News / Europe

VOA Analysis: Ukraine Plane Crash Gives Insurgency Uncertain Future

World leaders demanded an international investigation into the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which came down near Grabovo in eastern Ukraine, July 18, 2014
World leaders demanded an international investigation into the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which came down near Grabovo in eastern Ukraine, July 18, 2014
Mike Eckel

Just under three weeks ago, pro-Russian insurgents bragged on Twitter, and to Russian reporters, about seizing a Ukrainian military base where sophisticated anti-aircraft missile systems were housed.

On Thursday, a notorious rebel leader nicknamed Strelkov crowed on a Russian social media site about downing a plane over eastern Ukraine, with the admonition “we warned them; don’t fly over ‘our skies.’”

But Friday, the day after Malaysia Airline Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board, there was no original sign of any of those postings, only the screen grabs that alert readers saved.

With evidence mounting that a rebel-fired, Russian-built missile brought down Flight 17, and serious doubts that a full investigation will ever take place, the question is turning to not what happened in eastern Ukraine but why and to what end. 

“There is a balance of data points; sure, they might not be absolutely conclusive, but making our best bet, they to tend to imply that rebels acquired a missile and shot down a plane, even if they didn’t know what kind of plane it was,” said Mark Galeotti, a NYU professor who specializes in Russian military and security institutions currently working in Moscow.

For the moment, there is little evidence of direct Russian involvement. Moscow denied having anything to do with the incident, suggesting instead that Ukraine bore responsibility for not engaging in peace talks. Some rebel leaders even suggested Ukraine’s military fired on the plane, a fact denied by Kyiv.

In fact, one theory gaining traction among experts and analysts was that insurgents may have mistaken the high-flying Boeing 777-200 for a military aircraft. 

“This conflict was waiting for this kind of error to happen: the massive hemorrhaging of weapons… going into the hands of the people who are not very well trained, but not under very clear control,” Galeotti said.

Rebel Error?

While the insurgents are known to possess shoulder-fired missiles, it wasn't previously clear whether they had missiles capable of reaching 33,000 feet, the altitude at which the Malaysian jet was flying. That would require a larger, more advanced missile system such as the Buk M-1, a medium-range, truck-mounted weapon, also known as a SA-11.

On June 29, rebels sent out photographs on Twitter showing Buk missile systems seized from the A-1402 Ukrainian base. A rebel official also confirmed that fact to the RIA-Novosti news agency. 

The Soviet-designed Buk systems require special codes to operate and, like other complicated weaponry showing up in eastern Ukraine such as Soviet-made T-64 tanks, people operating the Buk systems must have specialized training to target and shoot objects.

“The irony is that the Kremlin has done so much, and they’ve gotten away with it and obscured their fingerprints,” Galeotti said. “If they didn’t provide the missile system, they provided the crews and technology to fire them.”

The Associated Press reported seeing a Buk missile system near Torez, close to where the plane’s debris came down, earlier Thursday. Photographs posted on several Russian Twitter feeds showed a similar system in the nearby village of Snizhne. 

Later Thursday, Ukraine’s main security agency, the SBU, released audio recordings in which a man it identified as a rebel commander is heard telling a Russian military officer that insurgents had downed the plane. The recordings, posted on YouTube and elsewhere, could not be independently verified.

More alleged recordings of rebel communications released by the SBU on Friday suggested that a Buk system may have been transported across the border from Russia.

“It’s just hard to see how yesterday’s event works out in any way as a plus for the Russians,” said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and analyst at the Washington D.C.-based Brookings Institution.

Insurgency Tipping Point

Rebel error or not, the missile incident will likely be as a turning point for the insurgency and whether Russia allows it to continue.

Russian weaponry, money and personnel have flowed into Ukraine for months now, with Moscow’s full support, or at least acquiescence. In recent weeks, Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent contradictory signals about whether the Kremlin wants the fighting to end: On the one hand, he has called for new peace talks. Yet, Russia military forces substantially increased their deployments along the Ukrainian border after an earlier withdrawal of some troops.

Earlier this week, the United States went forward with more punitive sanctions that targeted Russian oil, natural gas and financial companies, as well as several arms firms. The European Union declined to take the stronger steps, though European leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel, facing outrage from the Netherlands and other, may be forced to follow Washington’s lead.

“When this becomes a game changer is if [the crashed jet] motivates the Europeans to move forward on sanctions; if it gets the Europeans to stop and say ‘wait a minute, this is really beginning to get out of hand,’” Pifer said. “Putin is watching how this plays out, and he’s calculating how bad the blowback is going to be.” 

Even before Thursday’s crash, there were indications that Moscow was looking for ways to wind down the insurgency, according to Balasz Jarabik, a scholar with the Washington D.C.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Moscow’s official and unofficial rhetoric toward the Kyiv government had become less hyperbolic. Insurgents complained openly that Moscow wasn’t supporting them. Even the recent 10,000-15,000 troop buildup on the Russian side of the border may have been a way to control insurgents crossing back into Russia.

Thursday’s plane crash “made much more reputational loss and difficulty for Putin more than anything else before,” Jarabik said.

The problem is how Putin “saves face,” he said. “Putin really can’t come out openly and say ‘hey I’m not controlling [the insurgency] anymore.’ Face-saving is tremendously important in this issue.”

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Comment Sorting
by: Tatiana from: Russia
July 21, 2014 12:21 PM
It's a big tragedy what happened and I sincerely condole to all relatives and friends of all dead people on Flight 17. But how Voa can mislead and distort public opinion based on guesses and assumptions without evidence!!!!! Let's wait results of International investigation and after we will charge and blame somebody! Putin is our President and general population is loving and respecting him!!!

by: Simon from: Liverpool UK
July 20, 2014 8:26 AM
Ah so that's why the airplane was brought down, to tag insurgency, very good. Pointless as no one believes this to be anything but an accident, or if it were deliberate, it would be on the Kiev regime side of things.
In Response

by: Genuine person from UK from: Norwich, UK
July 21, 2014 3:08 PM
A top tip for pro-Kremlin trolls based in Russia - if you are going to pretend to be "Simon" from "Liverpool UK" when making pro-Kremlin comments on websites, it's probably a good idea to actually write in the kind of English that a genuine resident of the UK would use. Otherwise it kind of gives the game away. For more on how the Kremlin pays trolls to make pro-Russian comments on websites - and how to spot them - I suggest readers seek out the recent article by the Guardian on this very topic.

by: Alla from: Russia
July 20, 2014 8:04 AM
Ukrain did the same crime in 2001. Why you dont tell about this, VOA?
In Response

by: Burnerjack from: USA
July 21, 2014 7:24 AM
Alla, please offer specifics subject to verification.
Once again, "why fire on a transport LEAVING your airspace?"
Unless. of course, the action was preceded by the question "What does this button do?"
And yes, let's hear from Voice of Russia. Let's see if they have a plausible explanation. So far, this seems very damaging to the world image of Russia. Let's not forget flight KAL007 either.
In Response

by: Ivanov from: Russia
July 21, 2014 4:44 AM
That's right Alla!!!! Why don't VOA tell us?? Voice of America? Oh, that's why! We should have Voice of Russia!

by: Alex
July 20, 2014 3:49 AM
The most important deal for the international commission investigating this crime now is to compel Putin to return back black boxes from board of Malaysian Boeing, those ones as was earlier reported by the Rusian TV were transferred by pro-Russian separatists to the Russian security services in Moscow. Obviously, they are now in the FSB in Moscow, if not being destroyed. It is evidently that if Putin does not do pass on black boxes to the international investigators, so the entire responsibility for the crash of the airliner and deaths of 295 people will be entrusted to him, yes, the entire responsibility for this will fall on him. Because they are hidden, obviously, these black boxes contain the information the disclosure of which would not be very profitable to the Kremlin. It is even possible that the Malaysian Boeing was shot down by the Russian air defense system launched from the territory of Russia.

In Response

by: Simon from: Liverpool
July 20, 2014 8:30 AM
Get rid of the EU, and strange occurrences leading to tragedy WILL stop.

by: Emosi from: Fiji
July 19, 2014 1:31 PM
I think Russia is behind it

by: maithe from: Paris, France
July 19, 2014 7:12 AM
Very good VOA analysis. Excellent.
It's true : ' the question is turning to not what happened but Why and to What end '. Yes to What end...
Horrible tragedy...

by: Jenny
July 19, 2014 5:44 AM
There is no eindence claim that Putin is relevant to this incident until now. Don't judge too early!
I have heard that there were 2 strange planes flied beside the Malaysian airplane and oblige it to fly in another route.
And the Malaysian flag is similar to Russian's one so, it can't be judge that Russian military did.
In Response

by: Jenny
July 23, 2014 6:38 AM
Dear Stenvensac,
I want to say again that "There is no evidence for this incident." Before the truth is showed, we can't blame for anyone with our judgement. They might be REBEL or they might be another team. I am truly sorry about passengers in MH17 and their family, however, the world will be better without any war. And there is not only passengers in this incident are the victims of war, everyone often forget that truth.
In Response

by: Stevensac from: Sacramento
July 20, 2014 11:16 PM
Military aircraft of the type you are referring that the rebels might have, do not have the capability of flying at such high altitudes. If they perhaps could then they could have shot down the plane. But if they were indeed so close they would know the difference between a military transport and a commercial airliner.

by: Robert Pooner from: south park
July 18, 2014 5:52 PM
The whole conflict is a waste of time, money, and lives.

by: GaryQ222 from: Florida
July 18, 2014 5:52 PM
Sorry, Putin, no way to positively spin this one. Your name will live in infamy.

by: Burnerjack from: USA
July 18, 2014 5:48 PM
Why would Pro Russians fire on a plane LEAVING their airspace? Plane was moving towards Russia, if the ID was unknown, they also did not know if it was a Russian plane returning to base or a Russian civilian plane returning home.
In Response

by: Mark from: Virginia
July 18, 2014 9:17 PM
It was a target of opportunity, a chance for a separatist leader to flex his muscle and say "hey, I can do this...see what I can do." Or, it was a mistake on the part of the separatists in identifying the aircraft and working the controls of the missile system, an "oops" moment.
More likely the former more so than the latter.
All the pieces seem to be moving toward a certain conclusion; the boasting, the base seizure, the equipment in the hands of the separatists....something like this was bound to happen, sooner or later.
Unfortunately, it was Malaysian Airlines that took the hit on the nose with another lost aircraft and 200 plus more lives lost.

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