A public briefing from US intelligence unveiled a compelling circumstantial case that the responsibility for the shootdown of Malaysia Air Flight 17 lies with Ukrainian rebels or their Russian allies. The intelligence has located the spot where the SA-11 system was fired, and has confirmed that Ukrainian rebels bragged about hitting what they thought was a military transport at the time. What the intelligence cannot determine is who fired the missile, and who gave the order to do so:
Senior U.S. intelligence officials presented evidence today that they say makes a “solid case” as to why the U.S. believes a Russian made SA-11 missile fired from separatist-held eastern Ukraine shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 last week.
While the leading theory is that Russian separatists brought down the plane, the U.S. intelligence community still cannot determine who pulled the trigger or why. The officials pointed the finger at Russia for having “created the conditions” behind the shoot-down and labeled as “not plausible” new Russian claims that the plane may have been brought down by a Ukrainian fighter jet.
In a briefing with reporters, senior intelligence officials pointed to a variety of evidence, including the detection of a surface-to-air missile launch from a separatist-held area of eastern Ukraine. They cited Russian training of separatists in air defense systems, though not necessarily the SA-11, and Russian separatists having used other air defense systems to bring down 12 aircraft in recent months.
They also noted images posted on social media showing an SA-11 missile system near the area of that launch and one system headed towards Russia missing at least one missile in the hours after the shoot down.
As for that Russian theory that a Ukrainian military plane attacked MH17, US intel officials deflated that rather thoroughly:
The officials discounted as “not plausible” a new Russian narrative released Monday that presented the possibility that a nearby Ukrainian SU-25 fighter jet may have downed the airliner.
One official said the fighter is a ground-attack aircraft not equipped with air-to-air missiles and was flying too far away from the plane at the time. The official added that the plane would have had to travel a great distance to track the plane and then would have had to persuade Russian separatists to brag on social media that they had shot the plane down. The official described the Russian narrative as “a classic case of blaming the victims.”
Ukrainian military planes have not been armed with air-to-air missiles for a good reason — the rebels don’t have an air force. Whatever arms they would carry would address the threat for which the flights were launched, which in this case might mean air-to-ground missiles for close ground support, or more likely just reconnaissance equipment. Russia’s explanation never made much sense, and the lack of radio discipline from their allies makes the effort laughable.
Bloomberg TV also had a brief overview of the case:
So … now what? White House deputy national-security adviser Ben Rhodes says that the Obama administration will “continue to pull the thread” in order to determine responsibility for the mass murder:
The Obama administration has not identified a direct link between Russia and the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, but it’s clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government had influence over the separatists who downed the plane, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said Tuesday.
“We do think President Putin and the Russian government bears responsibility for the support that they provided to these separatists, the arms they provided to these separatists, the training they provided as well, and the general unstable environment in eastern Ukraine,” Rhodes said on CNN’s “The Situation Room.” “There is a direct responsibility there on Russia… and we’re going to continue to pull the thread on this case to determine exactly who we believe fired that missile,” he added.
Interestingly, though, the certainty level of the intelligence is at least high enough to assign responsibility to someone in the Russia-rebel alliance in eastern Ukraine, especially since the Kyiv government has no SA-11s in the area. This briefing should have prompted additional US sanctions on Russia to produce the suspects in this case, but at least so far Obama is only “continuing to review” its sanctions options. Reuters’ William Pomeranz finds value in ambiguity, but with Canada moving forward with sanctions linked explicitly to MH17 and the UK demanding the same from the EU, it looks more like the US is leading from behind once more.