Richard North, 21/07/2014  

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Far from the situation getting clearer as time goes on, the events around the destruction of Flight MH17 are getting murkier with each passing hour, the reporting from the popular media continuing to obscure rather than inform.

Having followed the developments all Sunday, a single post I have written is now over-long so I have broken it up into several parts, starting with a review of a piece in The Observer that offers a headline proclaiming "MH17: the evidence against Russia".

What grabbed my attention, though, was the sub-heading, which immediately goes on to declare: "In the hours after the Malaysia Airlines crash in Ukraine, evidence assembled from various sources appeared to point the blame at militants armed with Russian missiles".

This seems classic of the genre, tainting the media coverage. The "militants" (or separatists) are being automatically linked with the Russians – fair enough in normal circumstances but not in this situation, where the assumption that the two are working together has Russia share the responsibility for the destruction of HM17.

After rehearsing matters familiar to readers of this blog, we thus find The Observer failing to make any mention of the reported capture of one or more missile launchers from the Ukrainian Army base at Donetsk airport on 29 June, thus suggesting that the "militants" obtained the equipment independently of the Russians. This is simply not part of the newspaper's narrative nor, it seems, any part of the British media's remit.

In this particular article, which is reviewing the "evidence" linking the Russians to the downing of MH17, we get is the paper telling us of a report that satellite images show a plume of smoke left by a ground-to-air missile. These, we are told, help to compile an intelligence analysis shared with the UN security council by US ambassador Samantha Power, which she claimed showed the airliner was "likely downed by a surface-to-air missile, an SA-11, operated from a separatist-held location in eastern Ukraine".

This, we have no problem in accepting, but evidence that the separatists fired the missile is not in any way evidence that the Russians supplied the equipment or provided support, unofficially or officially. We need more than just the assumption that linkage on other matters necessarily means high-level involvement in this tragedy.

Yet – according to The Observer - Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby had declared that: "It strains credulity to think [the missile] could be used by separatists without at least some measure of Russian support and technical assistance". This, would appear, is sufficient grounds to assert that the Russian government – and Mr Putin in particular – is responsible for the murder of 198 innocent civilians.

The interesting thing, though, is that Kirby does not actually allege that the equipment comes from Russia. What, effectively, we are getting is that since it "strains credulity" to suggest that the Russians are not involved, they must therefore be involved. If this was a trial, I would be very worried indeed.

But, from the Observer, this is all we are allowed to see from what is just a very short extract from a Department of Defense press briefing on 18 July.

What readers are not given the opportunity to see is what happens immediately after Kirby effectively asserts that the Russians must have helped the separatists. In fact, he is asked by a journalist: "Do you have evidence of that?" This is the response:
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I - look, there's a lot that's gonna be investigated, and I think we want to - we want to let investigators do their work. I don't have an indication now that - that a system was brought over. And we don't exactly know who is responsible for firing that missile, or with -- or with what assistance. What I'm saying is that that system is fairly sophisticated.
Rear Admiral Kirby is then asked: "What is the level of their training and systems? Does it include Russian forces going across the border to act as training and advisers side-by-side with the separatists?" And, once again, the answer is anything but unequivocal:
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well there have been Russian, I mean there have been incursions across the border by Russian aircraft. So, I mean we don't have any reason to suspect that they have not provided some measure of support on the other side of that order. These paramilitary forces that we do not talk about as much anymore certainly didn't act or behave or organize or resource like some ragtag militia.

So nobody is suggesting that Russian military advice and assistance hasn't somehow crossed that border. It's just unclear exactly how much and when and who. Again, that's what the investigators are going to look at and we've got to let them do that.
In other words, if the Americans have any evidence of collusion, at this stage they are not releasing it. But the Admiral does say: "I don't have an indication now that - that a system was brought over".  That is unequivocal: at this time, there is no evidence available to the Pentagon which supports any claim that any SA-11s were supplied to the separatists by the Russians. And if the US does not have the evidence, it is hard to see anyone else in a better position.

This brings us to the conclusion of part one, with the second part to follow shortly.


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