Implications of the JIT’s MH17 report

buk-telar

Last week, the Joint Investigation Team conducting a criminal investigation into the downing of idH17 issued their preliminary findings. Here’s what I think are the main takeaways.

— The findings strongly endorse the work of “open source intelligence” pioneer Eliot Higgins and his group, Bellingcat. In the immediate aftermath of the shoot-down, it was accepted by nearly every pundit and journalist that the missile had been fired accidentally by poorly trained militiamen who had somehow gotten their hands on an SA-11 Buk launcher and had a acquired a target without bothering to first identify it. But by painstaking work and great resourcefulness, the Bellingcat team was able to piece together an extremely convincing timeline, by which the launcher was brought across the border from a specific Russian military unit, was transported under the direction of the GRU (Russian military intelligence), shot down MH17, and was sent back across the border that night. As I’ve written previously, the timeline described by Bellingcat does not fit with the hapless-militiaman scenario very well. As the New York Times reported, “It is unlikely that anyone not connected with the Russian military would have been able to deploy an SA-11 missile launcher from Russia into a neighboring country.”

— While still admiting the possibility that the Buk crew acted on its own, the report shifts the emphasis to the once-unthinkable: that the missile launch was ordered by higher-ups:

…an investigation is conducted into the chain of command. Who gave the order to bring the BUK-TELAR into Ukraine and who gave the order to shoot down flight MH17? Did the crew decide for themselves or did they execute a command from their superiors? This is important when determining the offences committed by the alleged perpetrators.

As the New York Times put it, the JIT has signaled that it intends “to build an open-and-shut case against individual suspects and to diagram the chain of command behind the order to deploy and launch.”

One can just about imagine a wet-behind-the-ears lieutenant, newly trained and sitting nervously in the cab of his Buk TELAR, messing up and accidentally firing a missile at an unidentified target. But it is harder to imagine an experienced senior officer mistakenly giving the order. Indeed, the higher one goes up the chain of command, the less likely that the decision was made without explicit or implicit endorsement by an immediate superior. The implication, then, is that the order to shoot down MH17, if it did come from anywhere, came from the very top.

— One new piece of information that was revealed in last week’s presentation was that on the day before MH17 was shot down, a rebel commander was recorded making an emotional telephone call to a superior in the regular Russian military, complaining that his troops were vulnerable to Ukrainian air attacks—specifically, by Su-25 ground-attack jets—and that they needed Buks to protect them.

This could be interpreted as evidence that the delivery of the Buk that shot down MH17 was initiated by the militia. Alternatively, it could be a coincidence that a militia commander happened to ask for a missile system the Russian military had already decided to deploy. I think the latter is more likely, for the simple reason that the Buk missile system was not the most appropriate weapon for defending against Su-25s or the other low-altitude planes then in service against the separatists.

The Su-25 is more or less the Russian counterpart of the American A-10: it is designed for low-altitude strafing attacks, with a maximum altitude of 23,000 feet. Another plane used by the Ukrainian military at the time was the An-26 transport, with a maximum altitude of 25,000 feet. A potent defence against these planes would be the Pantsir anti-aircraft system, a mobile rocket launcher that also incorporates self-aiming quad machine guns to automatically blast low-flying attackers out of the sky. Compared to the Buk, which can reach targets above 80,000 feet high, the Pantsir can reach no higher than 26,000 feet. But unlike the Buk it can handle jets flying low under the radar, as the Su-25 can do.

It is known that Pantsirs were present and active in eastern Ukraine at the time of the shootdown. On July 14, an An-26 military transport plane was flying at about 20,000 feet when it was shot down. Ukrainian military assumed that it was downed either by a Pantsir or by an air-to-air missile fired from a Russian fighter jet flying on the other side of the Russian-Ukrainian border. On July 16, a Su-25 flying at nearly the same altitude was also shot down, again either by a Pantsir or an air-to-air missile. The blog Putin@War found satellite imagery of Pantsir units near the Ukraine-Russian border in August of 2016.

The limited reach of the Pantsir is one of the reasons that officials believed that airliners would be perfectly safe traveling higher than 32,000 feet, and so kept the airspace open to airline traffic. Buks were not known to be in the theater—and, indeed, up until the day of the shoot-down, it seems that they weren’t.

As a general principle, you do not want to send equipment into a poorly regulated battlespace that is any more powerful than it needs to be. The potential danger is too great. Retired U.S. military intelligence officer Peter Akins told me that, having had experience with many brushfire wars on its perimeter, the Russians know better than to carelessly hand out strategically powerful weapons like the Buk. “My guess is that they’re pretty carefully controlled,” he says. “We ran into real problems in Afghanistan with giving mujahadeen all those Stingers (MANPADS) that they used to take out Russian helicopters. Stingers have a relatively long shelf life. So once the mujahadeen became Taliban, if they could get to the top of a mountain in Afghanistan they could increase the operational envelope of the missile so that they could target US aircraft. So that’s one of the lessons that we learned, which is don’t give out MANPADS. I don’t know where the idea for ‘Let’s give an SA-11 to a separatist movement in the Donetsk National Sovereignty Front’ would have come from. That’s not the actions of a responsible government.”

— The weight of the JIT’s authority has, I think, severely undermined the army of Kremlin trolls who have been promoting a fog of pro-Russian conspiracy theories almost from day one. As Finnish defense writer Robin Häggblom put it, “the amount of evidence found in both open and non-open source has reached such levels that the question of whether a Russian supplied Buk shot down MH17 can now be considered a litmus test for whether you are under the influence of Russian propaganda or not.”

— The slow, grinding, meticulous building of the case against Russia feels unstoppable—and it could lead to a huge and potentially dangerous political crisis. In the wake of the JIT’s presentation, Moscow responded with such fury that the Dutch foreign minister summoned the Russian ambassador. In response, the Russian foreign minister summoned the Dutch ambassador in Moscow. Meanwhile, Australia’s foreign minister said that whoever was responsible for the shoot-down could face an international tribunal like the one who found Libyan agents guilty for the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie Scotland. Russia has already used its security council powers to block a UN investigation.

As I’ve been saying for a long time now, if it is determined that the Russian leadership deliberately ordered the shoot-down of MH17, the implications for MH370 are obvious—one of the difficulties in trying to understand MH370 is that, though it was clearly a deliberate act, there was no plausible motive. MH17 provides, if not understanding of what the motive was, clear evidence that a motive existed, in mid-2014, for a great power to take down a Malaysia Airlines 777. If an international Lockerbie-style commission is ultimately set up to assign criminal blame for Ukraine tragedy, then it is not too far out to imagine a similar body being established to do the same for MH370.

UPDATE: The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab has published a nice overview of the anti-aircraft weapons systems that Russia has deployed in Eastern Ukraine. It seems that the Buk TELAR deployed from July 16 to 18, 2014, was the only one that threatened civil air traffic over the region.