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Fallen aircraft and smoking guns: The deadly consequences of Russian insurgency in Ukraine

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Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17

What could possibly go wrong if you give sophisticated high-tech weapons to a group of lunatics, fanatics, mercenaries, and criminals?

People all over the globe are stunned at the destruction of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH-17 carrying 298 passengers and crew near the Ukrainian city of Donetsk, currently held by the self-proclaimed, unrecognized, and Russian-backed Donetsk People's Republic. Video and still photos from the site make it clear that there could be no possible survivors.

Igor Girkin/Igor StrelkovWhile it is certain that both the Ukrainian government and the insurgent forces will blame one another, the picture that is rapidly emerging is that this was an intentional shooting down of an aircraft by the so-called "Donetsk People's Army" under the command of Igor Girkin (who also uses the nom de guerre, Igor Strelkov) in the mistaken belief that it was a Ukrainian air force plane.

BUK Missile launcherBefore it was clear that the aircraft was a Malaysian passenger jet, Girkin (a colonel in the Russia military intelligence department) claimed credit for the shooting, saying:

"The plane has just been taken down somewhere around Torez (Donetsk Oblast). It lays there behind the Progress mine. We did warn you -- do not fly in 'our sky.' And here is the video proving another 'bird' falling down. The bird went down behind the slagheap, not in the residential district. So no peaceful people were injured."

These Russian separatists had earlier exhibited a "BUK" portable missile system with SA-11 missiles, that they had in their possession, a sophisticated high-tech missile system capable of shooting down an airliner flying at high altitude. Such advanced weapons systems are clearly being supplied to the insurgents by the Russian military. It would be very unusual if Russian president Vladmir Putin was unaware that such high-tech weaponry was being given to these insurgent groups. 

The Smoking Gun

Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17

While such events are often enshrouded in the proverbial fog of war making it difficult to determine the truth, a remarkable smoking gun has already emerged in the form of intercepted cell-phone communications between insurgents in the Donetsk region made by the SBU (the Security Service of Ukraine). I have translated some of the conversations from Russian and Ukrainian. [N.B. A version of the tape with English subtitles is now available.]

Igor BezlerAt 0:18 on the tape, the "fake" Russian officer Igor Bezler, the commander of the "Besa Group" of the Donetsk People's Army, is reporting to Vasili Geranin (a Russian military intelligence agent with the general headquarters of the armed forces of the Russian Federation) announces that the "Miner" group has just shot down an airplane.

Later, at 0:44 on the tape but actually recorded about 40 minutes later, there is a conversation between two militants codenamed "Major" and "Grek" (Greek).  "Major" speaking to "Grek" says that the Cossacks at the "Chernukhino" post shot down the airplane and that the teams that have been sent out to investigate have discovered that it was a civilian aircraft. "Grek" asks if there were any weapon systems on the plane. "Major" replies there was nothing of the kind; all he could see in the wreckage were various kinds of civilian things, medicines, towels, toiletries, etc.

"Major" asks if there are documents in the wreckage. "Grek" says yes, that he saw an Indonesian student's passport.

Mykola Kozitsyn Still later at 1:53 on the tape, an unidentified insurgent is conversing with Mykola Kozitsyn, a violent Cossack ataman (leader) associated with the rebel forces. The insurgent reports that the shot-down plane turns out to have been civilian. That there is a "sea" of corpses, mostly women and children, and the Cossack detachment is there looking over the scene.

The militant continues that "television" (what television is being referred to is unclear) is saying that the aircraft was an AN-26 Ukrainian transport plane but the painting on the side says it is a Malaysia Airlines aircraft. "What was it doing on Ukrainian territory?" Kozitsyn replies that, "It means it was transporting spies. And now war will come."

All this is consistent with the claims by Girkin/Strelkov that "Donetsk People's Army" shot down the plane in the mistaken belief that it was a Ukrainian transport, only to discover when observers arrived at the crash site, that it was in fact a civilian Malaysia Airlines aircraft.

What one fears is that Kozitsyn may be right in asserting is that "Now war will come." He seems unconcerned that 295 innocent civilians have perished as a result of a grotesque blunder, ready to either ascribe the aircraft to a Ukrainian air force transport disguised as a Malaysian civilian airplane or one that was carrying "spies."

Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17

It's also unclear whether he regards this prospective "war" as problematic or desirable, a convenient pretext to provoke a further escalation of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Given that the Russian financed and supported secessionist groups are peopled with lunatics, fanatics, mercenaries, and criminals, this may also not be surprising, particularly given that these groups have lost control over large areas that they formerly held (such as Slovyansk) and their positions in Lukhansk and Donetsk look to be increasingly desperate.

This is Part IV of a series on the political situation of Ukraine. Part III is Faces of war and peace on Moscow streets. Part V is Blundering in Ukraine: Putin's strategic debacle

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He has a Russian Studies degree from Dalhousie University and the Pushkin Institute in Moscow. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

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