Defense experts say Russian troops helped fire missile that brought down plane
Amid the unspeakable carnage of the MH17 crash site, separatist troops fighting the Ukraine goverment are threatening international observers who are demanding access to the evidence.
A unit of heavily armed rebels blocked the 30-strong team from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), cordoning off a large part of the crash site. The inspectors retreated after an hour-long standoff, having been unable to gain access. They were sent on their way by warning shots fired by the rebel unit commander.
"We will keep coming back tomorrow and the next day and the next day," said OSCE spokesman Michael Bociurkiw. "Tomorrow will be a crunch day. There are a lot of experts from the Netherlands and Malaysia gathering in Kiev as well as relatives. The bodies are starting to bloat and decay. An expert team is clearly needed. There is a lot to be done in a short amount of time."
The rebels are also destroying a lot of evidence that seems to point directly at them. Internnet postings are being deleted and the vehicle carrying the surface to air missile system that may have brought down the plane may be headed for Russia:
There is also confusion over the black boxes and other devices apparently salvaged from the plane. A rebel military commander initially said he was considering what to do with them, while another rebel leader, Aleksandr Borodai, contradicting his colleague, said the rebels had no black boxes or any other devices.
The Ukrainian interior ministry added to fears of a cover-up when it released video purportedly taken by police showing a truck carrying a Buk missile launcher with one of its four missiles apparently missing, rolling towards the Russian border at dawn . The video could not be independently verified.
Other material on rebel social media sites was being deleted, including pictures showing the alleged capture of Buk missile vehicles by rebels from a Ukrainian air base last month.
Rebels said the boast on the social media site on Thursday that a plane had been shot down was not put up by them but by a sympathiser who mistakenly assumed it was a Ukrainian military plane that had been shot down. But in a separate posting a rebel leader also claimed that a plane had been brought down. "We warned you – do not fly in our sky," he said. That too was removed.
But the most significant development is the growing realization among defense experts that the rebels were probably not capable of launching the missile themselves.
Defence analysts with Russian expertise shared Power's scepticism that Russia-backed rebel groups would have had the expertise to fire the missile and suggested it was more likely to have been Russian ground troops who specialise in air defence, seconded to help the rebels.
At the Pentagon, officials said a motive for the operation had yet to be determined, as had the chain of command. One said it would be "surprising to us" if pro-Russia separatists were able to operate the Buk missile battery without Russian technical support. The Ukrainian military confirmed it has Buk batteries but said it had none in the area the missile was fired.
Nato had Awacs surveillance and command-and-control planes flying in the Baltics around the time of the crash, but Pentagon officials did not think the aircraft picked up indications of the disaster.
Bob Latiff, a former US weapons developer for the air force and the CIA and now a professor at Notre Dame University, said he leaned towards a belief that it was a case of mistaken identity on the part of those who pressed the button.
"A radar return from an airplane like this would look very similar to that from a cargo plane, as was initially claimed by the separatists. If radar was all they were using, that is a shame," he said. "All airliners emit identification signals which identify the aircraft and provide other information like altitude and speed. They also operate on known communications frequencies. It doesn't sound like the separatists were using any of this.
"My guess is the system's radar saw a return from a big 'cargo' plane flying at 30,000 ft or so and either automatically fired, or some aggressive, itchy operator fired, not wanting to miss an opportunity."
Needless to say, Vladimir Putin is not cooperating and blames the Ukraine government for the attack. And Russian media is doing its best to deflect attention away from the probable culprits. One wild conspiracy theory making the rounds yesterday was generated by Russian media giant Russia Today, that offered the theory that the plane was going to assassinate Putin:
Russia Today sparked a fever of speculation last night after publishing a report that claimed the doomed flight was flying almost the exact same path as Putin's presidential plane did less than 40 minutes later.
It quoted a source as telling Interfax news agency: 'I can say that Putin’s plane and the Malaysian Boeing intersected at the same point and the same echelon.
'That was close to Warsaw on 330-m echelon at the height of 10,100 meters. The presidential jet was there at 16:21 Moscow time and the Malaysian aircraft—15:44 Moscow time.'
It goes on to point out that Putin's presidential plane bears uncannily similar red and blue markings to those painted on all Malaysian Airlines craft.
Within minutes of the report, Twitter was flooded by claims the shooting was a botched assassination attempt.
Some even took it to mean US president Barack Obama ordered the C.I.A. to carry out the alleged hit.
'#OBAMA TRYING TO KILL #PUTIN #Putin's plane was following 'almost same route' as crashed #MalaysianAirlines #MH17,' gushed one excited user.
One rebel general suggested that the bodies found strewn over miles of countryside actually died a few days ago. It seems likely that at least some Russians believe this malarkey - and some Russian sympathizers in Ukraine as well.
The UN is calling for an international investigation but by the time technicians reach the site, most traces of evidence showing who is responsible will have been wiped clean. The question now facing NATO is how much they should ramp up sanctions against Russia. They can increase the pressure on Putin by sanctioning Russia's international banking. This would have the impact of damaging the Russian economy at a time it is already showing weakness. It is unlikely that the Europeans will go that far, however.