WASHINGTON, July 19, 2014 – U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that the Malaysia Airlines flight that crashed in Ukraine yesterday was shot down by a missile, most likely fired by pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian rebels claim to have shot down other aircraft, including a Ukrainian military transport and a fighter jet, but the weapons used to down those planes were incapable of striking an aircraft flying at 33,000 feet, as flight MH17 was. This attack probably used a Russian-made SA-11 surface-to-air missile.
The current version of the SA-11 is also referred to as the “Buk” missile system. The missiles are carried on transporter erector launcher and radar (TELAR) vehicles. They require only a few minutes to set up, and the reaction time from acquiring a target to launch is 22 seconds.
Last month, Russian media reported that the rebels claimed to have the SA-11 system. On Thursday, a rebel leader claimed responsibility for downing a “Ukrainian military aircraft.” After it was established that a commercial airliner had been shot down, he withdrew the claim.
The SA-11 system is too technologically sophisticated for an untrained rebel to operate. If Ukrainian rebels are using SA-11 missiles, then they have been trained by current or former members of the Russian military.
President Obama said today that it is:
“Not possible for these separatists to function the way they’re functioning … without sophisticated equipment and sophisticated training, and that is coming from Russia.”
U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power told the U.N. Security Council this morning that because of the “technical complexity” of the SA-11 system, “it is impossible to rule out Russian technical assistance” to the separatists in operating it.
If Ukrainian rebels shot down MH17, it was almost certainly by accident. There was no benefit to them in shooting it down, and if Europe and the U.N. conclude that they did it, they could lose their Russian support.
European nations have been reluctant to raise sanctions against Russia for supporting the rebels. Europe is energy dependent on Russia, receiving much of its oil and natural gas via pipelines, some of which cross Ukraine. Even if Russian-trained rebels shot down the plane, EU countries might be reluctant to raise serious sanctions. If the evidence is incontrovertible that they did it with a sophisticated weapons system, however, the pressure to raise sanctions may be irresistible.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s comments reflected the ambivalence of the large nations of “Old Europe.”
“We’re assuming that the Russian president of course has an influence on Russian separatists,” she told reporters in Berlin. “But still one has to differentiate between the separatists and the Russian government.”
“New Europe” is more hawkish. The former vassals of the Soviet Union don’t have the financial stake in Russia that Old Europe has. Germany has suggested that France might stop selling Mistral warships to Russia, but that would impose no burden on German business.
The Polish Foreign Ministry was more direct than the foreign ministries of Old Europe in assigning responsibility for the destruction of MH17.
“We recall that during his visit to Kyiv last Tuesday, Minister Radosław Sikorski said that the fact that pro-Russian separatists were reported to be armed with advanced surface-to-air missiles represented the greatest concern in the current state of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. This point was addressed in an MFA press release issued after the minister’s visit to Kyiv.”
The Russian response to the growing conviction that Ukrainian rebels shot down the airliner has been to blame Ukraine for attempting to use military means to regain control of the eastern part of the country.
“Obviously, the state over which this incident took place is responsible for this terrible tragedy,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin at a meeting with advisers. The meeting included a moment of silence for the victims and was televised.
“This tragedy would have never happened if this land were peaceful, if combat operation had not been resumed in Ukraine’s southeastern regions.”
Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin criticized those “trying to prejudge the outcome with broad statements and insinuations.” He accused Ukraine’s government of failing to warn international aviation to avoid the conflict area in eastern Ukraine. “Why did Ukrainian aviation dispatchers send [the Malaysian plane] to an area of strife, where there were antiaircraft systems in operation?”
He argued that by choosing to pursue a military offensive against the rebels, Ukraine “chose the wrong path, and their Western colleagues supported them. … I’m talking about the United States; they actually pushed them to escalate … they are trying to lay the blame on Russia.”
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Aleksey Komarov called for “a thorough investigation with the use of representatives from all the interested international organizations.”
He suggested that the missile was launched by Ukraine, not by the rebels.
“Ukrainian Air Force planes armed with various types of missiles are constantly present in the Donetsk region airspace,” he said on Rossiya 24 TV. “This is an indisputable fact.”
Disputing Kiev’s claim that its planes do not shoot at airborne targets he added, “planes of the Russian Air Force did not fly in Russian regions bordering the Donetsk region on July 17, 2014.”
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk called for swift international justice.
“This is a crime against humanity … All red lines have been already crossed. … We ask our international partners to call an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting and to [do] everything we can to stop this war: a war against Ukraine, a war against Europe, and after these terrorists shot down a Malaysian aircraft, this is a war against the world. … Everyone is to be accountable and responsible. I mean everyone who supports these terrorists, including Russians and the Russian regime.”
President Putin called for a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine and urged the two sides to hold peace talks as soon as possible.