Malaysia Airlines Passenger Jet Crashes Over Eastern Ukraine


July 17, 2014
UPDATED: Jul 20, 2014

Contact: Matthew Czekaj

The Jamestown Foundation is deeply saddened by the news of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, which crashed over eastern Ukraine, approximately 31 miles from the Ukraine-Russia border, on Thursday, July 17. Our heartfelt condolences go out to the families of the 298 passengers and crew who were on board, none of whom survived.

The Boeing 777 airliner was flying at 33,000 feet over pro-Russian rebel-controlled territory in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk when air traffic control lost contact with it at 2:15 p.m. GMT. Press photos of the crash site show plane wreckage and human bodies strewn over a particularly large area, suggesting that Flight MH17 broke up in the air before hitting the ground. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has said that the crash was not an accident, the plane was apparently shot out of the sky with a missile. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko noted, “We are not calling it an accident, or a disaster, but an act of terrorism.”

A spokesperson for the separatist forces has told reporters that they have found the Malaysian plane’s black boxes and plan on sending them to Moscow for inspection.

The Ukrainian Ministry of Interior has alleged that insurgent forces in Donetsk were responsible for downing the Malaysian passenger jet. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) claims to have obtained and released an audio recording of a rebel leader admitting to a Russian military officer by phone that the insurgents have shot down a commercial airliner.

The pro-Russian insurgents have denied involvement in the crash, saying that they lack the capability to target a plane flying that high and have claimed that the Ukrainian military was responsible. The Ukrainian government, in turn, has emphatically rejected this accusation, alleging that the Malaysian plane was shot down by a BUK surface-to-air missile, while Ukraine’s military did not have any ground-based air defense systems deployed in the vicinity. Journalists covering the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine noted on several separate occasions in the past few weeks that the rebels appeared to be in possession of air defense systems that looked like the BUK—almost certainly provided to them by the Russian military. Moreover, today, the Russian-backed Donetsk separatists have deleted a tweet they posted last month claiming to have captured a BUK air defense system.

This month, the Ukrainian military lost several military aircraft in the eastern Ukrainian conflict zone near the border with Russia. On Monday (July 14), a Ukrainian Antonov-26 military transport plane was downed by a missile that Kyiv claims was fired from Russian territory. And on Wednesday (July 16), Kyiv alleges that a Russian fighter jet shot down a Ukrainian Su-25 attack plane over Ukrainian territory.

In recent analysis he wrote for the Eurasia Daily Monitor, military expert Pavel Felgenhauer predicted that Russia would use its air force to assist the rebels fighting against Ukrainian forces. And last month, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told Russian parliamentarians that Moscow might seek to create a no-fly-zone over eastern Ukraine. It is unclear at this point whether the downing of Flight MH17, assuming it was indeed shot down by a Russian missile, was done deliberately as part of such a strategy.

According to Jamestown President, Glen E. Howard, as investigators gather evidence about this horrible tragedy, it is vital to learn who authorized the use of this missile strike and where it was fired from. It is seriously doubtful, Howard notes, that Ivan the Plumber–turned rebel fighter from Donetsk could have the skills to operate weapons system as technologically sophisticated as the one purportedly used in the downing of the Malaysian aircraft. Moreover, investigators need to ask where and what type of radar the system was using to find the Boeing 777 at 33,000 feet and more importantly, who authorized the firing of the missile at the civilian liner. Was it Ivan the Plumber, or did the order come from a higher authority from the other side of the border?

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Founded in 1984, The Jamestown Foundation is an independent, non-partisan research institution dedicated to providing timely information concerning critical political and strategic developments in China, Russia, Eurasia and the world of terrorism. Jamestown produces three periodic publications: Eurasia Daily Monitor, Terrorism Monitor and China Brief. Jamestown research and analysis is available to the public free of charge via Jamestown’s website,