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Dutch MH-17 report findings: who would have thought it?

October 14, 2015

Summary: The Dutch report finds, unsurprisingly, that a Buk-launched surface-to-air missile brought down flight MH-17. The Russian media machine twists and flails as it tries to find a credible response – most favoured appears to be the “not our kind of missile” approach.  Next step is the criminal report, due in December.  It will likely conclude the missile was fired from rebel territory by rebels, possibly with Russian support.  Expect more Russian media convolutions.

Apparently not...

Apparently not…

The much-anticipated Dutch investigation report into the technical cause of the destruction of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17 was released yesterday. The aircraft exploded over the fields of Eastern Ukraine in the summer of 2014 as a conflict between Ukraine government troops and Russian-backed separatists was underway.

With the necessary but stark language that you would expect from a technical investigation, the report explains the horrific death of 298 human beings thus:

“On 17 July 2014, Malaysian Airlines operated flight MH17, an airworthy Boeing 777-200 with the registration 9M-MRD, in cruise flight near the Ukrainian/Russian border at 33,000, under the control of Ukrainian Air Traffic Control and was operated by a competent and qualified crew.
At 13.20:03 hours (15.20:03 CET) a warhead detonated outside and above the left hand side of the cockpit of flight MH17. It was a 9N314M warhead carried on the 9M38-series of missiles as installed on the Buk surface-to-air missile system.
Other scenarios that could have led to the disintegration of the aeroplane were considered, analysed and excluded based on the evidence available.
The impact killed the three persons in the cockpit and caused structural damage to the forward part of the aeroplane leading to an in-flight break-up. The break-up resulted in a wreckage area of 50 square kilometres between the village of Petropavlivka and the town of Hrabove, Ukraine. All 298 occupants lost their lives.”

It should be stressed that this is the technical report only. The criminal investigation – who was to blame for the missile launch and why – is still be produced.  An unpleasant detail that I had not considered was that some of the evidence (fragments of the missile) were taken from the bodies of the three crew inside the cockpit, which bore the brunt of the explosion.

With the possible exception of the Russian population, for whom these findings probably came as a complete surprise, this report comes as something of an anti-climax. This straightforward conclusion was reached by most impartial analysts within days of the event. It was a simple military cock-up by ill-trained and poorly disciplined rebels.  This happened in the heat of battle, with rebels (possibly with Russian military personnel in support) flushed with the success of similar shoot downs of Ukrainian military high- and low-altitude aircraft only days before.

The most morbidly fascinating aspect of the aftermath of this tragic event has been to watch the full array of Russian governmental, diplomatic, military, intelligence, political, technical, industrial and informational (above all the use of Russian media) tools to thwart independent investigation and subvert this highly damaging and embarrassing conclusion over the months and years after the aircraft’s destruction.

Like a cloud of fast-moving metal objects, a cloud of alternative (often competing and frequently laughable) theories were flung into the airwaves with the willing collaboration of social media trolls based around the world. These ideas flickered and danced for a few moments and then were gone. At one point MH17’s demise was supposedly the result of a failed Ukrainian attempt to shoot down President Putin’s personal jet. The Russian government was careful not to come down in favour of any theory, but doubtless facilitating their exposure and watching carefully to see if any were “sticky” enough to remain attached to the wall of Western media and popular opinion.  Often these false explanations were debunked within minutes.

I steeled myself to follow the English language coverage on Russia Today TV live over a few hours yesterday as it attempted to identify and extract any crumbs of comfort.  Much airtime was dedicated to the Russian test explosion of a similar Buk missile against the side of a similar aircraft in order to demonstrate that the blast and impact would be very different if a Russian missile had been used.  The announcement of these “findings” came, not coincidentally, at the same time as the announcement of the Dutch report, suggesting intent to clutter and confuse rather than clarify and instruct.  I note that no test firings designed to simulate Ukrainian SU-25 ground attack aircraft cannon or missiles seem to have been undertaken, perhaps suggesting that this particular cluster of theories is being quietly dropped.

The culprits were not identified in this report and neither were they intended to be. That will wait until the criminal investigation report comes out around December 2015.  We should expect an even more intense and vitriolic rolling barrage of denial, denouncement and deflection from the Russian government/media nexus, growing in intensity, between now and then.  If the Russian government is very lucky, maybe the Dutch report will find it too difficult to conclude one way or the other who actually fired the missile and why.

But I am reasonably confident that this second, and more crucial, report will conclude that the missile was fired from a Buk surface-to-air missile launcher in rebel (ie Russian-backed) territory.  It will have been fired either by poorly trained rebels, poorly trained rebels with Russian personnel supporting or just by Russian weapons operators.  I do not believe that there was a deliberate attempt to knowingly shoot down a civilian airliner.  I also subscribe to the very credible theory that this Buk probably made its way in from Russia in the days before and made its way hastily back in a similar timeframe, minus one of its missiles.

The Russian government and its government media arm is functioning like a battered army on the retreat after losing ground on the battlefield. But it is not retreating in disarray.  It has had time to recognise the direction in which this battle is probably heading.  It is operating a sensibly flexible defence based on damage limitation. It will start retreating to a second defence line of pre-planned positions and arguments, looking for opportunities for quick counter-attacks as they arise. Third and fourth lines of trenches are likely already being dug. I suspect they will privately accept the Buk missile conclusion in the report and make this the next battleground – it would certainly be unwise simply to attack the report writers as incompetent and/or CIA-stooges.

They will move from throwing up the smokescreen of implausible theories to something like:

  • It was the Ukrainian’s fault for allowing civilian aircraft fly over a war zone – they are the ones really to blame.
  • It was the wrong kind of missile – we don’t use them but the Ukrainians do.

Finally, if the criminal findings – as they likely will – conclude that the missile was launched in a rebel area by rebels. The last-ditch defence will be:

  • Well, these things happen in war, it was a confused situation.
  • The rebels are untrained and clearly they messed up.  Nothing to do with us.
  • It was a highly fluid battle space – who knows who controlled what areas at what times?
  • What the hell were the Ukrainians doing sending civil aircraft into a war zone?
  • In any case, absolutely no Russian military personnel were involved.

And finally, as the last informational redoubt threatens to fall to the enemy:

  • It was a genuine accident, we have identified some of the rebels and will cooperate in attempting to apprehend and punish them.
  • It was clearly an accident in the heat of battle and therefore NOT a war crime.
  • The Russian government is not to blame and had no control over the rebel actions.
  • This is a CIA/Western media plot to smear Russia – as usual.

Essentially, in the worst case – missile found to have been fired by rebels – the Russian government might have to be prepared to hang some of the rebels out to dry and ensure they take the blame. Anyone involved in the shoot down will have plenty of time to disappear.

I did wonder whether, in all this intense propaganda twisting and turning from Russian state-controlled media we might see a resignation or two from journalists pushed too far to tread an increasingly stressed party line. Nothing yet. But the chances of this must surely increase when the criminal report findings come closer.

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