So, last week, as you’ve doubtless noticed, a jet was shot down in eastern Ukraine. (Actually, several jets, but the one we’re all interested in is Malaysian flight 17.) Watching events unfold over the last couple days has been interesting, because they’re not really going how I (or anyone, I suspect) expected them to.
If we operate on the assumption (and note these are assumptions, and important ones) that MH 17 was fired at by an SA-11 system and crew provided by Russia, then the big question you have to ask (though few are, in public) is “why”. Why did it happen?
I can think of several ideas with varying degrees of plausibility. And if we play a round of ACH – Analysis of Competing Hypotheses – some start to look more likely than others.
Anyway, here are my ideas–hypotheses–in no particular order:
1. It was a complete and utter accident, an absolute SNAFU; everyone involved initially believed in good faith that MH 17 really was a Ukrainian military transport. (The “fuckup” hypothesis.)
2. It was downed intentionally to assassinate one or more passengers. (The “assassination” hypothesis.)
3. It was downed intentionally as part of a Moscow-led plan to blame Ukrainian forces. (The “false flag” hypothesis.)
4. It was downed intentionally as part of a Moscow-led plan to blame separatist forces. (The “discrediting the proxies” hypothesis.)
5. It was downed intentionally as some sort of independent separatist plot meant to escapate hostilities. (The “blow for the Motherland” hypothesis.)
6. It was downed intentionally as some sort of independent separatist plot meant to advance/hasten foreign intervention and curtail hostilities. (The “The world can’t ignore a high-profile massacre” hypothesis.)
7. It was fired at intentionally in the hopes that it would, damaged, be forced to make an emergency landing, likely in Russian territory, because of someone or something on board. (The “hostage/cargo” hypothesis.)
8. It was fired at intentionally (not necessarily intending to destroy it) in the hopes that its damage and the surrounding speculation about who was responsible would advance Russian interests in some way — being a distraction from the market slump and other responses to the latest round of sanctions, perhaps. (The “distraction” hypothesis.)
Each of these is based on some underlying assumptions that can’t really be verified, e.g. the fuckup theory assumes that the SA-11 crew were competent enough to use the system successfully, but not competent enough to tell the difference between a mode II and mode III transponder response, and the assassination theory assumes there was someone on board that Moscow wanted dead badly enough to kill nearly three-hundred innocent bystanders in the process, and so on.
Now, everything about how this has played out to date (Sunday afternoon in North America) has been odd.
Kiev has released some intercepted phone calls which if taken at face value suggest that high-ranking separatists believed, immediately after the plane was downed, that it was a military transport. But what’s not clear is why the separatist leaders thought this. Were they told this by the SA-11 crew? Or only by the people who saw the plane crash? Knowing this would be interesting, but it still wouldn’t answer most of the fundamental, important questions, because the SA-11 crew intentionally misleading the separatist leaders would support several of the hypotheses.
And Russia’s response has been… weird. They blamed the Ukrainian military, for the most part. It seems to me like a knee-jerk reaction, a predictable bit of spur-of-the-moment bluster. “It happened in Ukraine; how could we be at fault?” If they had been trying to frame Ukraine (hypothesis #3), I’d expect Moscow to have had a bunch of fabricated evidence at hand, ready to be trotted out.
The separatists, for their part, initially took full credit for shooting the plane down – but once its identity was established, they have been running around like chickens with their heads cut off, spouting nonsense, like the allegation the plane was full of frozen corpses.
Let’s do the ACH, starting with #3 (the false-flag, blame-Ukraine hypothesis). Nothing really seems to support this; Moscow’s attempts to push this idea seem spontaneous and impromptu. Except in the domestic media, this is really a non-starter.
#4 (the blame-the-separatists, discredit-the-proxies hypothesis). Russia has to have an end-game plan for the “real” separatists, and blaming them for a terrible massacre, then rounding them up and making them disappear would be a good one. It’s too early to call this just yet, because Moscow isn’t actually denying “separatist” involvement, exactly, though they’re also refusing to distance themselves from the “separatists”; also, the blatant panicking the separatists have been doing could potentially be a sign of them reacting badly to the belief (founded or otherwise) that Moscow is preparing to hang them out to dry.
#5 (the “a blow for the Motherland” separatist-initiated scheme). The apparent fact that nobody of importance among the separatists knew it was an airliner until some two hours after the crash seems to argue against this. I’d also expect to see Russia moving to take advantage of this, and I’m not sure that’s happening. There *has* been a pattern of escalation in the last week or so, and there are reports of troop movements along the border, but nothing since that seems to fit this hypothesis.
#6 (the “high-profile massacres can’t be ignored” separatist-initiated scheme). This assumes a defector or traitor, essentially, among the SA-11 crew, who wanted to curtail hostilities. I cannot help but think that if you were going to do something like that, you’d have a personal exit strategy that involved getting the heck out of Dodge, as it were, PDQ. If this was what had happened, or appeared to have happened – if the shootdown hadn’t been authorized and the person/persons responsible had disappeared – I’d expect everyone else – at a minimum Russia and the separatists – to be pointing the finger firmly at them, and likely accusing them of being collaborators with Kiev, or CIA agents provocateur, or something. And none of this is happening.
#7 (the hostage/cargo scheme). A modern airliner is a pretty remarkable bit of overengineering. That MH 17 would disintegrate from a single SAM hit wasn’t a guaranteed outcome. Thing is, when you break an airplane (or anything, really) it’s really hard to break it “just enough” and not “too much”. If you posit Russia wanted someone/something (more likely the latter, IMO) aboard the plane badly enough to try and force it down, you’d think they’d have at least one contingency plan, and nothing suggests this is true. Still, a SA-11 has a pretty limited engagement range, and I have not looked to see what the closest airport to the crash site that can handle a jumbo jet is, since the SA-11′s placement is presumably somewhat non-random.
Those leave us with #2 (targeted assassination), which doesn’t seem really likely. There don’t seem to have been any employees aboard of any government, nor any Russian citizens (dissidents/what have you) or Ukrainians, so it’s hard to fathom who could have been enough of a threat to warrant their execution in such a dramatic manner. I’m going to call that one pretty unlikely.
And then there are the first and last hypotheses. An honest accidental fuckup, or an intentional distraction. The latter has the benefit of being the sole hypothesis that could be convincingly argued to have been successful. Suddenly nobody is talking about the troops Russia has been massing at the border; suddenly nobody is talking about the Grad rockets that appear to have been fired from inside Russia. Nobody is talking about the alleged Russian Air Force interceptions of multiple Ukrainian military aircraft. All these things that, if true, Russia would have a damned hard time deflecting criticism for. Nor is anyone talking about how the sanctions announced the day before the crash influenced the Russian stock market. Instead, suddenly everyone is talking about nothing but the confusion surrounding the MH 17 tragedy, and that’s awfully damned convenient, isn’t it?
The big argument against the distraction hypothesis is that as far as I know there was no way to predict that MH17 – or any airliner, for that matter – was going to travel within range of that SA-11 unit that day. Downing another Ukrainian military plane wouldn’t have worked as a distraction; it’d have had to be a civil airliner.
(It ventures into wacky conspiracy theory territory, which I usually try to avoid, but this begs the question of whether Russia could get an SA-11 crew to knowingly and intentionally down a civilian airliner in cold blood, which is a pretty fucking heinous thing to do, for any reason. Over the weekend the separatists have been trying to claim the plane was full of already-dead, frozen corpses, which is just laughable stupid. But… what if that’s what they were told they’d be firing at? “Men, we need a distraction to occupy the news cycle for the next several days. We’re going to fly a derelict airliner right over you, filled with hobo cadavers, and call it a charter flight. You’re going to shoot it down, and the mystery surrounding the whole tragedy is going to buy us some breathing room.”)
The other hypothesis is the first – that the SA-11 crew just completely screwed the pooch. If we accept this as true we have to accept that whoever operated it knew enough to make it work successfully, but not enough to interpret transponder codes or understand the significance of the mode MH 17 was squawking in. You also have to accept that whoever was operating it could think of a convincing explanation for a single Ukrainian military aircraft to be heading, at an oblique angle, towards the border there, unescorted. Donetsk is pretty deep in rebel-held territory; by the time they fired the missile, if they really thought it was a military aircraft, someone has to have wondered where it was headed.
The thing that bugs me about this hypothesis is that nobody questioned this in the first two hours after it was shot down. The separatists said they shot down a transport. They didn’t claim to have shot down a reconnaissance flight, or a strike aircraft. They claimed they shot down a transport, at a stupendously high altitude, well within separatist-controlled territory, heading towards the border – something that makes next to no sense.
Now, there is one piece of evidence that does actually tend to support this theory, in a way: Denis Pushilin, the (then) head of the separatist state of Donetsk resigned his position the day after the incident. By letter. From Moscow. If Russia had reason to believe that “his” militants were responsible for this SNAFU, eliminating their leadership and replacing him with someone rather less independent would be a plausible first response. Does Russia’s refusal to distance themselves from the so-called separatists hint that Moscow is going to drop the pretext of the militants’ independence? I’m not convinced that’s the case, but it’s not completely impossible.
So what does that leave us with? Everything I can see narrows things down to three possibilities: an honest mistake by separatists, a ploy to discredit the separatists (as a precursor to overt Russian involvement), or a kind of desperate attempt to distract the world from Russia’s previous image problems. I suppose it’s even possible that it’s some combination of two or more of these – that Russia ordered “something big and splashy” as a distraction, and the separatists fucked up and did “something” rather larger than Moscow wanted, say. (See wacky conspiracy theory above.)
What Russia – and the separatists – do over the next couple of days should be very, very telling.