There’s a great deal of conflicting information about the destruction of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 over Ukraine today, which is to be expected in the early hours of such an event, but it seems clear enough that all 295 people aboard have been murdered. The deed was done with a fairly sophisticated missile system, since the plane was last registered at an altitude of 33,000 feet. The Russians shot down a Ukrainian military plane yesterday, in Ukrainian airspace. And there has already been a claim of responsibility from the separatists supported by Russia, who evidently thought they had taken down a cargo plane, and are now furiously deleting incriminating social media messages.
To make the situation even more complex, this is the same Malaysia Airlines that mysteriously lost a plane somewhere over the Indian Ocean in March, which means some sort of equipment malfunction on the airliner might have contributed to the situation. It has been observed that the plane shot down over Ukraine was passing through airspace known to be dangerous. Still, with modern technology, it’s hard to imagine any circumstance in which a huge passenger jet cruising at high altitude could be honestly mistaken for a military target.
For the moment, the Ukrainian government, Russia, and the separatists have officially denied responsibility. Fox News reports:
The incident touched off immediate finger-pointing between Russian separatists and the Ukrainian government. Eastern Ukraine separatist leader Alexander Borodai told Reuters that Ukrainian military forces shot the jet down, but Kiev denied involvement.
“The President of Ukraine on behalf of the State expresses its deepest and most sincere condolences to the families and relatives of those killed in this terrible tragedy,” said a statement released by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s office. “Every possible search and rescue effort is being made.”
KT McFarland, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan, and a Fox News national security analyst said the attack was most likely the work of Russian separatists, not the Russian or Ukrainian armies.
???I think it???s far more likely it was rebel forces in eastern Ukraine trying to get the Russian back involved,” McFarland said.
But retired Army Lt. Col Ralph Peters, also a Fox News contributor, said it is unlikely the Russian military would have put missile batteries capable of knocking a plane out of the sky at such an altitude in the hands of rebels.
“It wasn’t the separatists, although Russia will try to blame them, or blame the Ukrainians,” Peters said. “The Russians have not given the separatists complex, high-altitude air-defense systems. If this airliner was flying at 34,000 feet or any altitude close to that, it was shot down by Russian military air-defense systems perched on the Ukrainian border.
Peters said the Russian military has been shooting down Ukrainian military aircraft in recent weeks, and most likely mistook the airliner for a Ukrainian military aircraft.
“Russia has a small number of elite forces, but most of the Russian military is ill-trained, sloppy and marginally disciplined.,” he said. “With no Western response to them shooting down Ukrainian aircraft, they just got trigger happy.”
CNN aviation expert Richard Quest emphasized that it’s very unlikely a commercial passenger plane would be targeted by accident: “This is in the rare, very rare category for an airliner potentially to be shot down, at altitude, 32,000 feet, simply because of the profile of an aircraft. You can tell an aircraft, you can see a commercial aircraft. It looks like a commercial aircraft, it squawks a commercial aircraft. So something is absolutely appalling that’s gone on here.”
Weapon systems similar to the Buk missile system have been seen by reporters in separatist-controlled areas, but the separatist leader, Andrei Purgin, told the Associated Press that his forces don’t have the training to operate such a missile launcher, which reinforces the point made by Peters. (Purgin is, however, lying when he claims the separatists don’t own any anti-aircraft weapons capable of doing the job.) The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has directly accused Russian forces of either complicity in supplying and directing the missile launch, or outright responsibility for pulling the trigger.
CBS News quotes a claim from the Ukrainian Interior Ministry that 23 Americans were aboard the downed jetliner. Russian President Vladimir Putin had a phone call with President Obama today, and mentioned early reports of the airliner going down.
The debris field on the ground is said to be nine miles wide, with first responders already having recovered a hundred bodies from the wreckage.
Update: President Obama’s response to the crisis hasn’t exactly been winning him rave reviews: a barbecue lunch followed by a bitterly partisan speech, delivered largely as planned, with less than one minute spent offering condolences to the dead and remarking that the situation “looks like it may be a terrible tragedy.”
Looks like? A tragedy? Short of saying “bummer, dude,” it’s hard to imagine a less inspiring bit of leadership. Barack Obama doesn’t even take the fabled 3 AM phone call when it comes at 2 PM.
Update: While the situation at the debris field remains chaotic, and I don’t believe we have any clear confirmation yet of whether the black box recorder has been recovered, I would think the nature of the conflict between Ukraine and the separatists would put a lot of radar beams in the air. There’s got to be some solid evidence about where the missile came from. There are still theories that it might not have been a surface-to-air missile strike, but instead an air-to-air shot – there have been reports of fighter jets in the area – or perhaps even a catastrophic event on the plane itself, although that seems highly unlikely. Best to keep all possibilities open, and take early reports with a grain of salt. I don’t think it will take long before the details are more firmly nailed down.
Case in point about initial confusion: trying to figure out what message chatter between the separatist forces means. It appears early rumors of the separatists (or maybe even one of their Russian military advisers) explicitly taking credit for firing on the jetliner have been refuted.
Update: Pursuant to the point above about claims of responsibility, the Ukrainian government claims it has recordings of “terrorists” discussing the attack. That’s generally how they refer to the separatists.
Update: CNN is reporting that a radar system in the area picked up what appeared to be a surface-to-air missile system activate and track a target right before Flight MH17 went down. This is the sort of information I thought would come out fairly quickly – there’s a lot of hardware running in that area. I also see that a U.S. official has told ABC news the government believes a single surface-to-air missile brought down the jet, and it was (as analysts have been saying all afternoon) something considerably beefier than a shoulder-fired missile.
For a bit of levity on a grim day, let us turn to MSNBC, which apparently doesn’t do much to vet people who call in and claim to be expert witnesses: