A Few Thoughts on Implications of MH17 Tragedy

The airliner was en route from Netherland to Malaysia, flying over the conflict zone in E. Ukraine, but approaching Russia, when it went down on Thursday with all 295 people onboard killed. The plane could have crashed because of a malfunction, or a crew error, or there might been a bomb on board. But if I won’t be surprised if allegations that it has been brought down by a missile prove to be true.
If the plane has been shot down US and EU leaders will have to respond regardless of whether the downing has been accidental or international, given the casualties that include dozens of US and EU citizens .  If Ukrainian military had accidentally shot the plane down, then the U.S. government would probably press for suspects to be extradited, but refrain from punishing Kiev. But if it were Russian military or sepatists who have brought the plane down, then the US government  would not just seek to arrest suspects, but also impose more sanctions – recall West's punishment of Gaddafi's regime over downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie to get an idea of what US/EU response may look like if MH17 was indeed shot down. Of course, pressure will be much greater on Putin too to throw the separatists under the bus, but I don't think Putin will impel the separatists to give up arms and suspects directly responsible for pulling the trigger on the passenger plane (again if they did indeed pull the trigger) unless there are guarantees Poroshenko will accommodate Russia's wishes of Ukraine's neutrality and decentralization, I have written before.
Both Ukrainian and Russian armed forces are, of course, capable to bringing down a plane by a surface-to-air or air-to-air missile. Russian military could have thought it was a Ukrainian warplane that strayed into Russian aerospace and they might have given orders to shoot, given that Ukrainians shelled Russian territory, killing one and prompting a Kremlin source and a senior Russian senator to vow retaliatory strikes.  But I doubt that what's actually happened. Russian air defense operators are no amateurs and would have been able to tell the the plane is still dozens of miles away from Russian aerospace. Plus they must be cued in on civilian air traffic in the area.
It is also possible that Ukrainians could have thought they are firing at a Sukhoi warplane that the rebels have seized from them and have been operating, but again these are no amateurs and they should be informed of civilian air traffic.
Finally,  separatists could have thought it was an Ukrainian plane – in fact earlier the same day ‘defense minister’ of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Republic (and retired Russian officer) Igor Strelkov claimed his soldiers to have shot down what they believe was an An-22 plane, but what could have been a Boeing-777.
Of all three possible accomplices, separatists would be most trigger-happy and least capable of correctly identifying friend or foe. And they did manage to seize a Ukrainian air defense unit that operated Soviet-designed Buk air defense systems. It would not be a mission impossible for rebels to master operating a Buk, given the number of retired servicemen which operated these systems in Soviet and post-Soviet days and who live in E. Ukraine or Russia.
However, unless we decide to accept conspiracy theories (one side seeking to frame the other), we should suspect neither Moscow nor Kiev nor separatists of willingly shooting down a passenger airliner .  I’d also note that while Twitter is full of insinuations drawing parallels with Korean Air Lines Flight 007, I’d note a more recent case: it was actually the Ukrainian air defense that accidentally shot a Russian airliner flying from Israel to Russia over the Black Sea during an exercise in 2001. It took the Ukrainian military a while back then to admit complicity.
This time neither side will admit, even if it did and it might prove impossible to prove beyond reasonable doubt whether and who (if anyone) is guilty of shooting it down. Debris of the plane lying on territory controlled by the rebels and the latter already promised to hand the black boxes to Russia. But even if the black boxes were handed to an independent UN-appointed team of investigators, neither the plane’s systems nor the pilots were likely to have identified which side might have fired the missile (if any did at all).
One question that might be easier to answer is why airliners had not been bypassing airspace above zone of conflict in E. Ukraine, given downing of warplanes there. Until today, I had assumed they were.
 UPDATE: So missile theory looks increasingly to be the only viable, though no 100% certainty. Chivers in NYT had an interesting piece on Buk air defense system's capabilities. He cites a Jane's expert who says one of the missiles has an independent guidance system rather than relies on land radar as older ones. I did some research  – that missile is, actually, 9M317A, but it was still being tested as of 2008 and I cannot find info whether and when it was commissioned. Giving separatists a new missile like 9M317A'd be risky cause if seized would become strong evidence of assistance – can't claim it was a trophy from Ukrainian arsenals.


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