A Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 with 295 people aboard was likely shot down by an antiaircraft missile before it crashed and burned on Thursday in an eastern Ukraine wheat field near the Russian border, in an area roiled by fighting between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces…
Reporters arriving at the scene near the town of Grabovo described dozens of lifeless bodies strewn about, mostly intact, in a field dotted with purple flowers, with remnants of the plane scattered across a road lined with fire engines and emergency vehicles. “It fell down in pieces,” said one rescue worker as tents were set up to gather the dead.
One passenger in a black sweater lay on her back, with blood streaming down her face and her left arm raised. The carcass of the plane was still smoldering, and rescue workers moved through the dark field with flashlights. Dogs barked in the distance, and the air was filled with a bitter smell.
Arizona Republican Senator John McCain claimed there would be “hell to pay” if Russia or its separatist allies shot down a Malaysian civilian airliner in eastern Ukraine on Thursday — though he cautioned it remains unclear who exactly is responsible…
“I think the repercussions are incalculably huge,” McCain told Mitchell. “But remember that the Russians have already — or separatists, either Russian or separatist, and they’re really one and the same — have already shot down several aircraft of the Ukrainians . . . So this is part of a pattern.”
The Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine immediately blamed each other for the crash, which occurred as the Boeing 777 was flying its regular route from Amsterdam to the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur…
Hours later, a U.S. official said American intelligence agencies had confirmed that the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile. The official, who was not authorized to speak on the record about an early intelligence assessment, said government analysts were scrambling to determine who fired the missile.
“This is a contested area,” the official said. “It’s going to take time to get some information on the intentions of whoever was involved.”
A Kremlin statement early Friday said Putin opened a meeting with his economic advisers by calling for a moment of silence over the crash.
Then, he said, “This tragedy would not have happened if there were peace on this land, if the military actions had not been renewed in southeast Ukraine. And, certainly, the state over whose territory this occurred bears responsibility for this awful tragedy.”
Ukraine has already accused Russia of shooting down the Malaysia Airlines flight that crashed near the Russian border, raising questions about whether it can conduct an objective investigation into the disaster.
“The plane was shot down, because the Russian air defense systems was affording protection to Russian mercenaries and terrorists in this area,” the Ukranian Foreign Ministry said in a statement, according to ABC News. “Ukraine will present the evidence of Russian military involvement into the Boeing crash.”
Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200 flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was allegedly shot down by a group of Russian-backed Cossack militants near the village of Chornukhine, Luhansk Oblast, some 80 kilometers north-west of Donetsk, according to recordings of intercepted phone calls between Russian military intelligence officers and members of terrorist groups, released by the country’s security agency (SBU)…
“It’s 100 percent a passenger (civilian) aircraft,” Major is recorded as saying, as he admitted to seeing no weapons on site. “Absolutely nothing. Civilian items, medicinal stuff, towels, toilet paper.”
In the third part of conversation Cossack commander Nikolay Kozitsin talking to an unidentified militant cynically suggests that the Malaysia Airlines airplane could’ve been carrying spies, as, otherwise, it would have no business flying in that area.
There is one important reason Ukrainian authorities are so sure that pro-Russian rebels shot down a Malaysia Airlines jet: An account on the Russian social network Vkontakte, which relays official dispatches from insurgent military leader Igor Girkin, aka Strelkov, boasted about the rebels shooting down a plane at about the time of the crash…
The Vkontakte account reported at 5:37 p.m. Moscow time (4:37 in Donetsk) that a large plane — identified as an Antonov An-26 transport plane, “has just been shot down near Snizhne,” a town close to where the Malaysia Airlines plane went down. This appears to be an edited version of a gloating post that is available only in screen shots now (I have one). In that initial version, the post went on: “We warned them not to fly in our skies. And here’s a video of another bird going down. The bird fell behind a coal heap, residential areas were not hit, peaceful people did not suffer.”
Armed with Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS), the separatists have been taking down Ukrainian military aircraft since the beginning of June. On June 13, separatists shot down a Ukrainian transport plane that had been carrying 40 paratroopers and nine crew members.
At least 10 other Ukrainian aircraft — all of them significantly lower-flying than a Boeing 777 — have been shot down since the rebels started using MANPADS according to a count kept by military aviation expert David Cenciotti, including five Mi-24 Hinds, two Mi-8 helicopters, one An-2, one An-30, and the Ukrainian transport plane.
Pro-Russian rebels claimed responsibility for shooting down two additional Ukrainian Su-25 fighters on Wednesday. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry reported that one of the jets was hit by a portable surface-to-air missile.
Putin cannot be happy about this turn of events. After all, things were going more or less according to plan up to now. Yesterday’s reasonably robust round of U.S. sanctions was accompanied by a set of comparatively meek European ones consisting mostly of a moratorium on development aid. Putin was doing his best to portray himself as a responsible statesman, in contrast to the reckless Western interests that goaded Kiev into civil war. He even went so far as to say that his door was always open for further negotiations. With the fog of war descending over eastern Ukraine, it was starting to look like he would be able to keep the region on a low simmer while the world was distracted by hotter conflicts elsewhere.
As of right now, that looks less likely. While it’s always dangerous to underestimate the divisions in Europe, if any kind of definitive intelligence linking Russia to this tragedy emerges, it will be much harder for skeptical Europeans to remain straddling the fence.
“The Ukrainian government reports that 23 Americans were aboard the plane, and that more than 300 people were killed in the crash.”
The Americans on the plane had no connection to Russia or Ukraine, and took no risks other than booking a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. Now they’re dead. It’s quite possible pro-Russian separatists killed our fellow citizens. What will the consequence be?
This also seems to prove that Russia has lost control of the rebels, who have been complaining for some time of being abandoned by President Vladimir Putin. There is no way that, a day after criticizing the recklessness of American foreign policy, his military shoots down a passenger plane. Rather, it seems that the rebels made a mistake that paints Putin into a corner. Putin hates corners, and when he’s backed into one, he tends to lash out. He especially hates to do or say what is expected of him, and to give in to outside pressure. So though he has already expressed his condolences to the Malaysian government, don’t expect him to do anything swift or decisive. He will likely do something to punish the rebels after the spotlight moves on to the next global crisis.
My first reaction to this was that this is a game-changer, and it’s a game-changer in that it drags in the outside world, but it’s hard to see what the consequences of this could be. Even if and when the evidence is marshalled to point to the rebels, what can the West do to punish them? What can it do to punish Russia for giving them these capabilities? What can it do to end the conflict? More sanctions? Putin’s been blowing them off and they haven’t altered his calculus all that much. A peacekeeping mission? There is still no appetite for boots on the ground and Russia still has that U.N. veto. Even if the U.S. gives Ukraine lethal military aid, it in no way guarantees that Kiev’s military will be able to crush the separatists, especially not without some bloody, horrific urban warfare. The plane went down, raised the stakes, but what can the West—or Moscow—really do about it?