What is known and what remains to be proven or investigated in the mystery of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur? Who has benefited from the air tragedy? A Malaysian airline safety engineer considers the facts.
The Malaysian Federation has suffered two air tragedies this year, one after the other. Malaysians are still dealing with their grief over the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in March. Now, another catastrophe has occurred. On July 17, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur crashed in far away eastern Ukraine, where combat between rebels and government forces began so tragically several months ago.
According to the most publicized version, the MH17 Boeing 777 was shot down by a ground-to-air missile launched from a battery of the SA-11 Buk anti-aircraft system, known as the “Gadfly” by NATO. Of note is that the plane was flying several hundred kilometers north of its normal course that day for reasons still unexplained, and it left its assigned air corridor that day not long before the crash.
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The political leaders of our country Malaysia have called for an objective investigation of the tragedy. International teams of investigators are working at the crash site. We need to be patient and wait for the results of all tests and examinations. Unfortunately, several countries issued swift accusations that may impede an objective inquiry.
According to US and European leaders, Moscow as well as pro-Russian rebels are to blame. “It is not an incident, not a disaster, but an act of terrorism,” Ukrainian President Poroshenko boldly stated just two hours after the tragedy. For their part, pro-Russian rebels have no doubt that the Ukrainian armed forces were involved.
As for me, I would like to analyze the situation objectively, look into the facts and evaluate arguments presented by the sides.
US and EU Arguments
US Secretary of State John Kerry said on July 20 that the United States had irrefutable evidence that the Malaysian Boeing was shot down by the Buk missile system provided to the Ukrainian rebels by the Russian Federation. It’s rather strange that the head of US foreign policy relied on data published in social networks whereas the United States has the most powerful intelligence agencies in the world.
The US administration held a special briefing on that date. US intelligence representatives (whose names were concealed!) claimed that the airliner had been “mistakenly” shot down by rebels who apparently had mistaken it for a military aircraft. At the same time, they presented no technical information to reinforce such a conclusion. Intelligence officials admitted that their conclusions were based on radio interceptions by the Ukrainian military and photos posted in different social networks.
That’s even more amusing, given that American satellites as well Russian ones were over the territory of Ukraine at the very moment of the crash. The Russian Department of Defense suggested that the Americans should publish pictures taken by those satellites, but the request went unheeded.
Contrary to the US administration’s public statements blaming Russia and pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine, a number of American intelligence analysts suggested that the responsibility for the disaster lies mostly on the Ukrainian side. They insist Washington lacks the facts proving that Russia provided the rebels with the Buk air defense system.
The Ukrainian Argument
Ukrainian officials have also actively commented on the catastrophe, first blaming the rebels, then Russia, then both. The Ukrainian side released to the internet and social networks a number of materials ostensibly proving the guilt of pro-Russian militias.
Within two hours after the passenger aircraft was downed, an audio record of alleged discussion among rebels about the crash was posted to the web. However, technical analysis experts found evident signs of audio cutting and audio layout in it. In addition, there was no evidence provided that voices on the record belonged to rebels. In this regard, many internet users agreed that these materials could have been prepared by the Ukrainian side.
Also, authorities in Kiev distributed via social networks a video allegedly showing a Buk launcher being transported from the crash area back to Russia. However, experts proved that the number 312 launcher was seen in a convoy of Ukrainian armored vehicles in March 2014. What’s more, the city of Krasnoarmeysk is pictured in the video and it has been under the control of Ukrainian forces since May 11.
Ukraine also published photos displaying the anti-aircraft missile system in question located on territory the rebels’ control. The Ukrainian officials argued that the pictures were taken by their own satellites. However, as described earlier, only American and Russian satellites were over Ukrainian territory at the time of the crash. Incorrect date, time and location of shadows from objects as well as the lack of cloud cover registered that day also proved that those photos were fake.
It is very surprising that Ukraine has yet to release a recording of the communications between the MH17 crew and a Ukrainian air controller who “accompanied” the aircraft up to the tragedy. This naturally casts suspicions that the Ukrainian authorities are trying to conceal some facts.
Ukrainian attempts to destroy evidence at the crash site testify to the same thing. Since MH17 was downed, Ukrainian troops continued military operations in and around the crash site, including shelling areas where debris lay. This in spite of the fact there was no military infrastructure or rebel roadblocks in the area.
Then there is the strange fact that international inspectors were prevented from accessing the crash site for four consecutive days, July 27 to 30. Ukraine officials said that military operations by rebel fighters were responsible. But it was Ukraine that refused to call a ceasefire in the area, and The New York Times described the arrival, finally, of inspectors on July 31 in these words: “Ukrainian officials said they had suspended offensive operations against the rebels to allow the monitors to reach the site safely. Commanders at Ukrainian military positions near the site confirmed that they had been ordered to halt their advance.”
New York Times journalist Sabrina Tavernise, who reported from the region of the crash in the hours and days following, told a television interviewer on July 29 that rebel fighters were not blocking access to the site and that the barriers beginning on July 27 were created by Ukraine forces. What were Ukrainian officials doing at the site during this time?
The Russian Argument
Russia rejects all accusations that it had a hand in the downing of MH17. During a news briefing on July 21, the Russian Department of Defense presented its air traffic control data on the crash. According to the data, the airplane deviated from its assigned route of that day for 14 kilometers over the area of armed conflict.
The Russian Defense Department detected a Ukrainian Air Force aircraft, presumably an Su-25, at a distance of three to five kilometers from the Boeing.
In addition, the Russian military made public satellite images depicting the Ukrainian air defense units located close to the crash area. So it’s clear that the route of MH17 was within the range of Ukrainian anti-aircraft systems.
The Russian side also refers to the statements of Ukrainian officials. Thus, according to media reports, Prosecutor-General Vitaly Yarema of Ukraine told Ukraine media on July 18 that the rebels possessed neither Buk nor S-300 air defense systems.
At the same time, the Ukrainian anti-aircraft missiles were present in the area of conflict shortly before the aircraft’s downing. For what purpose? Rebels have never possessed any aviation units.
Russia accuses Ukraine and its supporters of failing to adhere to UN Security Council Resolution 2166, which was adopted unanimously on July 21. It calls for a cessation of military and all other activity that would impede the international investigation of the crash or disturb the wreckage of the plane and the bodies of those who lost their lives. Ukraine resumed military operations within days of the adoption of the resolution.
In August, Russia sought a new resolution from the Security Council to prohibit any activity that would “violate the integrity” of the crash site. Its proposed resolution was blocked when some countries, including the United States, sought to add inappropriate clauses, such as condemning the actions of rebel forces.
According to Ukraine, rebels possessed one Buk launcher capable of shooting down airplanes, even at the height of 10,000 meters. As for the Buk anti-aircraft system, it is quite a complicated system. When fully installed, the system consists of four vehicles. It’s hard to imagine how the launcher could “accidentally” lock onto a Boeing 777 passenger aircraft and shoot it down without guidance and targeting stations present and operational.
A friend of mine, an air defense officer, told me an interesting thing. The Buk launcher hitting range is about 30 to 40 kilometers. Militaries always use several missile launchers to destroy air targets, as at a high altitude and speed (about 900 kilometers per hour), an aircraft stays in the hitting area of one launcher for four to six minutes only.
I can’t imagine how untrained personnel could lock onto a target and hit it. It is known that most of the rebels are workers – miners, metal workers, etc. They are unlikely to have the necessary skills to manage a complex weapons system requiring special education and training.
At the same time, we are aware that Ukrainian military personnel do have the required skills. In 2001, Ukraine had the sad experience of shooting down a civilian aircraft by mistake. Siberia Airlines Flight 1812 from Israel to Russia was shot down over the Black Sea by a Ukrainian ground-to-air missile on October 4 of that year.
Furthermore, Ukrainian air defense experts may have been directly involved in shooting at Russian military aircraft in the skies over Georgia in August 2008. The Ukraine government of the time supported Georgia in its brief war with Russia that month. That decision came under sharp, critical review in Ukraine afterward.
We know that Russian satellite images show a Ukrainian Buk system positioned near the MH17 crash site, and Ukraine officials did not refute that.
In my opinion, a key question to ask about the plane disaster is who stands to gain by it? It is obvious that the crash brought huge benefits to one side of the conflict – the Ukrainian side. It is seeking international support to reverse an unfavorable military situation in the Donbas region of southeast Ukraine. Let us recall that the United States was able to persuade its European allies to introduce new sanctions against Russia only after the disaster occurred.
All this said, I do not wish to draw premature conclusions. I repeat, once again, we must wait for the outcome of the international investigation and resist the pressure to jump to hasty or biased conclusions.