The crash site in Donetsk oblast
So this is where we have got to after 101 days since Russia began its destabilisation of Ukraine – to a place that probably even Putin and his most neo-nationalist advisers would not have desired: a 15km-wide crash site containing the bodies of 298 civilian, non-Ukrainian passengers and crew, including 80 children, on a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. The plane, a Malaysian Airlines 777, was flying at 33,000 feet, high above the fray occurring in Ukraine’s eastern conflict zone, but still, as it turns out, targetable by a ground-to-air missile. Intercepts this afternoon by the Ukrainian SBU revealed Russian-financed separatists reporting by phone to their comrades, or we should probably say controllers, in Moscow that they had downed what they believed was a Ukrainian Antonov AN-26 – much as they have shot down other Ukrainian military planes, a fighter, helicopters, a troop transport plane, in recent weeks.
But flight MH17 was not a military aircraft. It was a routine civilian flight from Europe to Asia, of the kind that leaves European hub airports several times a day. By a macabre coincidence it was operated by the same airline whose doomed flight MH370 disappeared from radar screens at the height of the original Russian-Ukrainian conflict over Crimea.
The implications are appalling, the responsibility for this extraordinary disaster as heavy as it possibly could be. There cannot be any mitigating plea whatsoever for the mass murder of 298 civilians at such a remote political distance from the conflict in which they lost their lives. Amsterdam, Kuala Lumpur, civilians, a quarter of them children, no military personnel on board – not even in the wrong place at the wrong time, the 298 dead were the targets of lunatic, bloodthirsty psychopaths, largely financed by Moscow and steered by the Kremlin’s military intelligence services, many of them with past careers in Chechnya and Afghanistan to guide their tactics in keeping eastern Ukraine destabilised until, exhausted, the fledgling pro-European state agrees to some kind of redrawing of boundaries, federalisation, power-sharing, realignment with big brother Moscow, and so on and so so on.
But the key question is not, now, how to manage Russia–Ukraine relations in future, or how to end the conflict in east Ukraine.
The question is: How could this possibly have happened? How could a civilian airliner flying high above a local danger zone come to such a devastating end?
To which the answer is obviously that the weaponry was available, and that a man on the ground – a man so incredibly thoughtless, stupid and intoxicated that he failed to ask himself the simple question: what if this is not a military aircraft? – pointed it and pressed the button.
That may suffice. But I don’t like it as an answer. Why? Because the availability of the kind of weapons used to blow this plane out of the sky is, still, controlled to a very large extent by governments. You or I cannot acquire MANPAD (Man-portable air-defence systems) technology; there is no market I know of where I can find an Igla SAM-18 (shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile), at least not without many weeks of negotiating with people who would as happily kill me as do a deal with me. These are the weapons of choice of insurgents and guerrilla forces around the world – they do know how to get hold of them. But their engagement range is no more than 20,000 feet. They could not have reached MH17, flying at 33,000 feet. For that, a motorised rocket-launcher like the BUK system with a range of 25km would have been necessary. (It used to be said that the balance of the conflict in Afghanistan would change dramatically if the Taliban ever acquired long-range SAMs like BUK and started freely to target US and NATO airpower at any altitude. Fortunately they never did.) To operate a BUK battery requires a) the battery itself and b) expert technical knowledge. A BUK battery was spotted in Snizhne in rebel-held territory, 25km from the crash site, the day before yesterday (UPDATE 18/07: and one was filmed being transported back towards the Russian border, with two empty tubes, early this morning).
So these weapons are distributed and deployed by governments. Like tanks. Like troops. Like, yes, nuclear warheads. And which country might the not particularly smart money be on for having delivered a BUK rocket launcher to the “pro-Russian” rebels?
The answer to that question is, once again, not hard. For 3 months almost daily proof has been available, via radio and telephone intercepts and doctored Facebook posts to the unmasking of clumsy Kremlin-sponsored news stories, that President Putin’s subordinates with an extraordinarily free hand have been supplying the so-called rebels – an unholy alliance of disaffected Russophone Ukrainians, unemployed Russian and Ukrainian firebrands and former Russian Army and special forces troops – with weaponry way beyond the usual “people’s militia” level of equipment. Russia has BUKs and other SAMs to burn in depots all over the country (and Moldova and elsewhere). They’re handy. And they work. Horribly.
Set against all this proof, against the discredited news stories, the Russian passports, the intercepts, the mobile phone videos, the causally visible Russian-sourced weaponry, has been Moscow’s constant denial that the Kremlin has played any direct part in the events in eastern Ukraine. That has been the invasion of lies – no properly uniformed troops, but a toxic strategy of uncontrolled proxies supported by pumped-out black propaganda – that has allowed Russia to keep this conflict simultaneously frozen and alive.
Because today the ultimate consequence of that invasion of lies, of Moscow’s public shoulder-shrugging while the backroom staff get on with delivering the wherewithal for the most murderous kind of dishonest proxy war, has just happened: the cold-blooded murder of 298 men, women and children who had nothing whatever to do with it.
It is that consequence that the international community must now face up to. Today’s crime can hardly be laid anywhere other than at Russia’s and President Putin’s door. It is Putin’s fellow world leaders’ anger, which must be an extension of our own, that matters now. The invasion of lies can go no further. It must be stopped in its tracks.