A mounting body of visible evidence, plus reports from those on the ground, intercepted communications and preliminary analysis of electronic emissions, suggest that Russian-backed separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine were responsible for shooting down Malaysia Airlines flight MH017 on July 17. All 298 passengers and crew aboard were killed.
Russia has countered that the Ukraine government is entirely responsible for the loss of the aircraft, demanding that it explain where its own missile defense systems were positioned at the time of the incident and what they were doing.
U.S. and other NATO intelligence sources have claimed that the attack was made by a mobile Buk (NATO designation: SA-11 Gadfly) surface-to-air missile system. Photos have been published online of the separatist militia taking control of SA-11 fire units when they overran Ukrainian military unit A1402, an air defense base near the city of Donetsk, on June 29. The SA-11 system was produced and deployed in large numbers in the former Soviet Union, and exported to at least nine countries. An improved Buk-M2 version (NATO designation: SA-17 Grizzly) is still marketed by Russia’s Almaz-Antey company.
Since the Malaysian 777 crashed, a Buk firing unit has been captured on video, loaded onto a flatbed lorry and being moved across the border from Ukraine into Russia. “Moving this fire unit out of Ukraine—and moving it on a wheeled vehicle rather than using its own slow-moving tracked self-propulsion—is a fairly clear sign of a cover-up of evidence that this missile was fired by one of the Russian-backed separatist militias in eastern Ukraine,” a NATO intelligence officer told AIN on condition of anonymity.
The Ukrainian Security Service released intercepted mobile phone or radio conversations between separatist militia and their commanders. These suggest that they were confused as to the identity of the aircraft until they reached the crash site. One of the separatist commanders asks what a Ukrainian military Antonov An-26 transport was doing with a Malaysia Airlines logo on its fuselage. He suggests that this might have been a surveillance aircraft painted in airliner livery to disguise its real mission before declaring that “they must have been spies” and that they “had no business flying over a war zone.”
A Ukrainian An-26 was shot down on July 13, four days earlier. The same or a similar Buk firing unit may have been responsible, although Kiev said that the missile that intercepted the An-26 was fired from Russian territory. Claims by separatist leader Igor Strelkov that the July 17 shootdown was of another An-26 were both immediately deleted from the Russian social media sites where they had been posted. Earlier in the Ukrainian conflict, separatist rebels shot down a Ukrainian air force Ilyushin Il-76 airlifter and a number of military helicopters, but these were flying at much lower altitude and were intercepted by short-range air defense systems. The first air-to-air engagement of this conflict was also reported this week, when Kiev said that a Ukrainian air force Su-25 ground attack aircraft was shot down on July 16 by a pair of Russian fighters that were patrolling the border between the two countries.
Analysis of the signals intelligence gathered by U.S. and NATO listening posts on the July 17 attack is not complete yet. Whether Russia was officially or unofficially involved in the apparent attack has yet to be determined, and the situation begs several other key questions. Were the operators of this Buk system trained in Russia or were Russian operators themselves at the controls? Did the fire unit itself actually come from Russia, rather then the Ukrainian base?
As of July 19, international accident investigators were still struggling to gain access to the crash site.