While media and officials throughout the NATO sector rushed to blame Russia for the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine July 17, President Vladimir Putin and two top Russian military staff officers called two nights ago and yesterday for international cooperation and transparency in the investigation. Radar and photographic data released at the Ministry of Defense (MoD) briefing undercut certain claims made by Kiev officials about the crash and showed the basis for the ten questions posed to Kiev by Deputy Defense Minister Anatoli Antonov on July 19.
In a video address two nights ago, after speaking on Sunday with the leaders of Germany, Britain, Australia, the Netherlands, and France, Putin reiterated that Russia sees Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s refusal to prolong the ten-day ceasefire of June 17-27, as setting the stage for the tragedy: “I believe that if military operations had not resumed in eastern Ukraine on June 28, this tragedy probably could have been avoided.” He vowed that Russia “will do everything within its power to move the conflict in eastern Ukraine from the military phase we see today, to the negotiating phase, with the parties using peaceful and diplomatic means alone.”
Regarding MH17, Putin continued, “No one should and no one has the right to use this tragedy to pursue their own political goals. Rather than dividing us, tragedies of this sort should bring people together. All those who are responsible for the situation in the region must take greater responsibility before their own peoples and before the peoples of the countries whose citizens were killed in this disaster.” He then called for doing “everything possible” to ensure that an international commission can investigate the crash site safely, using language similar to what would be adopted in a UN Security Council Resolution yesterday.
The speakers at the MoD briefing were Gen.-Lt. Andrei Kartapolov, head of the Main Operations Directorate of the General Staff, and Russian Air Force Chief of Staff Gen.-Maj. Igor Makushev. They presented evidence related to four aspects of the circumstances on July 17:
— MH17’s deviation to the left (north) of its normal pathway, in a way that appears on the radar track to have been not merely a route change. The need to understand why, is the basis for the demand for Ukrainian Air Traffic Control (ATC) communications records.
— The appearance on radar and video recordings of four aircraft in the vicinity at the time of the crash: MH17, two other Asia-Europe commercial flights, and an unidentified plane that approached MH17 within 3 to 5 km just before the crash. MH17 was only 51 km from the Russian border when it went down, and was about to be handed off to Russian ATC in Rostov-on-Don. Makushev noted that the fourth aircraft was visible to the Rostov center for only four minutes, because it had been climbing, whereas the radar sweep does not detect craft below 5000m. Since the plane did not respond to ATC signals, he raised the question of its being military, possibly an Su-25 fighter jet. The 10500m altitude of MH17 is at the very top of the operating range of the Su-25. The Russian officers raised questions about the whereabouts of Ukraine fighters and their air-to-air weapons at the time MH17 fell. Kartapolov said, “[We] would like to get an explanation as to why the military jet was flying along a civil aviation corridor at almost the same time and at the same level as a passenger plane.”
— Satellite images showing the whereabouts of Ukrainian Army Buk anti-aircraft systems on July 14, 17, and 18. On July 14, all three components of a Buk system (the target-acquisition radar, and the launchers, all of them mobile) were together north of Lugansk, but they disappeared from there in subsequent days. On July 17, the three components of a Buk system appeared at locations 5 km north of Donetsk city, as well as east of Donetsk — within 10 km of the crash site. They were gone on July 18. Kartapolov illustrated readings of “peak activity” of Ukrainian Buk radars on July 17, in this same area. He said that the reasons for this need to be explained.
— The MoD also raised questions about discrepancies that would refute some of the amateur videos publicized by Ukrainian officials, purporting to show a Buk system “escaping to Russia” after the plane crash, with one missile missing. (There are information wars on the Internet currently, with revelations and counter-revelations of alleged fakery in posted videos and voice intercepts related to the crash.)
All of the above were presented by the Ministry of Defense as data for investigation, not as conclusions. Our reporting on their presentation is not intended to endorse any findings, but to underscore the recklessness of a rush to judgment.
Kartapolov’s call for the U.S.A. to make its satellite imagery public immediately drew attacks on Russia for trying to make the West reveal its intelligence-gathering methods. Jonathan Eyal, international director of Britain’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), complained to the Financial Times that “Washington would now have to debate ‘how much intelligence can be revealed without compromising capabilities?'” Andrei Lysenko, spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, charged yesterday that Russia was releasing information only in order “to disown this tragedy.”