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‘Smoking gun’ intercepts in the MH17 shootdown

'Smoking gun' intercepts in the MH17 shootdown

The Ukrainian security agency has released tapes of what it claims are intercepted phone conversation between separatists and Russian military officers that clearly place blame for the destruction of Flight MH17 on the separatists.  Verifying the authenticity of these tapes is urgent business.  It obviously isn’t difficult to fake something like this, and the Ukrainian government has strong incentives to point fingers of blame at the separatists and their Russian patrons, just as the separatists and Russians want to blame the Ukrainians.

Having said that, I get the sense from this morning’s media reports that intelligence analysts are leaning toward accepting these tapes as genuine.  The American intelligence community seems highly confident that the murder weapon was a surface-to-air missile – Vice President Joe Biden said as much yesterday, declaring that the plane had been “blown out of the sky.”  There’s plenty of evidence that the separatists were provided with such weapons by the Russians, and have been using them against Ukrainian air targets.  On Friday morning, the Ukrainians claimed they were monitoring Buk missile systems scooting away from rebel positions and heading back into Russia, the geo-strategic equivalent of a killer throwing his gun into a river.

Fox News describes the “smoking gun” tapes, which suggest the separatists initially thought they had nailed a Ukrainian cargo plane:

“We have just shot down a plane,” says a man the SBU identified as Igor Bezler, a Russian military intelligence officer and leading commander of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.

That call came just 20 minutes after the crash and was placed to a person identified by Ukraine’s SBU as a colonel in the main intelligence department of the general headquarters of the armed forces of the Russian Federation Vasili Geranin, according to Ukraine security officials.

But in a second tape released by the agency, two men identified as “The Greek” and “Major” discuss the debris field and the fact the the plane was a civilian aircraft.

“It’s 100 percent a passenger [civilian] aircraft,” Major is recorded as saying, as he admitted to seeing no weapons on site. “Absolutely nothing. Civilian items, medicinal stuff, towels, toilet paper.”

The truth dawned hard during the second phone intercept:

Major: “These are Chernukhin folks who shot down the plane. From the Chernukhin check point. Those cossacks who are based in Chernukhino.”

Grek: “Yes, Major.”

Major: “The plane fell apart in the air. In the area of Petropavlovskaya mine. The first ’200′ [code word for dead person]. We have found the first '200.' A Civilian."

Greek: "Well, what do you have there?"

Major: "In short, it was 100 percent a passenger [civilian] aircraft."

Greek: "Are many people there?"

Major: "Holy [expletive]! The debris fell right into the yards [of homes]."

But in the third recorded phone conversation, a Cossack commander told one of the separatists he thought Flight MH17 was full of "spies" because the civilian jet was flying over a combat zone.  "There is a war going on," he railed, after being informed that the debris field included "lots of corpses of women and children."

For the record, the International Air Transport Agency says that "based on the information currently available, it is believed that the airspace that the aircraft was traversing was not subject to restrictions."

The Kyiv Post has full transcripts of the phone conversations.  The conversation between "Major" and "Greek" includes the chilling detail that among the first items pulled from the wreckage by separatist forces was the passport of an Indonesian student.  There's also the matter of a Facebook post from the "defense minister" of the ersatz "Republic of Donetsk," Igor Strelkov, proudly announcing the destruction of what he thought was a Ukrainian aircraft, crowing that "we have warned them about our sky."  Strelkov hastily deleted this post when the true identity of the plane was discovered, but a Russian human-rights activist captured a screen shot and sent it to the Daily Beast.  

Unfortunately, the separatists also seem to have snagged the plane's flight recorder, although there have been rumors of a second recorder retrieved by international authorities.   The Daily Beast reports that the primary "black box" has been "sent to Moscow for investigation," which doesn't sound very promising.  (On the other hand, I've seen reports this morning that both flight recorders are in the hands of Ukrainian authorities.)

Of course, as CNN reports, the Russians are promising the "most open and independent investigation."

In an exclusive interview with the state-run Russia 24 TV channel, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia would "insist on the most objective, most open and independent investigation" into what happened to Flight 17.

"We're ready to make our own contribution, but certainly we believe the initiative must be undertaken by the authorities of the country on which territory this tragedy occurred," he said.

"With regard to the claims raised by Kiev, that it was almost us who did it: In fact I haven't heard any truthful statements from Kiev over the past few months."

And what's more trustworthy than one of Vladimir Putin's henchmen delivering a statement on "state-run TV," while evidence mounts that his government was complicit in an atrocity?  Putin, for his part, is working hard to blame everything on Ukraine, because they dared to resist the separatists who likely did the actual shooting, using Russian weapons.  If only Vladimir Putin got everything he wanted, nobody would have to get hurt.  From Time online:

During a meeting with his top economic advisers on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin took the opportunity to argue that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 would not have been downedhad there not been civil war in Ukraine — a conflict he has repeatedly pinned on the central government in Kiev.

“I would like to note that this tragedy would not have occurred if there were peace in that country, or in any case, if hostilities had not resumed in southeast Ukraine,” Putin told his assembled advisers after observing a moment of silence for the flight’s passengers.

“And certainly, the government over whose territory it occurred is responsible for this terrible tragedy.”

So if someone else shoots down a plane over Russian territory, it's Russia's fault?  I'd hate to climb aboard a plane knowing those are the new rules of responsibility.  That's one reason the perpetrators of this crime must be identified and punished severely.  A precedent for getting away with such outrages cannot be set.  And if it was the work of separatists using weapons Vladimir Putin gave them - and taught them how to operate - then Vladimir Putin is an accessory to murder.

Perhaps sensing that his position here is shaky, Putin has also begun calling for a cease-fire between his separatist clients and the Ukrainian government.  Among the world leaders castigating him in public has been German chancellor Angela Merkel, who said "Russia is largely responsible for what's happening in the Ukraine now, and I would make an appeal -- that the Russian President and the Russian government should make a contribution so that a political solution can be found."

Two hundred and ninety eight murders, to be specific, as the death toll has been updated to include three infant children.  Some sources claim that up to 80 of the passengers were children of various ages.  It's taken an inexplicably long time to pin down the passenger manifest, but contrary to media reports on Thursday afternoon, CNBC reports this morning that none of the passengers have been confirmed as American citizens, although four yet remain unidentified.  The majority of them were from the Netherlands, where the flight originated.  The same report indicates that the American NTSB and FBI will send investigative teams to Ukraine.

There might be more to the passenger story, since the U.S. government still hasn't issued any conclusive statements about the presence of American citizens on the plane.  CNN notes that one group of passengers has been identified as members of the International AIDS Society, including doctors and researchers, who were en route to a conference in Australia.  Among the victims was Dr. Joep Lange, a former president of the IAS, whose expertise the organization described as irreplaceable.

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