One year after MH17: the Kremlin’s responsibility

The accidental firing on the airliner by Russian air-defence missiles are the most conceivable explanation to the downing of MH17

A year ago today, on July 17th, 2014, a Malaysian Airliner, flight MH17, was shot down over separatist-held territory in eastern Ukraine. All 298 passengers died. The incident was subject of a major debate in the media, and numerous conspiracy theories were fabricated to obscure the facts surrounding the accident. One year after the crash, there is still no final report of the investigation. However, the known facts and the stories told tell us much about both the Russian propaganda effort and Western cowardice.

What do we know so far? The most reliable source on MH17 is the preliminary report of the Dutch government on the incident. The sudden loss of contact with the aircraft, the steep decline of the plane, the wide scattering of the debris, the multiple penetration pattern suggested that a large splinter-warhead detonated in front of the aircraft and destroyed the forward section of it. The aircraft disintegrated in flight and crashed.

This “satellite photo” was a crude falsification: aircraft cannons or air-to air missiles would have caused very different damage patterns

This totally contradicts the Russian versions of the event aired immediately after the incidents: according to Russian media, Ukrainian war-planes shot it down. The first plane rumoured in the Russian news, the Su-25 ground attack plane had a service celling of about 7000 meters (MH17 was flying at about 10500m when shot down) and has no sensors to track and lock-on to such an airliner. Later, Russian propaganda fabricated pictures of a Ukrainian Mig-29, supposing shooting at an airliner with its on-board automatic cannon. This “satellite photo” was a crude falsification: aircraft cannons or air-to air missiles would have caused very different damage patterns.

Now Russia indicates that the aircraft might have been shot down by Ukrainian surface to air missiles (SAM). But the  kinematic performance of the 9M38 missile used by the Buk system deployed by both Ukrainian and Russian forces would have required positioning it with the most forward Ukrainian troops – something that is very unlikely. In fact, in order to mask its involvement, Russia did not deploy its air force in the conflict so surface to air missiles would have posed a threat to Ukraine’s own air operations. Furthermore, the Ukrainian units in the area at the time – the Azow regiment, parts of the 79th airmobile brigade and the 24th and 51st mechanised infantry brigade – are ones that do not operate any heavy SAM systems, let alone the Buk system.

And these Russian theories are only the most serious ones that were aired by Russian media and pro-Russian sources. There are, in addition, numerous conspiracy theories that are so absurd that it is not worth mentioning them.

That MH17 was shot down by a surface to air missile is certain. But where did it come from? What was the situation on the ground back then?

At the time of the attack on MH17, the pro-Russian rebels consisted mainly of GRU-led Russian right-wing organisations, Russian nationalist voluntaries, and a few Russian special operation forces and paratroopers (VDV). These light forces were mopped up by the Ukrainian summer offensive, fielding for the first time large numbers of forces, mainly voluntary “Maidan” battalions. The Ukrainian operative plan was to advance from the south along the Russian-Ukrainian border, to cut off separatist forces from their Russian supply lines and isolate them in pockets.

This advance made considerable progress, but the salient beyond Donetsk soon became short of supplies. Ukrainian forces emphasised speed of the operation above all, and that meant that even the Ukrainian rear was exposed to open flanks as well as remaining separatist pockets. Therefore the Ukrainian Army started to increase air-supply missions to most advanced units, frequently flying over separatist held territories.

Russia’s reaction was twofold: first it sent heavy equipment into Ukraine – including heavy Surface to Air Missiles (SAM) – into Ukraine to slow the Ukrainian advance and interdict its aircraft. Second it sent regular armoured formations across the border to retake lost ground, encircle the Ukrainian spearheads and defeat them.

The influx of conventional Russian forces had just started and it is likely that the chains of command were confused.

The new surface to air missiles deployed to cut off the Ukrainian spearheads from both close-air support and their air supply proved effective. On 14th July an An-26 was shot down, on the 16th and 17th two Ukrainian Su-25 were downed. Because of the fear that the Russian forces could shoot down a civilian airplane, Ukrainian airspace authorities closed the airspace over the ATO zone beneath 9750m. All Ukrainian military planes were shot down at much lower altitudes.

However, there was no clear information on which systems were present in the ATO. Neither was it clear what firing orders that units present in the separatist areas had. The influx of conventional Russian forces had just started and it is likely that the chains of command were confused. Effective communication between the nearest airspace control authority in Rostov-on-Don and Russian troops in the Donbas was not yet well established.

The fire-control officer (FCO) of a Buk battery has a very difficult job, getting no digitalised comprehensive airspace situation on the desk. Instead a 2D radar picture without any further information on the plots, flying altitudes for individual plots, and identification friend or foe (IFF) data are each displayed on different analogue instruments, making it difficult to get situation awareness on the ground. It is conceivable that civilian identification numbers and flight-lists may not have been communicated at all. In these circumstances, operating errors were almost unavoidable. Confusing or misinterpreting one of the different sources leads to the engagement of the wrong target. In the Soviet Army, any flights through air-defence zones (even military) were forbidden. This is why Soviet and now Russian FCOs are usually not particularly well trained in operating in such complex environments. The accidental firing on the airliner by Russian air-defence missiles are the most conceivable explanation to the downing of MH17. This version is also supported by the results of radio-interceptions of separatist forces and investigative journalism.

While for Russian operators of the guilty Buk system, the downing of MH17 was a tragic accident, the conditions that allowed such an attack were not. Once Putin and the Russian government decided to clandestinely infiltrate heavy SAMs into Ukraine, such an accident was made almost unavoidable.

The accidental firing on the airliner by Russian air-defence missiles are the most conceivable explanation to the downing of MH17.

The Kremlin cannot be relieved of the political responsibility for this. A reasonable government would have investigated the issue, unveiled the responsibilities, the lines of command, the shortcomings, the faulty operational procedures and change them accordingly to prevent such an incident happening again. Not so Russia. Russia instead wages an intensive propaganda war to blame Ukraine and confuse audiences in the West. In the UN Security Council, Russia vetoed the establishment of an international tribunal to investigating the issue. There reasons are clear. A tribunal under the auspices of the UN would not only enhance the legitimacy of the investigation, it would also demand access to the command structures and armed forces of “the rebels” in the Donbass – unveiling much about the Russian presence there, not only regarding to MH17.

The West – both the US and European powers alike – were reluctant to confront Russia on the issue because it would once again raise the questions of consequences again. The dual mantras of “keeping the channels for dialogue open” and “engaging constructively with Russia” seem to make Western politicians reluctant to raise issues that hinder further dialogue. But when the final report on the MH17 incident is released by the investigating Dutch authorities, the question on how to proceed with Russia’s culpability will inevitably be on the table again once again.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.


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