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Up Front

A New Tragedy in Ukraine: The Shootdown of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17

Steven Pifer and Hannah Thoburn

The continued fighting in eastern Ukraine was marked today by a horrible new tragedy: the apparent shoot-down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH-17) over eastern Ukraine near the town of Torez. MH-17 was Boeing 777 bound from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur with some 300 people on board. Vice President Biden, presumably on the basis of U.S. intelligence, has said that the MH-17 was shot down. Pending a thorough investigation, the details of what exactly happened are not yet known. But early indicators suggest that pro-Russian separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine shot the flight down by mistake.

The most damning evidence so far: shortly after MH-17 fell out of the sky, separatist leader Igor Strelkov wrote on his VKontakte page that “In Torez Raion [county], an Antonov-26 has just been shot down, crashing somewhere near the mine called ‘Progress.’ We have warned you—do not fly in ‘our airspace.’” The Ukrainian Air Force flies AN-26 transport aircraft and Strelkov’s VKontakte posting is consistent with the time and location of the MH-17 downing.

The Ukrainian Security Service has released audio tapes of intercepted phone calls reportedly of conversations between separatists. In the first, the separatists believe they have shot down an airplane of the kind they had downed before—an AN-26 aircraft. In the second, they discuss the fact that the downed aircraft is civilian, with Malaysian Air markings.

The situation in the Torez region has been increasingly fraught as the Ukrainian military has pushed hard against the pro-Russian separatists, including by using airpower. The separatists have stepped up their attempts to shoot down Ukrainian transport and fighter aircraft, as well as helicopters. Writes the Moscow Times:

“On Wednesday, the insurgents claimed to have hit two Su-25 attack jets near Horlovka in the Donetsk region. On Tuesday they claimed to have downed another Su-25 near Snezhnoye in the same area. On Monday, they shot down a transport plane that was carrying food and water for government troops fighting in the east… Earlier, insurgents claimed to have downed several other military and transport aircrafts, including at least seven Su-25 attack jets, three Su-24 attackers, one Su-27 fighter jet, an Il-76 military transport aircraft, and at least 17 Mi-8 and Mi-24 military helicopters.”

Only days earlier, Strelkov had bragged, again on VKontakte, that the separatists had a “Buk” surface-to-air missile (SAM) system. He said that gave the separatists the capability to shoot down planes at altitudes higher than the 4,000 meters (13,000 feet. MH-17 reportedly was flying at an altitude of more than 30,000 feet, out of reach of man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) but well within the range of Buk SAMs.

Although the Ukrainian military does have SAMs, there have been no reported use of those SAMs as the separatists thus far have not operated military aircraft.

Media reports indicate that the separatists have already gained access to MH-17’s black boxes and intend to hand them over to Russian authorities. There needs to be an immediate international investigation as to what brought down MH-17. This means that the separatists should allow Ukrainian authorities and an international investigation team access to the crash site and give them the black boxes.

Right now, the finger points at the separatists as responsible for this tragedy, a fact they seem to confirm by removing Strelkov’s earlier social media postings about today’s presumed “AN-26” shootdown. If it is confirmed that separatists are responsible, the next question is: how did they get—or who gave them—a sophisticated Buk SAM system?

This tragedy also underscores the need to steer the conflict in eastern Ukraine toward a ceasefire and negotiated settlement. The Kremlin has continued to feed the conflict with a stream of supplies and arms across the Russian-Ukrainian border. If it really wants to help stop the conflict—which thus far appears to be questionable—Moscow must end this flow and use its considerable influence with the separatists to get them to stop fighting.