“… and once the TAR (Target Acquisition Radar) has lock-on, this light will go green. Then just push this button here, and the rest’s automatic. Good luck! Oh, and make sure nobody’s standing behind the missile when you launch.”
Maybe the crew who launched the missile that brought down Malaysian Airlines flight 17 over eastern Ukraine on Thursday afternoon were trained professionals, but it seems unlikely. That crew — or somebody else — was good enough to down three Ukrainian Air Force planes over the rebel-held zone in the past week, but they weren’t good enough to tell the difference between a military aircraft and a civilian airliner.
The Ukrainian planes were smallish aircraft flying low in a combat zone; the huge Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 was flying straight and steady at 33,000 feet. A fully trained operator would know the difference in an instant. Somebody who just had a crash course in firing Buk missiles — two tracked vehicles and a lot of electronics — might not, so 298 people died.
Who actually did it is pretty obvious. At least one Buk launch team was spotted by an Associated Press reporter in the rebel-held zone Wednesday, and there may have been more. The Russians have been trying to deny the air-space over the combat zone to the Ukrainians, so their army needs to do all its fighting without air support and suffers increased casualties. Six Ukrainian planes have been shot down during the past six weeks.
The really damning evidence, however, is on the social media sites. First, there was a post on a top rebel commander’s site, just at the time MH17 went down, claiming to have downed a Ukrainian transport plane. Within hours, that post was deleted. Then the Ukrainian Security Service, or SBU, posted intercepted telephone conversations between rebel commanders on YouTube.
“Demon,” commanding the rebel troops who are the first to the crash site, reports, “Cossacks from the Chernunkhino checkpoint shot down the plane. … They found the first body. It’s a civilian.” “Were there many people?” his superior, nicknamed “Greek,” asks. “A f—-load,” Demon replies. “The debris rained right into the yards.”
“Any weapons there?” Greek asks. “None at all. Civilian things — medical stuff, towels, toilet paper,” Demon says. “Any documents?” Greek asks. And Demon, finally realising what must have happened, replies, “Yes. From an Indonesian student. From Thompson University.” And he curses again.
It’s probably not Thompson University, which is an entirely online institution in the United States. It’s almost certainly Thompson Rivers University, in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada, which has a student exchange agreement with the International Islamic Education Council, or IIEC, in Indonesia.
And there’s no way, without access to the crash site and with only a few hours to do the job, the Ukrainian intelligence service could have come up with that kind of detail to put into a fake recording. It’s genuine. The rebels did it.
Russia didn’t want the Cossacks at Chernunkhino to shoot down a civilian airliner, but it has been giving the rebels heavy weapons while strenuously denying it. It has been caught red-handed, and hundreds have died. This is indeed a game-changer, but in which direction?
One option would be for Moscow to admit it, apologise wholeheartedly and abandon its clients in eastern Ukraine. That is unlikely to happen. As President Vladimir Putin said Thursday, “This tragedy would not have occurred if there were peace in that country, or in any case, if hostilities had not resumed in southeast Ukraine. And certainly, the government over whose territory it occurred is responsible for this terrible tragedy.”
In other words, yeah, we gave the rebels the weapons, and they used them to shoot down the airliner, but the whole thing wouldn’t have happened if the Ukrainian government had just given in to the rebels. So it’s really Kiev’s fault, not ours.
The signs are clear: Russia is going to brazen it out and go on supplying the separatist rebels with weapons. The Western Europeans have been trying to look the other way — though the United States did impose some extra sanctions this week — but they can’t look away after this. Western sanctions against Russia are going to go up quickly and steeply now. It’s already ugly, and it’s going to get even uglier.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose commentary is published in 45 countries.