The downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 has gone from accident to tragedy to catastrophe to horror. The shooting down of a civilian airliner by, according to virtually all accounts, Russian-backed rebels has exposed the situation in eastern Ukraine for what it is: a geostrategic blunder by Russian President Vladimir Putin that will be an indelible blot on history. His casual indifference to the consequences of arming a drunken rabble of rebels may prove to be the defining mark of his presidency.
MH17 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on July 17 when it was blown out of the sky over Ukraine, some 50 km from the Russian border. Some 300 people were on the plane — the exact count is unclear amid reports that infants were onboard and not identified on the passenger list — which was flying at an altitude of 10,000 meters when it was, by all available evidence, hit by a Russian surface-to-air missile (SAM).
The wreckage was strewn across fields and villages in rebel-controlled territory. The behavior of those forces in the wake of the accident has confirmed the world’s image of them as criminal psychopaths, inebriated and inept. And, incredibly, well armed. They have harassed rescue workers and journalists, contaminating the crash site and removing pieces of the wreckage. Bodies were rotting in the hot weather until Monday when a train with the remains of most of the victims left the site, following a deal struck by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and the leader of the pro-Russian separatists.
According to the arrangement, the aircraft’s black boxes, which should contain key information about the flight, will be turned over to Malaysian authorities.
The black boxes will have important information, but they may not provide the most critical details. Those will come from intelligence sources along with social media, which have documented the rebels’ “victories” and may establish a damning trail of evidence.
For example, shooting down a plane at that altitude requires a particular type of missile. The Ukrainian military, the Russian military and the rebels have such weapons. The rebels claimed in June to have captured surface to air missiles from the Ukrainian military, but most experts believe that Russia supplied missile batteries that have been used in recent weeks to down a transport plane, a helicopter, a cargo plane and a jet a day before the shoot down of Flight 17. (The fact that rebels do not have aircraft and that they get supplies trucked in from Russia would mean that Ukrainians have no use for such weapons in this conflict.)
More damning circumstantial evidence also points to the rebels. SAM batteries were seen and recorded by social media — reports since deleted — in areas near where the missile that shot down the plane was reckoned to have been launched.
At the time of the accident, rebels tweeted — since deleted — that they had downed a plane. The Ukrainian government has released audio recordings in which rebels appeared to discuss a SAM battery being moved into the area where the attack was supposed to have originated.
Other tapes, also supplied by Kiev, allegedly have rebel leaders first celebrating the attack then realizing their mistake. Subsequent films and photos show a SAM battery missing one or two missiles being transported back to Russia on the back of a truck — suggesting that the system had been used and that its own transportation system was too slow. In other words, evidence was being eliminated.
There are two compelling explanations: Either Russia gave the rebels the weaponry they used to shoot down the plane — in which case the Moscow government is guilty of extraordinary negligence by giving these thugs access to such firepower; or, much worse, Russia was complicit in the attack by providing the support and technical assistance to make the attack possible.
The rebel leaders have denied attacking the plane. Russian officials have dismissed Ukrainian allegations of their involvement without actually denying the accusation. Putin has blamed Ukraine for creating a situation that would allow such an act to occur. That is no denial.
Months ago, Putin was being applauded as a geostrategic master tactician, capable of advancing Russian interests and exposing Western weakness without firing a shot. Yet, since the annexation of the Crimea — which, while a powerful balm for Russian nostalgists, is going to be a financial drain on a strained Russian economy — Europe has awakened to the threat of Russian expansionism, the Russian economy has stopped in its tracks, and sanctions will increase the pain.
In this most recent debacle, Putin has been revealed to be utterly indifferent to the suffering caused by the criminal misbehavior of his surrogates — the arming of which was a mistake of historical proportions.
The United Nations Security Council this week unanimously adopted a resolution demanding those responsible “be held to account and that all states cooperate fully with efforts to establish accountability.” There is little likelihood that the perpetrators will be caught and punished. There is even less chance that their enablers will be identified and held responsible either. History will hold them accountable, however.