The tragedy of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, which was shot down by a surface-to-air missile over eastern Ukraine on July 17, is quickly turning away from an investigation of the events and into accusations of criminality by the adversaries in the Ukrainian civil war.
President Barack Obama, Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and Secretary of State John Kerry accuse Russia of complicity. U.S. intelligence officials are asserting that Russia provided training and equipment to separatists on the advanced BUK missile system believed responsible for the shoot-down. Kerry stated bluntly, “It’s pretty clear that this is a system that was transferred from Russia into the hands of separatists.”
Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko accuses Russia not only of providing the weapons system and the training to use it but also of direct involvement in the incident. He asserted in a speech the day after the crash, “The State Security Service of Ukraine has intercepted a conversation in which one of the leaders of the mercenaries boasted about bringing down the plane in his reporting to his Russian supervisor, colonel of the General Intelligence Unit of Russia’s armed forces. Other terrorists have also boasted about their success.”
Moscow, on the other hand, has repeatedly denied any participation in the tragedy and has voiced disdain for U.S. accusations. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin wrote dismissively on his Twitter account, “The White House has established the guilty even before the investigation of the Boeing accident. Earlier, the White House established the same way that Saddam [Hussein] had WMD.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have spoken twice on the telephone since the disaster and called for a cease-fire in the region and for security to be guaranteed by both the Kiev forces and the separatists so the victims’ remains can be recovered and an inquiry by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) can begin quickly.
The separatists have rejected the accusation that they participated in the shoot-down and have accused Kiev of a plane plot. “The purpose of their plane plot is to convince the global community that the people of Donbass are criminals who do not deserve any indulgences,” said Andrei Purgin, vice premier of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic.
There is a great deal of vital evidence unavailable at this time. There are also reports of fraudulent evidence, such as the phone chatter between separatist leaders that reports claim are edited from different fragments.
Pending further facts, neither Washington nor Kiev has offered more than a circumstantial case that the missile system used in the incident was moved from Russia territory in and out of Ukraine by separatists or Russian experts.
The Kremlin is said to be frustrated at the accusations made by the Obama administration before the investigation even began. The Kremlin’s chief priority is to resolve the Ukrainian civil war, which it believes will continue to create many other civilian tragedies.
The Kremlin theory notes that Vladimir Putin’s official plane was returning from the BRICS meeting in Brazil on the same afternoon that MH17 was bound for Kuala Lumpur.
Most important for the Kremlin’s thinking as it weighs the next weeks is the theory — which, I am told by Moscow observers, is soberly entertained — that the shoot-down of MH17 was an assassination attempt against Putin.
The Kremlin version of events emerged very soon after a telephone call between Putin and Obama in which the Russian president is said to have informed Obama about MH17.
The Kremlin theory notes that Putin’s official plane was returning from the BRICS meeting in Brazil on the same afternoon that MH17 was bound for Kuala Lumpur.
The Kremlin believes that Kiev had prior knowledge of Putin’s journey because of a routine request to close air lanes over Eastern Europe ahead of the presidential aircraft. Putin’s plane diverted around Ukraine. MH17, on the other hand, crossed into Ukrainian airspace
Within hours of the shoot-down, an unidentified Kremlin source told the Kremlin-controlled media outlet RT that “Putin’s plane and the Malaysian Boeing intersected at the same point and the same echelon. That was close to Warsaw on 330-m echelon at the height of 10,100 meters. The presidential jet was there at 16:21 Moscow time and the Malaysian aircraft 15:44 Moscow time.”
The Kremlin theory continues that Kiev sent up one or more fighter jets to obtain a visual confirmation on the aircraft. RIA Novosti reported that an eyewitness saw one fighter jet near the path of MH17. The Kremlin theory is that this was necessary because the BUK system operators did not want to use their radar, since this would have allowed the Russians to identify the shooters. Significantly, Putin’s plane and MH17 have similar paint and markings. The Kremlin believes the confusion and misidentification led to the error.
After Kiev realized its error, it started to conceal what it could of its arsenal and operators and started to release circumstantial photos, video and audio data that pointed to Russian guilt.
The Kremlin version of events notes that the Ukrainian military inadvertently shot down Russian commercial airliners before, such as in October 2001, when a Ukrainian S-200 missile sent a Tupolev airliner into the Black Sea.
A mountain of facts is missing in the investigation, beginning with the flight recorder. Another critical fact in both the Washington and Moscow scenarios is that neither side has yet produced suspects who were qualified to operate the BUK missile system.
However, my information is that the Ukraine crisis has moved well past the point that an OSCE fact-finding mission can contribute to peacemaking.
For some time, Putin has been urged by Berlin and other EU capitals to resolve the standoff to his satisfaction, which would mean a federalized, non-EU Ukraine without Crimea.
The pressure on Putin to intervene in Ukraine was said to be severe before MH17. I am told that Putin has called in his most trusted advisers for a major meeting. Now that the Kremlin can see there is no possibility of negotiating with a jump-to-conclusion Washington, the new direction is said to treat the Obama administration as odd man out.