In the aftermath of the destruction of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over the Donetsk region of Ukraine last July, two parallel investigations were launched by the Dutch governmment: one a civil inquiry to establish the cause of the incident, the other a criminal inquiry to establish responsibility. The first was completed last month, when the Dutch Safety Board released a report entitled “Crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.” It concluded that the plane had been struck by a missile fired by a Russian-made Buk surface-to-air missile (SAM) launcher. Responsibility for the deed has yet to be assigned; the Dutch prosecutor’s office is expected to release its findings next year.
Those findings, I think, will surprise many people.
The commonly accepted scenario is that rebels obtained a Buk missile launcher and, believing that they were attacking a Ukrainian military transport, fired upon and destroyed a Malaysia Airlines 777 by mistake. In this telling, no one was truly to blame—it was all a big mistake, the kind of tragic misunderstanding that is all to common in war.
There is ample evidence for this narrative. Russian media reported that on June 29 the rebels had captured a Buk missile launcher. On July 14, a Ukrainian Antonov An-26 military transport plane was shot down over eastern Ukraine while flying at an altitude of 20,000 feet. On July 16, a Ukrainian Sukhoi Su-25 attack jet was shot down while flying at a similar altitude. Then, on July 17, a rebel commander named Igor Girkin boasted on social media that his forces had shot down another Antonov-26 transport plane belonging to the Ukrainian military. Girkin, a colonel in Russian military intelligence declared that “In the vicinity of Torez, we just downed a plane, an AN-26.”
The post was soon after deleted, but not before it was picked up by mainstream Russian media.
By the time it became evident that the victim had in fact been a Malaysian airliner, the mistake was well documented, and its sincerity broadly accepted by media around the world, especially after German intelligence sources endorsed the view that MH17 had been mistakenly shot down by Donetsk separatists.
The limitiations of the solitary Buk mobile missile launcher are key to this rogue-militia scenario. As the Dutch Safety Board notes in its report,
Normally, the system operates as a unit of several vehicles, consisting of one Target Acquisition Radar; one Command Post, several Transporter Erector/Launcher and Radar vehicles [TELAR]; several Transporter/Erector/Launcher and Loader vehicles; [and] technical, maintenance and other support vehicles. The Target Acquisition Radar will search for and detect targets. Once a target has been detected by the Target Acquisition Radar, the fire control radar in the Transporter/Erector/Launcher and Radar [TELAR] vehicles can acquire and track the target. Once in range, a missile from the [TELAR] vehicles can be launched to engage the target. However, each Buk [TELAR] vehicle is equipped with its own fire control radar, allowing the vehicle to search for and engage with a target independently.
That is to say that each TELAR vehicle is capable of operating independently to a certain extent, using its own radar to lock onto a target, but the system is not sophisticated enough to discriminate enemy military aircraft from civilian airliners. For this it relies on either on the separate Target Acquisition Radar or communication with a larger air-defence system, which will be connected to networked military radars and civilian air traffic control. It’s quite easy to imagine that ill-trained and undisciplined militiamen might have gotten their hands on a TELAR and, lacking a Target Acquisition Radar and misinterpreting the returns on their radar screen, blindly fired off a shot at a plane they hoped or assumed was an enemy plane.
There are numerous problems with this scenario, however.
First of all, the Buk TELAR which fired off the fatal round had not been captured by militants from the Ukrainian military. The UK-based group Bellingcat has carried out an investigation using images sourced from online social-media accounts and found that the Buk had been sent to Donetsk from a Russian military based. At the time Russia was funneling military personnel into the conflict and presumably the Buk’s crew were among them, since a Buk cannot be operated without training. As former Eastern Bloc missile-battery officer Andras Kuscsma told me, “Training for the crew [takes] up to one year.”
Reuters points out that an equivalent US system, the Patriot missile, “requires 10 weeks of continuous training.”
It is unlikely that such an expensive, powerful, and dangerous weapon would have simply been handed over at random to untrained troops. In past proxy wars stirred up by Russia to control areas of the former Soviet Union, such has Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the country has deployed manpower and weapons but never systems as sophisticated as the Buk, says New York University professor Mark Galeotti, a specialist on the Russian military.
“Typically Russia has not needed or wanted to provide serious heavy kit, but the point is that advanced systems like the Buk are just that: advanced,” Galeotti says. “Cascading some older tanks or artillery to rebels is easy enough, as many will have served in the Soviet military and the systems are relatively straightforward. However, the technical skills required in using something like a Buk means either sending trained crews, or training them, or specially gathering rebels/volunteers who have that experience.”
The idea that Russia must have remained at least partially in control of the Buk has been endorsed by US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, who in the aftermath told an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council that “Because of the technical complexity of the SA-11, it is unlikely that the separatists could effectively operate the system without assistance from knowledgeable personnel.”
There’s also something odd about the separatists’ early reports about the shoot-down.
According to research carried out by Bellingcat, the Buk launcher in question was in Donetsk around 8am. At 8.40am, it was photographed traveling between the cities of Donetsk and Torez. At 10.05, AP journalists saw it in the village of Snezhnoye. Over the next five hours, dozens of commercial planes flew overhead. Then, at 13:20, MH17 approached from the northwest. A missile was fired. Within ten minutes, bodies and wreckage were strewn over a 19 square mile area.
Immediately after the attack, you’ll recall, Igor Girkin boasted that his forces had shot down an Antonov-26 transport plane. Why would he have come to that conclusion? Since a Buk TELAR does not have the radar capacity to discriminate between aircraft types, nothing about the Malaysian jet’s appearance on the TELAR radar scope would have given its operators the idea that it was an An-26.
There is only one place that such an idea could have originated. Recall that, in the absence of a Target Acquisition Radar, the Buk TELAR must get its target information from an air defence network. Eastern Ukraine falls under the air defense umbrella of Russia; at the time of its shoot-down MH17 was being tracked by Russian air traffic controllers.
As Robert Beckhusen wrote in a blog post for Reuters:
“The BUK launcher is just one part of an entire air defense system,” Joseph Trevithick, a defense analyst and fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, told me in an email. “National air-traffic systems and local air-search radars assigned to the air-defense unit are supposed to bear the brunt of actually figuring out who’s a hostile and who’s a friendly or a neutral. There’s no indication that these separatists had anything besides the launcher, and would not have been able to readily ID their target or communicate with it first — even if they had wanted to.”
If the crew of the Buk TELAR at Snezhnoye believed that they were targeting an An-26, it could only have been because they were told that MH-17 was a Ukrainian Air Force An-26.
A third major oddity of the rogue-militant scenario is the way in which the news broke.
According to a transcript of air-traffic-control recordings published by Dutch investigators, ATC personnel at Dnipro Radar in Ukraine spent the first 15 minutes after the crash trying to call the plane. When the transcript ends at 13:49, they are still trying to determine what happened. Indeed, based on my research of publicly available accounts, it’s not all clear how aviation authorities eventually did realize that the plane had been shot down. But the timeline of subsequent events is revealing.
- 13:50: A forum on Russian social media site VKontakte posts a report that militiamen in Donetsk have downed an An-26.
- 14:15: Ukrainian aviation officials tell Malaysia Airlines that they have lost contact with the flight
- 14:42: In a cell-phone conversation intercepted by Ukrainian intelligence, a militant tells a Russian military officer in eastern Ukraine, ““On TV they say it is like a Ukrainian AN-26… but the writing says “Malaysian Airlines”
- ~14:50: The authorities shut the airspace over eastern Ukraine to all further traffic. Almost simultaneously, Russian President Vladimir Putin is getting on the phone with US President Obama. The day before, the United States imposed a round of sanctions against Russia in response to the escalating war in Ukraine, and Putin’s office has requested a phone call with Obama. This phone call, then, was something that Putin had specifically arranged and scheduled.
It’s striking that within minutes of people on the scene of the crash becoming aware that a Malaysian airliner had been shot down, Putin was starting a phone call in which he would personally break the news to the President of the US. Normally, it takes some time for information to travel up the chain of command all the way to the top; when the first plane impacted the World Trade Center on 9/11, for instance, President Bush didn’t learn about it until ten minutes later. Once he was informed that a second plane had hit the other tower, it took him at least eight or nine minutes to finish what he was doing (reading “The Pet Goat” with Florida schoolchildren) and go huddle with advisors.
The remarkable speed with which the news about MH17 was gathered, processed, and passed up the chain of command—and the remarkable coincidence that all this was happening at the exact moment that the President of Russia was about to get on a phone call he’d scheduled with the president of the US—become less remarkable if one posits that the bungling-militia scenario is not accurate but instead a counter-narrative assembled beforehand by Russia in order to deflect blame.
As Jonathan Mahler has written in the New York Times,
There are different ways to control a narrative. There’s the old-fashioned way: Classify documents that you don’t want seen and, as Gates said, ‘‘keep mum on the details.’’ But there’s also the more modern, social-media-savvy approach: Tell the story you want them to believe. Silence is one way to keep a secret. Talking is another.
In the case of MH17, I would suggest, Russia might have implemented a variation of this approach: offering up a version of events that seems utterly plausible because it seems inimicible to Russia. At the same time, Russia floated a more sympathetic version for the domestic market, one which laid blame for the shootdown at the feet of Ukraine and the West. This allowed them to maintain the illusion that they have not set up their separatist comrades in Donetsk as fall guys for an act that, if adjudged to be intentional, would surely rank as a serious war crime.
In the wake of the downing, Russia continually interfered with the forthright investigation of the tragedy, for instancing by attempting to scuttle an international criminal inquiry. In last month’s civil report, the Dutch Safety Board notes that the bodies of the pilots had been cut open in an attempt to remove shrapnel that would allow investigators to identify the responsible missile system.
As we await their official findings, Dutch criminal investigators have already revealed that they have identified as-yet unnamed “persons of interest” believed to be responsible. Based on what is already publicly known, one can can already surmise where the finger of blame will point.