Since the moment news broke about a downed passenger plane in eastern Ukraine, Russia has adopted a pose of aggressive defensiveness, although no one was making any accusations against it. Officially, the Kremlin maintains it is not a party to the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine and can, at most, act as a mediator between Kiev and the separatists. No one officially disputes that, it is as self-appointed mediator that Russia took part in the Minsk peace talks.
MH17 crash site
© AP/Scanpix

On the other hand, over the last year and a half that Ukraine has been embroiled in war, there has turned up mounting evidence that Russia is sending arms to the separatists, recruiting mercenaries and deploying regular army units to eastern Ukraine. Having mismanaged its economy to perennial slowdown, Russia is also making mistakes in international politics: Moscow left a note in the Minks agreement documents that the separatists were using rocket systems Tornado-S, although these are only in the Russian army's arsenal.

Magical mushrooming of weapons

Moscow has abandoned one point it kept insisting on during the initial months of the Donbass conflict: that the separatists were using weapons they had seized from the Ukrainian army. It has been a year and a half and they would have long run out of ammo. A Grad battery alone uses up a truck-full of ammunition in 40 seconds.

I have previously argued that the Russian-sent "humanitarian convoy" was a Trojan horse with who knows what inside. Dozens such white truck caravans have already entered eastern Ukraine through the border that Kiev has no control over; Ukrainians have noticed a coincidence that each such "humanitarian" delivery is followed by intensification in shootings.

Another way to legitimate Russian weapons is cloning: if Ukraine's government forces lose ten armoured vehicles, the separatists augment their arsenal by a thousand; if Kiev cedes ten tanks, the separatists get a hundred.

Last summer, Ukraine's forces had successfully besieged the separatists. Kiev's military aviation reigned in the skies, lending assistance to land forces. The separatists announced they had captured one Su-25 plane, but they could not clone it, since they did not control a single runway.

The offensive somewhat blurred the previously clear-cut front lines, some Ukrainian units found themselves in deep envelopment of the enemy - their supplies were delivered by military transport planes. In late June, Russian media announced that the separatists had captured a warehouse with the BUK rocket system. Although it was irreparably damaged by the retreating Ukrainians, Donetsk people's craftsmen were said to be perfectly up to the task of putting the rocket launchers in order.

Ukrainian Su-25 that wasn't there

On 14 July, an An-26, flying at an altitude of 6,500m, was shot down. Ukraine's air navigation authority, which at the time was embroiled in a war of its own over management, closed down airspace in the region up to FL320, i.e., 32,000 feet or 9,753m. Commercial airlines, however, have a right to choose whether to navigate around the area. Some of them did, although that entailed additional cost.

The Dutch Safety Board and experts from other countries recently published a report, suggesting that the tragic MH17 flight took a route over Donbass at FL330, or 10,058m. Another Boeing 777 aircraft was flying in the same direction some 30km away - air control redirected it to FL350. At 13:00, the MH17 crew asked for permission to deviate from the course to the left, citing bad weather, and Dnipro Control gave the permission. At 13:19:53, a dispatcher directed the plane to waypoint RND due to other traffic. The cockpit acknowledged at 13:19:56 and, at 13:20:03, a crash occurred.

The most outlandish of all theories about the crash alleged that in fact it was another Malaysia Airlines plane, the MH370, that had disappeared over the Indian Ocean some time before. The US had allegedly hijacked the plane, kept it hidden in a military base, then sent it to the Netherlands, loaded with dead bodies, then directed to Donbass and exploded. Russia Today, Moscow's international propaganda platform, echoed these wild speculations by interviewing "local witnesses" who said they saw parachutists abandoning the plane, while one separatist leader claimed that the bodies were "not fresh".

Russia has officially voiced two contradictory versions of the crash. The main one, still investigated by Russia's Investigation Committee, maintains the it was a Ukrainian Su-25 that downed the passenger plane. It quoted a Spanish dispatcher employed at a Ukrainian airport, but after it emerged that foreigners were prohibited to work as air traffic dispatchers by Ukrainian law, the mysterious Spaniard disappeared without anyone actually meeting him.

There were also photos, allegedly taken by Russia's defence ministry, showing a Boeing 777 and an Su-25 in close proximity. It was soon pointed out that the satellite image was a Google Maps screenshot with photoshopped planes, pasted so sloppily that they had to be impossibly enormous to fit the proportions.

A little later, there turned up a runaway mechanic from the Ukrainian army who allegedly had seen an Su-25 returning on 17 July without a rocket. They even gave the name of the Su-25 pilot, Captain Vladislav Voloshin. Apparently, Voloshin's plane was hit by an air-to-air rocket launched from an MIG-29 fighter on 16 July from the Russian territory, but the captain succeeded in landing the damaged plane and on 17 July it was already in repairs.

The final blow to the version about a Ukrainian killer plane was delivered by Kiev-born engineer Vladimir Babak who calls the Su-25 his favourite child. In March, he told German reporters that the plane he himself designed could, theoretically, attack a Boeing at an altitude of 3,000m to 4,000m, but certainly not at 10,000m.

Moreover, air-to-air missiles carry some 3.5kg of explosive material, hardly enough to instantly tear apart a giant airliner. They are designed merely to injure. As Voloshin's example attests, even a small aircraft can survive a hit. Whereas a surface-to-air rocket from a BUK, loaded with 70kg of explosives, is an entirely different matter.

It has emerged that on 17 July, a Russian intelligence plane A-50 was making rounds along the Russian-Ukrainian border, recording everything that was happening. However, Russia's defence ministry has withheld the data.

Second line of defence

As we approach the date when an international commission will present a report on its investigation of the MH17 crash, originally scheduled for July, Russia has retreated behind its second line of defence, although it has not renounced the first version, scrapping only the suggestion that it might have been an Israeli-made air-to-air rocket. This additional information noise is still useful to distract everyone from other versions.

In May, one of the last of Russia's independent newspapers Novaya Gazeta published a report by anonymous Russian military engineers who confirmed that the MH17 was hit by a BUK. That same month, Russian arms maker Almaz-Antey publicly admitted that the fatal rocket had been indeed fired from a BUK, designed by them. In both cases, however, it was maintained that the rocket was launched from a territory near Zaroshchenske, controlled by Ukraine's government forces. Again, a clumsy mistake: according to the separatists' own data from 17 July, they were in control of Zaroshchenske. Nevertheless, there had been enough investigations concluding that the BUK had been located near Snizhne, deep in the separatist-controlled land.

Russian reporters have done some checking on both versions. Local residents confirmed that a BUK system was stationed near Snizhne - they even pointed to a precise site in the village of Chervonyi Zhovten - while people in Zaroshchenske laughed off the suppositions, saying neither a rocket nor a bicycle had crossed their fields.

An international group of independent investigators, Bellingcat, have also pinpointed the environs of Snizhne after studying posts on social networks by the locals; so did Ukraine's security, intercepting mobile phone conversations between separatists. There is also video footage supporting the Snizhne version, some of it captured by a Lithuanian journalist.

Almaz-Antey only spoke once the BUK version had become hard to refute and in order to dispute who launched the rocket and from where: "Well, OK, it was a BUK, but it belonged to the Ukrainians." The Bellingcat group traced the BUK to its deployment site and said in the May report that it belonged to a brigade stationed in Kursk, southern Russia.

We can only guess that the next retreat will concede that the BUK was Russian, but the crew was not.

Towards responsibility

The Dutch Safety Board has sent out its preliminary report to all interested parties. After reviewing comments, it will release the final report in September. Russia has already expressed irritation with the investigation. Failing to find any convincing arguments, the Russians declared that the BUK could not have possibly fired from the separatist-controlled territory, because in that case the event would have been registered by Russian radars in Rostov. How likely is it that we will ever find out what those radars did and did not register?

Pointing fingers at culprits is beyond the Dutch Safety Board's purview, but its report will point in the direction for further investigation. Given how sensitive the issue is to the Dutch society (of the 298 killed, 193 were Dutch) and the abundance of speculation about the crash, the report is likely to be impeccable.

One more investigation is conducted by a Dutch-led international group that will build on the report's findings. Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Kunders has stated that there is every effort to make sure that people responsible for the tragedy are brought to justice.

A question that begs to be answered is whether Russia is indeed in such a state of mess that a weapon like its surface-to-air rocket could have been launched in a foreign territory without the knowledge of the supreme commander of the armed force. It is a very serious question, not just for show, because it is the same commander who controls rockets equipped with nuclear warheads, some of which might as well be already stationed in our neighbourhood, Kaliningrad.

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