In the previous installment of this series, I looked at the psychological context for a hypothetical suicide run into the southern ocean. Today, I’d like to consider an equivalent issue with regard to a hijacking scenario. Presuming one occurred, what could be the motive for such an act?
As has often been observed, nobody claimed credit for the disappearance of MH370, and nobody visibly benefited from it. No benefit would seem to imply no motive.
Motive, however, can be a tricky thing to impute to another person’s actions. How can we be confident that we understand enough about a person’s position in the world—or more importantly, how they perceive their position in the world—to judge whether a given act would or would not be rational from their perspective?
A question more likely to yield results, I would argue, is: are there any potential perpetrators who might feel motivated to take such an action, however opaque their motive might be to us?
Here the answer is a resounding “yes.”
As it happens, the UK-based group Bellingcat today released the latest in a series of reports about the shootdown of MH17. For anyone who is not familiar with its work, Bellingcat is a very highly regarded group of amateur analysts who have pioneered the crowd-sourced investigation of open-source data. Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins first attracted attention after using social media to locate evidence that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons; later the group used similar techniques to identify the specific Buk missile launcher used to shoot down MH17 and has grappled with many other pressing topics of the day. If you haven’t visited their website, I heartily recommend it, as their coverage is fascinating and offers an excellent model for transparency and balance. Not for nothing the Columbia Journalism Review described Bellingcat’s work as “rigorous, evidence-based examinations of extremely specific questions… extremely valuable in helping us understand complex subjects.”
What has emerged from these reports is a strikingly concrete and layered depiction of events surrounding the destruction of MH17. And it is radically different from the picture that most journalists and analysts hold.
According to Bellingcat’s research, the Buk missile launcher that destroyed MH17 was not some trophy of war that a bunch of untrained militiamen got their hands on and fired off willy-nilly. Rather, it belonged to a specific regular Russian army unit, the 2nd Battalion of the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade, which was sent from its base near Kursk to the Ukrainian border. From there, this specific launcher was brought across the border in the middle of the night and positioned under the scheduled flight path of MH17. After it blasted the plane out of the sky it was put back on its trailer and brought back to Russia. The whole operation was a one-day mission.
Bellingcat identifies the unit’s officers, and even hones in on the individuals who likely operated the Buk in question. They stop short of speculating at who pushed the “fire” button. The report does make very clear, however, that operating a Buk requires intensive training, so whoever committed the fatal act must have had considerable experience with the system. And as might be expected with a weapon of its range and lethality, a major part of operational training is a tightly controlled firing process. Of the four man crew, only the officer in charge is authorized to make the firing decision. He, in turn, must receive the necessary order from his commanding officer. Contrary to the popular narrative, anyone who would be able to fire off a Buk blindly would know better than to do so.
That’s why, as I write in New York magazine today, Bellingcat has concluded that “responsibility for the downing of MH17 from a weapon provided and possibly operated by the Russian military lies with the Ministry of Defense and the Supreme Commander of the Russian Armed Forces, President Vladimir Putin.”
Some will no doubt find this conclusion incomprehensible: Why in the world would Putin order, or allow, a brutal attack which triggered such harsh repercussions against his country? What possibly could be the motive?
The answer is, we don’t know Putin’s motive. Indeed the alarming upshot of MH17, and how badly the press and intelligentsia have bungled their attempts to understand it, is that we don’t understand Vladimir Putin at all. We can’t presume to guess what his cost/benefit analysis of this decision was. But based on a year’s worth of intensive reporting by Bellingcat, as well as on work released by the official Joint Investigative Team, Putin obviously felt he had reason enough.
By this point I think the relevance of this story to MH370 should be clear. Within four months, two Malaysian Airlines 777s were taken out of the sky under suspicious circumstances. Imagine if you were a farmer who’s been raising chickens for many years without incident. Then one day, for the first time ever, one of the chickens goes missing. Then the next day, you see the neighbor’s dog jumping over your fence with a second chicken in its mouth. Now would you have a theory about what happened to the first chicken?
We know from the analysis of MH370s satcom system carried out by Mike Exner, Victor Iannello, Gerry Soejatman and others, that if a spoof hijacking was perpetrated on MH370 then whoever carried it out possessed an extremely high level of technical sophistication. So high, in fact, that the attack must not only have been state sponsored, but sponsored by a state with cutting-edge technology in aircraft systems and satellite communications. That being the case, if we suppose that MH370 was hijacked by someone other than Russia, then that would mean that two Malaysian Airlines 777s—of which only 15 existed out of a worldwide commercial aircraft fleet of perhaps 18,000—happened to be targeted within the span of four months by two different major powers.
Talk about bad luck!