Yesterday we received the appalling news that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was lost over war-torn Ukraine with the loss of 295 lives. There now appears to be an accumulation of evidence that MH17 was shot down over Ukraine, with wreckage scattered over the contested eastern provinces bordering Russia. This is certainly a grave tragedy, warranting close investigation. Here are the facts so far:
- Airlines were advised not to fly below 32,000 ft due to ongoing conflict between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists (MH17 was reportedly flying at 33,000 ft when it disappeared from radar).
- Ukraine previously reported it lost a transport plane on Monday and a ground attack jet on Wednesday blaming it on the Russian air force. They also reported one of their ground support aircraft was shot down by a surface to air missile on Thursday, within hours of MH17.
- Majority of locals (in the separatist dominated area) say MH17 was shot down by a Ukrainian air force fighter (fighters do operate in area against separatist positions), however, a minority of people report it was shot down by a missile.
- Rebel separatists do not operate aircraft, particularly aircraft capable of shooting down a high flying jet liner. However, a tweet suggests Russian built BUK surface-to-air missile transports have been observed in a neighbouring separatist controlled area.
- Russia has certainly supported pro-Russian separatists with troops (sans insignia) and materiel, including some heavy weapons, tanks, MANPADS (Man-Portable Air-Defense Systems) etc.
Who’s responsible? Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, recently signed a pact which prepares them for entry into the European Union (which would certainly assist any subsequent application to join NATO). Shooting down an international passenger jet would greatly prejudice these applications and any immediate support from the West. It might be argued that Ukraine are trying to provoke some kind of Western military intervention, however, they are currently succeeding against the separatists so such support is probably unnecessary. Similarly Russia would prefer not to provoke the West. However, the BUK anti-aircraft unit hiding out in Ukraine’s eastern provinces (likely operating under radio silence, with minimum command oversight) might easily mistake a high flying jet for a legitimate target on a ‘busy day’.
What happens now? More sanctions are possible, although a second tranche was applied on the day preceding MH17. Increased military support for Ukraine is certainly possible. Likely there will be a lot of activities behind the scenes. Russia will be receiving lots of input via front and back channels. President Obama has repeatedly demonstrated he is opposed to armed conflict or major military intervention. He would not like to be remembered as the President who started a war with Russia. Mr Obama might remember with fondness his friends in SEAL Team 6, who helped resolve his Osama problem, certainly BUK operators in theatre will be looking over their shoulder. With any luck the Separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine will be resolved with urgency, before we see greater tragedy.
Featured image courtesy Wikipedia (NOT an image of Flight MA17)