Let’s try to sort out facts from nonsense about the shootdown of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, and let’s say up-front what probably happened.
You don’t have to be a student of Occam’s Razor to figure out that neither the pro-Russian rebels—those out-of-control, half-drunk thugs who’ve proclaimed ersatz “people’s republics” in southeast Ukraine—nor Russia itself would have deliberately targeted a civilian airliner, so the shootdown was obviously a mistake. It was a mistake made in the context of recently successful efforts by the separatists to shoot down Ukrainian military aircraft, including recently two SU-25 fighter jets, but it reveals a stunning lack of competence by the anti-Kiev fighters, who managed to get hold of a sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons system, the Russian-made Buk, a mobile, radar-guided system that can hit targets as high as fourteen miles up, but clearly don’t know how to use the system safely. Though the perpetrators of the shootdown may have received training by Russia’s military, and though it’s almost certain that the Buk used in the atrocity was supplied from Russian territory across the border into Ukraine and then hastily withdrawn, it is truly mind-boggling that both Russia and the commanders of the anti-Kiev rebels would have trusted such as deadly system in the incompetent and reckless hands of those who fired it.
Among the leaders of the “people’s republics,” there are fanciful theories about what happened. What’s important to note is that these accusations are being made not by irresponsible bloggers and other propagandists either in the Donbass or in Moscow but by the actual senior leaders and commanders of the rebel force.
First, for sheer comic value—if comedy can ever be appropriate in a tragedy of such magnitude—take the comments of Igor Girkin (a k a Igor Strelkov, which means “shooter”), the Russian citizen and, reportedly, a retired Russian military intelligence officer who says that he served in the Russian FSB intelligence agency until 2013, who is the commander of the so-called Donbass People’s Militia and who’s sometimes been described as a ersatz “defense minister” of the Donetsk-Luhansk region. As the Associated Press reports, via Talking Points Memo, Girkin-Strelkov says that the plane that was shot down was full of dead bodies already and that the victims, drained of blood and reeking of decomposition, were therefore plants. “A significant number of the bodies weren’t fresh,” says Girkin-Strelkov. “Ukrainian authorities are capable of any baseness.”
The Girkin-Strelkov Theory fits in with what is emerging among the conspiracy-minded rebels as the belief that Ukraine somehow deliberately lured the anti-Kiev fighters into shooting down Flight MH17, having larded it with dead bodies. While that theory pales in comparison with the lunatic beliefs of 9/11 Truthers, it’s still crazy, but it’s backed by another top rebel commander, Alexander Khodakovsky, the leader of the so-called Vostok Battalion.
In an interview with Reuters, published in The Guardian, Khodakovsky, a defector from the Ukrainian special forces, admits that the Buk system used in the Flight MH17 shootdown was supplied by Russia and then hastily withdrawn back into Russian territory, which conforms with US and Ukrainian intelligence reports and unconfirmed photographs of the used Buk transport vehicle missing one missile. The New York Times, noting that the intelligence is sketchy so far, reported that there is evidence that the Buk system used in the attack traveled from Russia:
Photographs and videos posted on social media sites of what Ukrainian intelligence officials have said was likely the Buk system are unconfirmed and far from conclusive. But they offer a muddy picture of what might have been the weapon’s bumpy journey through eastern Ukraine to a location near this sleepy mining town where American intelligence officials believe it blew the passenger jet out of the sky that day.
But Khodakovsky, in a burst of conspiracy-mongering, that Ukraine had “timely evidence” that the rebels possessed Buks but deliberately “provoked the use of this type of weapon against a plane that was flying with peaceful civilians.” In other words, the devious Ukrainian government tricked the rebels into shooting down Flight MH17. Said Khodakovsky:
They knew that this BUK existed; that the BUK was heading for Snezhnoye. They knew that it would be deployed there, and provoked the use of this BUK by starting an air strike on a target they didn’t need, that their planes hadn’t touched for a week. And that day, they were intensively flying, and exactly at the moment of the shooting, at the moment the civilian plane flew overhead, they launched air strikes. Even if there was a BUK, and even if the BUK was used, Ukraine did everything to ensure that a civilian aircraft was shot down.
Despite such nonsense, Khodakovsky admits in the interview quite a bit about the origin and departure of the Buk. According to The Guardian, Khodakovsky “said the rebels may have received the Buk from Russia, in the first such admission by a senior separatist.” He said:
That Buk I know about. I heard about it. I think they sent it back. Because I found out about it at exactly the moment that I found out that this tragedy had taken place. They probably sent it back in order to remove proof of its presence.… I’m not going to say Russia gave these things or didn’t give them.… Russia could have offered this Buk under some entirely local initiative. I want a Buk, and if someone offered me one, I wouldn’t turn it down.
Amid horrific conditions, in wartime, investigators from Ukraine, the United States, the United Nations, Britain, the Netherlands and Malaysia—along with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe—are slowly making headway in the recovery of victims’ bodies and in piecing together what happened. But it will be a long, slow process.
Contrary to the notion that the anti-Kiev separatists are simply one side in a Ukrainian civil war, it’s by now undeniable that Russia’s Putin has stoked the fire of conflict in Ukraine, turning what would have been an east-west civil dispute pitting the government in Kiev against the significant, long-standing pro-Russian feelings in the southeast into a shooting war, and one that now involves heavy weapons, including tanks, artillery, anti-aircraft weapons (including shoulder-fired Manpads) and other equipment supplied by Russia.
But, as The Guardian reports—and congruent with the deranged views of Khodakovsy and Girkin-Strelkov—in Russia there are rampant conspiracy theories among the shootdown of Flight MH17. Among them: that Ukraine itself shot down the plane, or that the rebels were aiming for Putin’s plane, returning from Brazil, as Russia’s Interfax/RT speculated. At least some of this is encouraged by Putin’s own spurious charge, outrageous in context, that Ukraine somehow bears responsibility for the tragedy by virtue of its military campaign against the Donbass “people’s republic.”
So far, it isn’t clear whether Putin is prepared to take responsibility for irresponsibly inflaming eastern Ukraine or that he’ll take the opportunity of the unspeakable Flight MH17 tragedy to back off. In his middle-of-the-night statement on Monday, he declared that the tragedy would not have occurred if Ukraine hadn’t renewed military efforts to retake the southeast in late June, but he called for negotiations to end the conflict and pledged to support efforts to secure the investigation of the shootdown. And he did say: “Such events should not divide, but rather unite, people.” Then, in a foreign policy speech on Tuesday, Putin said:
We are being urged to use our influence with the militias in southeastern Ukraine. We of course will do everything in our power, but that is not nearly enough.
He then once again slammed Kiev for its military actions in the southeast, saying:
It is necessary to call on the Kiev authorities also to observe elementary norms of ethics. At least to impose a cease-fire for a short time to hold an investigation.
So far, though, there is little confidence that a cease-fire wouldn’t allow Russia to step up the supply of heavy weapons and even personnel to the anti-Kiev forces. If Russia is truly prepared to use its influence over the rebels to get them to accept the authority of the government in Kiev, then the crisis could be eased. Lacking such a commitment from Putin, it seems obvious, and tragic, that the war will continue, and that the rebels will be pushed back into small enclaves and ultimately crushed, at enormous cost in human lives and destruction. And, unless Russia intends to get directly involved, there is virtually no chance that the anti-Kiev forces can hold out more than weeks or months. Meanwhile, given the staggering public relations setback that Russia has suffered since the Flight MH17 shootdown, it seems highly unlikely that Russia can back the rebels more aggressively. To President Obama’s credit, he’s ignored calls from neoconservatives and hawks, including in Congress, to rush American military support, arms and advisers to the Ukrainian government.