Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, crashed and burned in the Donetsk Region of Ukraine thursday afternoon, killing all on board. The flight, a codeshare with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, was carrying 298 passengers and crew from the Netherlands, Malaysia, and several other countries. The crash immediately became an international incident, amid uncertainty over what brought the Boeing 777 down. The area of Ukraine over which its route passed had been closed by Kiev to civilian aviation as of July 8, but the ban did not apply to high-altitude so-called “transit” overflights.
A spokesman for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko stated on Twitter within an hour of the downing, that “this was not an incident, not a disaster, but an act of terrorism.” Speculation immediately centered on the capabilities of surface-to-air (SAM) missiles in the area where the plane crashed, near the city of Torez, which is about 80 km east of Donetsk city and 60 km north of the border area where fighting between Kiev government forces and the militias of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics has been concentrated in recent days. Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) leader Alexander Boroday said at an evening press conference that the militias lack weapons that could shoot down a place cruising at 33,000 feet. A Ukrainian Interior Ministry official stated that the plane had to have been hit by a Buk SAM (called SA-11 or SA-17 by NATO) in the possession of the militias. Many politicians in the West were quick to pick up this line and blame Russia, although the Ukrainian Armed Forces also have such systems.
The United Nations Security Council will meet on the matter tomorrow, at the request of Britain. The British Ambassador to the UN said, according to wire service reports, “We had already been planning to ask for an emergency session of the Council to discuss the situation in Ukraine even before we heard the news, and that just makes this session even more urgent.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin informed U.S. President Barack Obama of the plane’s crash, during a pre-scheduled phone discussion during or just after Putin’s return to Moscow from his South American tour and the BRICS summit. In the evening, in televised remarks at the opening of a Russian government meeting on economic policy, Putin spoke with visible emotion about the crash.
“This tragedy would not have occurred,” said Putin, “if there were peace in that country, or in any case, if hostilities had not resumed in southeast Ukraine. And certainly, the government over whose territory it occurred is responsible for this terrible tragedy. I have given corresponding instructions to military departments to provide all necessary assistance in investigating this crime. And I am also asking the Government of the Russian Federation to use our civilian departments as much as it can, to do everything to thoroughly investigate this event. …. These are absolutely unacceptable things and nobody has the right to pass them by without making corresponding conclusions and ensuring that we all have objective information about what happened.”
Consultations of the so-called Contact Group for talks with the People’s Republics leaders had been planned to resume by video-conference this evening. Its co-sponsors are the OSCE, the Russian Ambassador in Kiev, and the Ukrainian government, According to an OSCE statement dated early tomorrow, such talks did take place, but they were refocussed on the aftermath of the MH17 crash. The OSCE, without naming the participants, said that representatives of the DPR took part by video from Donetsk, and that they agreed to close off and secure the crash site, allow “local authorities” to recover bodies, provide safe access and security guarantees for international investigators and OSCE monitors, and “cooperate with the relevant authorities of Ukraine on all practical questions arising in the course of the recovery and investigation works.”
Russian TV and international media reported that DPR personnel were the first responders, hosing down the fire and collecting passports of the victims. Oleg Tsaryov, as speaker of the Parliament of the Union of People’s Republics (both Donetsk and Lugansk), called on all sides to refrain from accusations. At the same time, he said that the event, occurring just as a chance of peace consultations had emerged, was reminiscent of the sudden appearance of unidentified snipers on the Maidan in Kiev last February, precipitating the decisive events of the coup. The downing of MH17 follows several days of stepped-up fighting along the southern border of Lugansk Region, where both sides are reporting that Ukrainian Army forces, attempting to move up and encircle Lugansk from the south, became encircled themselves and have sustained massive losses.
Regarding MH17, militia websites pointed the finger at Buk batteries under control of the Ukrainian Army. Some recalled the October 2001 case of the Russian Sibir Airline Tu-154, en route from Tel Aviv to Novosibirsk, which was downed over the Black Sea during Ukrainian anti-aircraft exercises there, in what most experts believe was an “accidental” SAM launch against it. (Kiev, under then-President Leonid Kuchma, never acknowledged responsibility, but Ukraine paid compensation to the victims’ families.) An honest investigation would look at all possibilities: not only the firing of a SAM, but air-to-air missiles, acts of terror by sabotage or explosive device implanted before takeoff, and possible technical malfunctions or pilot error.