EU Referendum

Ukraine: MH17 – what we know so far


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"Here's what we know so far", said President Obama yesterday: "Evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile that was launched from an area that is controlled by Russian-backed separatists inside of Ukraine".

"We also know that this is not the first time a plane has been shot down in eastern Ukraine. Over the last several weeks, Russian-backed separatists have shot down a Ukrainian transport plane and a Ukrainian helicopter, and they claimed responsibility for shooting down a Ukrainian fighter jet", he added.

"Moreover", the President went on: "we know that these separatists have received a steady flow of support from Russia. This includes arms and training. It includes heavy weapons, and it includes anti-aircraft weapons".

This, of course, is the President of the United States speaking and it is fair to assume that he is privy to an amount of information that would support such unequivocal declarations.

In fact, it is the LA Times which gives some clues as to the President's sources. The Pentagon, as one might expect, have available several intelligence gathering satellites monitoring the Ukraine border. They are part of the Defence Support Programme (or DSP) satellites, orbiting the Earth around 36,000 kilometres above the equator, operated from a control station at Buckley Air Force base in Colorado.

However, the DSP system - highly capable in its own right - has been partially replaced by the more advanced SBIRS. AS with DPS, only better, their sensors are capable of picking up anti-aircraft missile radars, and locating the launchers. They can detect the heat signature of a missile and, having been designed to give an "IR view" of the battlefield, when the warhead of a missile detonates, that too can be picked up and analysed. 

Furthermore, the missile characteristics – emissions (or not), speed, launch profile and warhead energy (part of what is known as phenomenology analysis) – can give fairly reliable indications of the type. It is said of the current system that it is so sensitive that it can pick up when a military aircraft cuts in its afterburner.

Thus, it is a fairly good bet that US intelligence has an accurate idea of when MH17 was hit, and witnessed the event via its satellite system. It knew exactly when the missile was launched and its location (within whatever margin of error that affects the sensors). Within reasonable bounds, it will also be able to identify the type of missile deployed.

Furthermore, if the President says that several aircraft have been downed by missiles, there is a very good chance he is telling the truth – as much of it as he needs to. Ukrainian separatists – by whatever name you chose to call them – have acquired high performance anti-aircraft missiles, and have been using them against a variety of targets.

Crucially, much of this part of what President Obama has said is independently verifiable, from a multiplicity of sources. And there will be more to come. The balance of probabilities is that he neither needs to lie nor gets any advantage from so doing. And any major deviation from the truth would in due course be found out, to his very great disadvantage.

On balance, therefore, with what I have collected so far, plus much more (including this in which the separatists claim to have downed an aircraft), I am reasonably satisfied that the separatists did down MH17, and used an SA-11 unit to do so.

Where I begin to diverge from Mr Obama's analysis is when, at the end of his speech, he answered a question on "how much blame" he put on President Putin. The slightly edited answer is here:
THE PRESIDENT: We don't exactly know what happened yet, and I don't want to ... get out ahead of the facts. But what I do know is, is that ...  these separatists ... are heavily armed and that they are trained. And we know that that's not an accident. That is happening because of Russian support.

So it is not possible for these separatists to function the way they're functioning, to have the equipment that they have - set aside what's happened with respect to the Malaysian Airlines - a group of separatists can't shoot down military transport planes or, they claim, shoot down fighter jets without sophisticated equipment and sophisticated training. And that is coming from Russia.

So we don't yet know exactly what happened with respect to the Malaysian Airlines, although obviously we're beginning to draw some conclusions given the nature of the shot that was fired. There are only certain types of anti-aircraft missiles that can reach up 30,000 feet and shoot down a passenger jet. We have increasing confidence that it came from areas controlled by the separatists. But without having a definitive judgement on those issues yet, what we do know is, is that the violence that's taking place there is facilitated in part - in large part - because of Russian support. And they have the ability to move those separatists in a different direction.

If Mr Putin makes a decision that we are not going to allow heavy armaments and the flow of fighters into Ukraine across the Ukrainian-Russian border, then it will stop. And if it stops, then the separatists will still have the capacity to enter into negotiations and try to arrive at the sort of political accommodations that Mr. Putin himself says he wants to see. He has the most control over that situation, and so far, at least, he has not exercised it.
The point here is that Mr Obama is moving away from fact to conjecture, in asserting that the "sophisticated equipment" – i.e., missiles – was "coming from Russia". He offers no evidence for this and, in the greater scheme of things, his claim has no greater substance than the Russian counter-charges that the Ukrainians were deploying SA-11s and that no Russian weapons were crossing the border. Such border crossings "can't be performed in secrecy", an official representative for the Russian Defence Ministry told journalists in Moscow.

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Considering how the separatists' movements have been observed (see above and below), there is a great deal of truth in that, especially as the Pentagon has admitted that there is no US intelligence showing an SA-11 crossing the border into Ukraine. The Pentagon itself is not able to support the President's claim that the SA-11s came from over the border.

Inevitably, though, the "fog of war" is descending. The separatists are now denying responsibility for the downing of MH17, with an added twist. With the Ukrainians now saying the separatists did capture SA-11 launchers (having previously denied it), the separatists, having claimed initially that they had them and then most recently denied capturing them, are now admitting they did obtain the launchers but they "were totally unsuitable for combat operations. They were even beyond repair. Just a pile of scrap metal".

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As for Mr Obama's claim that sophisticated training is needed to operate the SA-11, there is testimony that contradicts that. And, in any case, there are enough Ukrainians of Russian origin, with military service, to be able to handle the equipment. Against, the President is out on a limb.

Therefore, against the claims that the separatists captured a regiment of missiles, the Ukrainian prosecutor's ex post facto denial that they obtained missiles by this route simply adds to the volume of propaganda. And it is the same whether it is Obama, the Ukrainians or the media making the "noise". This is a polluted narrative on offer, which only goes in one direction: Putin is not only arming the separatists - under his authority, the separatists were supplied the equipment which shot down MH17.

But what is artfully concealed by Obama's accusations is a very obvious fact. If US intelligence knew that the separatists were equipped with "sophisticated equipment" in the form of SA-11 missiles and were bringing down Ukrainian aircraft with them, they must have known that this represented a clear and present danger to overflying civilian aircraft.

Mr Obama can't have it both ways. If he knew, as he tells us he does, that the separatists had these missiles, then he should have insisted that the intelligence was shared with other governments, and that collectively, a warning was issued to all airlines. The source mattered less than the threat.

One recalls the very recent drama over charged mobiles and the huge disruption to airline travellers, yet here we have the US government in possession of information of a far more serious and – as it turns out – much more real threat, and it says nothing. The New York Times is not alone in saying that the threat was underestimated.

As to the separatists' current intentions, Delingpole points out that their reported raid on the Donetsk A1402 air defence regiment could have furnished them with an armoury that may exceed 100 missiles and a dozen or more launchers (at a conservative estimate). 

If this is the case, and the report on the raid on Donetsk seems far more credible than some of Obama's claims, then we have situation which is as potentially dangerous to the Russians as it is everybody else. Obama would be far better off making a show of seeking co-operation than taking his confrontational line.

As it is, it seems that attention is being distracted from the failure to warn airlines about an avoidable threat, by stoking up claims that do not have much by way of evidential support, all at the risk of making international relations far worse than they need be.

This situation is dangerous enough already, and the tragedy of MH17 far too grievous, for politicians to be playing their venal games. We need some candour, and some grown-up behaviour. Lives are at stake.