Today’s press conference by the Russian MOD shows that the Russian government has decided to double down on its narrative that the Ukrainian military is responsible for shooting down Malaysian Airlines flight 17. The Russian case is comprised of two parts. First, the Russian MOD released imagery showing that Ukrainian Buk systems were located in the region near where the airplane crashed. Second, the Russian MOD stated that its radars had noted two Ukrainian aircraft, one of which was a Su-25 fighter jet, tailing the Malaysian airliner immediately prior to its crash. The Russian government speculates that either 1) Ukrainian air defense forces were mistakenly aiming at the Su-25, having assumed it was a Russian plane, shot down the airliner by mistake or 2) they deliberately shot at the airliner in order to pin the attack on the separatists.
Since I am not an expert in imagery analysis, I will leave that to someone who is. As for the Su-25, Russian sources have pointed out that it’s maximum altitude is 7,000 meters, well below the 10,000 meter altitude at which MH17 was flying. Furthermore, there is no actual evidence beyond the words of the Russian spokespeople that Ukrainian aircraft were shadowing MH17. Furthermore, the presence of such planes would conflict with the second version of events. Why would Ukraine send up its planes into an area into which it is about to fire an air defense missile?
On the other hand, while the evidence for MH17 having been shot down by pro-Russian separatists acting with direct Russian assistance is circumstantial, it is nevertheless fairly strong. This includes information and video provided by separatist fighters at the time of the incident that they had shot down a Ukrainian military transport aircraft. These statements and video were deleted once it became clear that the aircraft was civilian. In addition, Ukrainian security services have released tapes of conversations among separatists first reporting that a plane had been shot down and then reporting that it had turned out to be a civilian plane rather than one carrying armaments. Even if one chooses to not believe Ukrainian government statements, the statements of the separatists still remain.
The attack on the plane also followed separatist claims to have captured a Ukrainian Buk surface to air missile system. Such claims have in the past been used by separatists to mask the transfer of heavy military equipment from Russia across the open border. Video evidence has surfaced showing a Buk system being moved earlier in the day in an area near where the plane went down and then again being transported in the direction of the Russian border with one of its four missiles notably absent. The Buk system is equipped with its own radar system and can hit targets at altitudes up to 49,000 feet, well above the 32,000 feet at which MH17 was flying over Ukraine.
Furthermore, the separatist forces have in recent weeks compiled a record of shooting down Ukrainian aircraft at increasingly higher altitudes. On July 14, a Ukrainian An-26 military transport plane was shot down while flying at an altitude of over 21,000 feet, well above the range of man-portable air defense systems that the separatists have admitted to possessing. Separatists took credit for this attack, though some evidence shows that the plane was shot down by a Buk missile fired from Russian territory.
Finally, the separatists’ reaction since the downing of the plane is highly suspicious. If they had not had anything to do with the attack, why would they not allow the OSCE to secure the site and allow foreign investigators full access? Their best hope of having their story accepted would be if the investigation is seen as credible in the West and absolves them of responsibility. Instead, the media has been talking for days about how the crash site has been looted by separatists and evidence tampered with. If they truly believed that the Ukrainians had done it, the separatists’ behavior over the last five days has only made it more difficult for them to get Western observers to accept their version of the story.
It appears that the key unresolved question is whether the missile that was launched at MH17 was fired by separatists or by Russian operators who had arrived with the system in separatist-controlled territory. It is impossible to tell which was the case, though some analysts have argued that since operating a Buk system requires 6-9 months of training it is unlikely that separatists could have operated it themselves. On the other hand, there have also been reports that Russia has been training separatists in air defense warfare in recent weeks. Since the systems in question appear to have been moved back to Russia and evidence about the attack is being destroyed, it is likely that this question will never be definitively answered.