Ukraine rebel leader: Yeah, we had a BUK system -- and sent it back to Russia

Well, well, well. Reuters’ exclusive interview with the commander of the Vostok Battalion of Ukrainian rebels sticks a dagger through the heart of Russian denials of responsibility for the Malaysia Air Flight 17 shootdown, and creates all sorts of headaches for Vladimir Putin. Contradicting nearly a week of denials, Alexander Khodakovsky admits that rebel forces had possession of a BUK missile system that would have been used to attack the commercial flight — and that it may have gone back to Russia afterward to cover up their involvement:

“I knew that a BUK came from Luhansk. At the time I was told that a BUK from Luhansk was coming under the flag of the LNR,” he said, referring to the Luhansk People’s Republic, the main rebel group operating in Luhansk, one of two rebel provinces along with Donetsk, the province where the crash took place.

“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,” Khodakovsky told Reuters on Tuesday.

Not surprisingly, Khodakovsky still blames the Kyiv government for provoking the attack on MH17 anyway:

“The question is this: Ukraine received timely evidence that the volunteers have this technology, through the fault of Russia. It not only did nothing to protect security, but provoked the use of this type of weapon against a plane that was flying with peaceful civilians,” he said.

“They knew that this BUK existed; that the BUK was heading  for Snezhnoye,” he said, referring to a village 10 km (six miles) west of the crash site. “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.”

In other words, the rebel leader reached the same conclusion as everyone else — that the rebel forces fired on the plane thinking it was a military transport. Khodakovsky wants to push the responsibility for that onto Kyiv, but that’s nonsense for at least two reasons. First, the airspace above Ukraine — especially commercial airspace — belongs to Ukraine, not the LNR or any other rebel group. Even if Khodakovsky wants to dispute that, it’s still incumbent on forces in war to check on aircraft transiting a disputed zone before firing on it. The US took responsibility for the 1988 Iran Air shootdown by the USS Vincennes for that reason, paying significant damages for killing 290 passengers on board.

Up to now, Putin has insisted that Russia didn’t supply the rebels with any system that could have shot down MH17, and denied that the rebels even had that capability at all. Khodakovsky’s admission that rebels not only had the system but that it was located in Snezhnoye — where US intel pegged the launch site — destroys Putin’s claims. And the fact that the rebels sent it back to Russia to hide their culpability means that Russia collaborated in the cover-up, becoming an accessory after the fact to mass murder while claiming to be entirely innocent in the matter.

This should prompt a significant escalation in sanctions, especially from the EU, but also from the US. Will it?