Thursday, somebody brought down a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur over the Ukraine/Russian border. We know it was shot down by a sophisticated surface-to-air missile, but we still don’t know whose finger was on the trigger.
We no doubt will know shortly, since that border is one of the most heavily monitored places on the planet.
Satellite technology will see the heat signature of a missile destroying the plane, and will see from where that missile was launched. Additionally, the plane’s black boxes, fuselage and debris will give us more information. If the Russians get to the crash sites first and doctor the evidence, we will know that, too.
So let’s break down who might have shot it down and why. As they say in detective work, we’re looking for somebody with motive and opportunity.
The Ukrainian government had the opportunity but not the motive. Ukraine has the missile system that could take down the Malaysian aircraft flying at high altitude, because the Russians gave it to them years ago. But Ukraine wants western economic and military help in their struggles against Russia and Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine. Attacking a civilian airliner is would guarantee they don’t get it.
Pro-Russian rebel separatists in Eastern Ukraine may have the opportunity and perhaps the motive. Questions remain, but it seems the Russians have given rebel separatists a missile system capable of shooting down the plane. In the last several days they’ve shot down two Ukrainian military aircraft, so perhaps they’ve gotten a little trigger-happy.
Maybe they were trying to take down another Ukrainian military aircraft and got sloppy, hitting a Malaysian civilian aircraft by mistake. Preliminary evidence supports this theory.
On Thursday afternoon there was some social media traffic allegedly from the rebels claiming credit for shooting down another Ukrainian military plane, but was quickly deleted when they realized it was a Malaysian passenger plane instead.
Despite a few victories in recent days though, the rebel separatists have been losing ground to Ukrainian forces. Putin has made signals in the last few days to distance Russia from the rebels. Perhaps the rebels decided to escalate the fighting, in hopes of getting Russia engaged again to bail them out. If so, it was a big mistake.
Russia has the opportunity but not the motive. When I was in Kiev last month meeting with military and intelligence officials, they talked about the new kind of warfare Putin was waging in Eastern Ukraine. They called it Putin’s “phony war.” Russia was supplying arms, expertise and covert operatives to ethnic Russian rebel separatists in Eastern Ukraine, but denying it had anything to do with it.
Putin’s war plan was to keep Russian involvement just below the threshold so that they would have plausible deniability and their involvement wouldn’t provoke a Western reaction.
The Ukrainian intelligence officers talked of “brown shirts” flooding into Eastern Ukraine from Russia --definitely Russian Special Forces but not troops sporting Russian markings.
If it turns out Russia has come out of the shadows, and did shoot down the Malaysian civilian aircraft, it is a game changer.
The Russians will try to deny it, but no one will believe them. Even if it is Russia’s proxies in Eastern Ukraine who are responsible for this terrible act, Russia loses plausible deniability.
It will be Putin’s biggest nightmare, because it could light a fire under European and American leaders to take immediate and severe action against Russia.
There were American and European citizens on the Malaysian flight. The Malaysian Airlines passenger plane could just have easily been a European one which also took the same flight path.
Putin’s march to remake the old-Russian empire quietly while no one was looking won’t work too well if the world puts his actions under a microscope.
At a minimum he looks reckless. He could be seen as carrying out an act of war.
Adding fuel to the fire is Putin himself. He’s also got his own Russian people whipped up into a frenzy of anti-Western, ultra-nationalism. He will now have the world’s attention focused on him, and if they ratchet up the pressure, he will have the Russian people demanding action, too.
The tranquil world White House press secretary Josh Earnest credited to President Obama earlier to this week has suddenly veered off course. This is kind of crisis that can quickly spiral out of control.
At the same time, Israeli forces launched a ground invasion in Gaza against Hamas terrorists and their arms depots.
This is the time when you really want a pro in the White House.
I was in Pentagon in 1983 when the Soviets callously shot down a South Korean airliner, brazenly denied it at first, and then, when they finally admitted it, claimed that the civilian plane was spying on them.
It was a turning point for President Reagan. He realized compromise with the USSR wasn’t possible. Their callous disregard for human life and refusal to take responsibility convinced Reagan their system of government was corrupt, immoral and destined for failure. If a rogue Russian pilot could shoot down a South Korean civilian airliner, presumably by mistake, could they fire a nuclear weapon, by mistake, too?
He accelerated efforts to develop a Star Wars missile defense system, urged Congress to hold the course with the defense buildup, rallied the European allies to stand up to Soviets, and he doubled down on his long range plan to bankrupt the USSR by driving down the price of oil.
The USSR collapsed six years later. That’s what real leadership looks like.