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How’s this for “irreversible consequences”?

July 18, 2014

Summary: In my opinion Russian-backed (and likely Russian-armed) separatists mistook MH17 for a Ukrainian military aircraft and shot it down.

My heading is based on President Putin’s 13th July statement that Ukraine may suffer “consequences” as a result of a reported artillery round that landed in Russian territory, reportedly killing a Russian civilian. 

MH17 wreckageI spent quite a few hours through last night and early morning reading (and re-reading, in many cases) the various feeds coming through on the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17.    The detailed minute by minute reports I don’t intend to air here, but the BBC live feed has been very useful.  I will cut to the chase and give my first pass at an assessment, while awaiting investigation results (reports that the black box recorders may be on their way to Moscow do not look encouraging).  In an “Information War”, the evidence collected over the coming days will also become a crucial battlefield to be fought over.

This looks to have been a mistaken shoot-down by Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists based in eastern Ukraine.  These forces had reportedly recently gained access to at least one powerful surface to air missile system – BUK, or SA-11 “GADFLY”, in NATO parlance.  Separatists had been boasting about this acquisition and had been using it to effect – they had already shot down several Ukrainian aircraft.  At more or less the same time that MH17 lost contact with ground control, a separatist leader (Strelkov) of highly dubious repute appears to have gleefully claimed via social media to have shot down a Ukrainian AN-26 large military transport aircraft.  Transcripts of the separatist’s triumph followed shortly by recognition that a civilian aircraft had struck the ground, followed by “radio silence” read convincingly.  The separatist leader rapidly deleted the Facebook claim and separatists appear in denial mode.

The responses of Presidents Obama and Putin have both been limp thus far.  Obama has been very cautious, calling it a “tragedy” and prioritising the establishment of US casualties.  Putin is treading very carefully – he likely recognises most of the world believe Russia is meddling dangerously in eastern Ukraine.  He does not come out fighting (or denying) and, in my reading in of it, almost – in the first line here – seems to accept some blame:

this tragedy would not have happened if there were peace on this land, if the military actions had not been renewed in southeast Ukraine. And, certainly, the state over whose territory this occurred bears responsibility for this awful tragedy.

Lets see how Putin and the separatists deal with this.   But this is the downside of clever schemes to create and manipulate armed groups and firing up (or manufacturing) ancient hatreds.  They are much easier to turn on than turn off and hard to control and direct.  At least, for the moment, Putin finds it convenient to acknowledge Ukraine as a state.

Don’t expect to hear much from Strelkov for a while – he’s probably been reassigned to Georgia or Chechnya…

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