July 17: Time after time, the pro-Russian guerrillas in eastern Ukraine have shown their ability to shoot down aircraft.
In the last four days alone, two Ukrainian military planes have been destroyed — an SU-25 ground attack fighter, which was brought down yesterday, and an AN-26 transport aircraft, which fell from the sky on Monday. Last month, an IL-76 freighter was set ablaze as it came in to land at Luhansk airport.
All of these aircraft — along with numerous helicopters — fell victim to surface-to-air missiles. The SU-25 was destroyed so close to the Russian frontier that Ukraine’s government claims the fatal weapon was actually launched from inside its neighbour.
If Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17 was brought down by a missile, then the finger of suspicion would point towards the pro-Russian rebels. Put bluntly, they are the only side in Ukraine’s conflict which has been shooting down aircraft on a regular basis for several months.
There is little doubt over where the weapons come from. Russia has been arming the insurgents ever since the crisis in eastern Ukraine began in April.
That support has gone beyond the supply of small arms: in addition to surface-to-air missiles, the rebels have also shown that they possess main battle tanks, apparently obtained from Russian stockpiles just across the border.
But that still leaves one vital question. The shoulder-launched missiles used by the rebels are capable of destroying aircraft flying at relatively low altitudes. These weapons are generally effective up to about 10,000 feet. The downed Ukrainian planes were hit at relatively low altitudes, notably when they were trying to land.
Yet the publicly available radar records show that Flight MH-17 was flying at 33,000 feet, well beyond the reach of shoulder-launched weapons. Destroying an aircraft at that height would almost certainly require a radar-guided surface-to-air missile fired from a ground battery.
There is no evidence that Russia has entrusted weaponry of that kind to the insurgents, nor that they would have the skill to use systems of such complexity. That leaves two possibilities: Flight MH-17 could have been destroyed by a missile launched from the Russian side of the frontier, possibly after being mistaken for a Ukrainian military transport aircraft.
Alternatively, Ukraine’s own forces might have made a terrible error. Back in 2001, Ukraine admitted destroying a civil airliner by mistake, killing 78 passengers and crew, when its forces were testing an S-200 surface-to-air missile.
For months, Ukraine and Russia have been waging an undeclared war. Both sides will have raised the alert level of their respective air defences.