by Pierre Marshall
A Malaysian Airline flight mysteriously dropped out of the sky last Wednesday.
We know all the standard background details about the aeroplane and its passengers, and I think it’s fair to say at this point in the news cycle that the actual story is pretty much finished. The plane was destroyed. It was a one-time event and it’s over now.
The nationalities of all the passengers are known and nobody’s suggesting that the plane was hijacked or blown up by a passenger. There were a couple of videos of a plume of smoke rising from somewhere near Torez, but for now the only images we have of the crash are endlessly looping videos of mutilated corpses lying about in the summer heat. It makes for good news fodder, but audiences are fickle and there’s only so many ways to report on a pile of dead bodies and twisted metal.
At this stage the story is feeding off a steady dribble of press conferences and statements from important people who are wheeled out to puzzle how exactly this disaster happened. Underlying it all is the more politically-charged question of who is responsible. As for the rest of the population, they’ve already decided on their own version of events. Some think the rebels did it, some think the Ukrainians did it, and neither side has enough substantial proof either way. We can guess that neither side genuinely intended to shoot down a civilian airliner, so whatever happened it was probably a really unfortunate mistake.
The rebels did it
This is the most straightforward theory, the rebels mistook the passenger jet for an Ukrainian military plane and shot it down with a missile launcher. To back this up Igor Strelkov made some hastily-deleted comments on Vkontakte claiming rebels shot down an An-26 military transport plane near Torez. That would make sense since flight MH17 ‘fell out of the sky’ in around the same area at around the same time.
The evidence for this theory hinges on the assumption that the rebels had a missile launcher capable of targeting and hitting an aircraft so high up. So far proponents of this theory claim the rebels most likely used a Buk system, and the rebels say they don’t have one of those, and we’re back to “he said, she said”.
The Ukrainian military did it
There were some inconsistencies in the MH17 flight path, it would have normally done a slight right turn shortly after entering Ukrianian airspace which would have adjusted its course to avoid the rebel held region. This right-turn waypoint is the area where some maps say contact with the plane was lost, but flightradar was tracking it all the way to Torez. The Ukrainian military might have mistaken MH17 for a Russian military jet because it deviated from the normal civilian flight route. Or, moving down the less plausible theories, the Ukrainian military mistook MH17 for Putin’s presidential plane (this has since been roundly dismissed as Putin wasn’t flying over Ukraine at the time). Or it was part of a secret military coup within the Ukrainian military which went wrong. The Russian air force is quite certain that a Ukrainian military plane was near MH17 when it went down, which would be in line with the claims a now-vanished Spanish air-traffic controller made on twitter.
The best explanation Malaysian Airlines can muster for the change of route is that every other airline was regularly flying over the same airspace and they thought it was safe. Still, there are unanswered questions, and as long as we’re kept in the dark about the change of flight path people will be quite happy to use their imagination to fill in the blanks.
While we’re still groping around for adequate information, the next step is a guessing game where we work out the suspect based on who had the best motive to commit the crime. In the current circumstances the downing of a civilian airliner can only be a good thing for the Ukrainian state, the killing of innocent civilians is a morally indefensible act. A line has been crossed here, a small regional conflict now concerns the rest of the world with the citizens of 10 other countries killed in the crossfire. An international appeal for ‘stability’ would play nicely into Poroshenko’s hands.
Furthermore, the incident occurred within the internationally recognised boundaries of Ukraine, so the Ukrainian authorities are in a good position to prove they didn’t do it. This is particularly important when trying to locate the aeroplane’s black box. Russia have said they won’t take it, and the Ukrainian state can’t be trusted to investigate the data which might implicate it. Personally I think the Malaysians should have the box, though the rebels have already taken it and likely stashed it away somewhere nobody will ever find it.
The counter to this line of argument is that the Ukrainian state had no long-term need to shoot down an airliner. Some have suggested that the rebels were winning and the Ukrainian military needed a magic bullet to turn things in their favour. From what I can see that’s just not true. The Ukrainian army forced rebels to retreat from Slavyansk last week and they began encircling the city of Donetsk. The rebels were putting out ’300′ style propaganda, as if this were their last stand. Igor Strelkov’s deputy even signed off a famous letter with:
Forgive us for not dying in Slavyansk. We may yet have a chance to die in Donetsk if Russia will not help us.
We may yet have a chance to die in Donetsk. They’re courageous words, invoking a final desperate chance to save the day. They’re not the words of someone confident of their victory.
Even if the rebels did shoot down the airliner, the Ukrainian state still shares the blame. Donetsk International Airport was out of action and the residents in rebel-held territory knew that the sound of planes meant Ukrainian air strikes. For two weeks the Ukrainian army bombarded rebel cities with all kinds of artillery. They put the residents of those places under sustained fire, and if those residents get a hold of a missile battery and start shooting down planes, who is at fault? Who pulled the trigger and who started the war?
Imagine this time last year, I’d not heard of Donetsk or Lugansk, or the village of Grabovo. Now these names take top place in news bulletins every day, lets try not to forget them too soon.