shooting down of a Russian airliner en route to Israel as substantiation.  But in his first official comments on the tragedy, Russian President Vladimir Putin, in televised comments to Russia's government, restricted himself to blaming Kyiv for having restarted military action in East Ukraine. “I would like to remark that this tragedy would not have taken place if there had been peace on earth, and if military action had not been restarted in the south and east of Ukraine," Putin said. "Without any doubt, the state, over the territory of which it took place, bears responsibility for this terrible tragedy.”

Terrorism suspicion

Neither rebels nor Russia are attempting to claim that the crash of the Boeing could have been an accident, with good reason: According to reports in the New York Times, analysis of satellite data shows that the plane was hit by a rocket. In addition, the plane gave no emergency call. US Vice President Joe Biden was ominously quoted by US media as saying that the crash was "not an accident" but that the plane had been “blown out of the sky.”

Various reports from Washington say the US government believe the plane was downed by a SAM fired from Russian territory, however, there has been no official or definitive statement from the US State Department as of press time. 

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, at a meeting of Ukraine's Security Council, called the shooting down of the plane “not an accident, but an act of terrorism,” and blamed it squarely on the Russian-backed rebels and Russia.

In particular, Ukraine's defence ministry said in a statement that, contrary to Russian reports, no Ukrainian land-air missile units had fallen into the hands of the rebels, all such technology having been removed from bases before they were seized by rebels, the defence ministry claimed. Thus, according to comments made by Ukraine's Prosecutor General Vitaly Yarema to Ukrainska Pravda, any such units the rebels possessed must have been supplied by Russia. This echoes previous bne reports that the rebels and Russian media were spuriously claiming to have seized Ukrainian weaponry, in order to create an alibi for Russian supplies to the rebels.

The decisive question for any forthcoming international action may be to determine the degree of guilt of the rebels and Russia: in particular any indication that the attack might have been deliberate, in response to US and EU sanctions announced the previous day. While the potentially explosive implications for great power relations are not yet clear, the most likely immediate result of the tragedy is an intensification of Ukraine's “anti-terrorist operation,” which in turn will force Russian to decide whether to take a more open role in supporting the rebels, or whether to wipe their hands of the separatist movement in eastern Ukraine.

"If the separatists are really linked with this, then Moscow is going to have to distance itself from them out of fear of being branded a backer of terrorism, and risk a further and very serious escalation of sanctions from the West," says Tim Ash of Standard Bank.


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