The Tragedy of MH17 Attack Could Mark Turning Point in Ukraine Conflict
Part 2: 'We Warned Them Not To Fly through Our Airspace'
The Ukrainians also released conversations they had allegedly recorded. In one, a separatist officer named Igor Besler proudly tells a Russian intelligence officer about the downing of an aircraft. In a later conversation, he sounds horrified as he reports that it was a civilian aircraft, and he says that he suspects the dead passengers were spies. In another recording made shortly before the aircraft was shot down, rebels are allegedly discussing a battery of Buk missiles from Russia. However, the authenticity of the recordings has yet to be confirmed.
Ironically, Igor Strelkov, a colonel with the Ukrainian separatists and former Russian intelligence officer, provided another clue on the social network VKontakte. On Thursday, he posted: "We have just shot down an An-26. We warned them not to fly through our airspace." He also wrote that he had "information about a second aircraft that was shot down, reportedly an Su." At that point, he was unaware that the downed airliner was a Boeing, and he later deleted the posting. In a bizarre interview, Strelkov later claimed that the passengers on board the flight had already been dead when it was shot down.
Miners, Truck Drivers and Daredevils
It would be no surprise if the rebels, with almost no trained military personnel, had mistaken the passenger jet for a Ukrainian military aircraft. The separatist leaders are in command of a force consisting of miners, truck drivers, daredevils and the jobless. Professional soldiers, such as the commander of the so-called Vostok battalion, Alexander Khodakovsky, also consider the untrained soldiers a scourge within their own ranks.
MH 17 had only been shot down 15 hours earlier when, early Friday morning, a spokesman from the rebel headquarters, quoting top rebel commander Igor Strelkov, reported that combat operations would continue in the Donetsk region, except in the area where the plane had crashed. According to Strelkov, a "humanitarian cease-fire" to allow aviation experts to investigate the crash site was unnecessary, because the site was "well within the territory held by the people's militia of the Donetsk People's Republic." Suspending combat operations at this point, he said, was "not practical."
For Kiev, things did not go very well militarily last week. The Ukrainian military had reported major military successes until then. It had captured the rebel stronghold of Sloviansk and closed on the regional capital. The rebels in Donetsk were becoming increasingly restless.
But then several hundred Ukrainian Army troops came under heavy fire. Towns they had already captured near the Russian border had to be abandoned again. Then the rebels shot down a Russian An-26 transport aircraft and an Su-25 fighter jet. The rebels had apparently received new weapons -- from Russia.
The Russian state TV channel Rossiya 1, one of the most important propaganda tools for the Kremlin, aired a telling report on Wednesday evening. A correspondent, reporting from a "secret militia base in the combat zone," said that there had been "military successes" that were partly the result of new weapons. The journalist pointed to a row of tanks that looked brand new parked in a small forest used as camouflage. Unfortunately, the separatists, who had "only driven long-distance buses so far," had little experience with tanks.
Operating antiaircraft missiles is much more difficult. To be operated properly, even simpler models like the Buk system require at least three soldiers who "must be trained on the weapon for at least a month," says Moscow military expert Alexander Golz. And Doug Richardson, a missiles expert with trade magazine Jane's Defence," says: "The systems may have been operated by amateurs and were in semi-automatic mode."
In the standard configuration, a Buk battery consists of three elements: an armored vehicle with a large radar device for target acquisition; the command vehicle, where there are monitors from which the battery is controlled; and, finally, one or more mobile launching pads with four missiles each. It's possible that someone simply started firing from a missile-launching vehicle.
Philip Breedlove, NATO's supreme allied commander for Europe, had already warned Pentagon officials in late June that Russia was training separatists in the use of anti-aircraft systems on the Russian side of the border, and that these missile batteries would later be driven to the Ukrainian side.
A Case for NATO?
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has long pointed to the threat posed by the "green men" in eastern Ukraine, as the rebels are known within NATO. A few weeks ago, Rasmussen presented a classified document titled "Hybrid Warfare," in which he reportedly discussed whether the military activities of these men dressed in uniforms without any insignia were a case for the Western military alliance. Rasmussen apparently asked his legal experts to examine whether attacks by the separatists could trigger the application of NATO's mutual defense clause.
The document was rejected by the NATO Council, where most member states, including Germany, reportedly felt that it was too alarmist. But the downing of the passenger jet is likely to push the issue to the top of the agenda once again.
A discussion of the consequences has also erupted in foreign policy and security policy circles in Berlin. Economic sanctions against Russia are no longer the only issue on the table. The German Foreign Ministry and the Chancellery want to use the situation to push for talks between Russia and the separatists, as well as with the Ukrainian government. "In this way, perhaps something good can emerge from the tragedy," said Foreign Ministry officials.
Some now consider a UN peace mission to be the right approach in Ukraine. A few officials in the German Defense Ministry support this solution, as does the chairman of the defense committee in the German parliament, Hans-Peter Bartels. "A UN peacekeeping force is certainly a possibility to supervise a jointly negotiated solution," says Bartels, a member of Germany's center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD).
Clearly it will not be easy to gain approval for the idea of a peace mission. Russia, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has a veto and influence on all relevant decisions. It is difficult to imagine Putin allowing a UN force to prevent him from playing his dangerous games across the border.
Ukrainian President Poroshenko, on the other hand, seems to favor such a solution. He declared that restoring order in eastern Ukraine is now the rest of the world's business. But this is also potentially dangerous for Poroshenko, because a peacekeeping force would freeze the status quo in the region, which is not in Kiev's interest. Once observers and peacekeeping troops are on the ground, it will legitimize those currently in power in Donetsk to a certain extent. The UN would have to negotiate with them, and Poroshenko could no longer take military action against the rebels.
Flying over a War Zone
The question many people are now asking is why airliners are even flying over a war zone. The route across Ukraine is the most economical and, therefore, the most popular connection among airlines between major European and Asian cities. As recently as early last week, aviation regulators still viewed the skies over Ukraine as a safe flying route.
No matter how fierce the fighting is below, civil aircraft flying high above a war zone are not at any risk, because they are outside the range of most weapons. That, at least, was the official stance until now.
But for the risk analysts at most airlines, the situation in Ukraine still seemed too precarious. Carriers like Korean Air, Asiana and Qantas decided weeks ago to avoid Ukraine altogether. British Airways consistently flew around the troubled country on its flights between London and Bangkok, as did Air France.
Nevertheless, three-quarters of flights, including those operated by Lufthansa, KLM and Malaysia Airlines, continued to fly over Ukrainian territory -- until the crash.
Now German pilots are calling for a review of air routes worldwide. Is flying over crisis zones like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan still justifiable?
A Malaysian Tragedy
It is especially tragic that this accident struck Malaysia Airlines. The carrier was already in financial trouble in early March, and then came flight MH 370 -- the aircraft that vanished into thin air. Only four months later, another Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 has crashed. It is questionable whether the airline can survive these two major blows.
In this sense, the conflict in Ukraine has also affected a country halfway around the world: Malaysia.
Last Friday marked the 21st day in the fasting month of Ramadan. The pilot of the downed Boeing, Wan Amran Wan Hussin, 50, had recently told his family that he wanted to attend the Hajj in Mecca this year. "We all became weak when we learned that Wan Amran was flying the plane," says his nephew.
Shortly before departure, a passenger named Mohammed Ali Mohammed Salim posted a video to his Instagram account that has since been forwarded thousands of times. It depicts a scene familiar to anyone beginning a trip by air. As the passengers put away their bags, the pilot announces: "We are in the process of loading the last few pieces of luggage. Please ensure that your mobile phones are switched off before we depart for "
The video ends. "Wish me luck, in the name of God," Salim wrote. "My heart feels nervous."
By Marco Evers, Matthias Gebauer, Christian Neef, Gordon Repinski, Mathieu von Rohr, Matthias Schepp, Christoph Scheuermann, Hilmar Schmundt, Christoph Schult, Luzia Tschirky and Bernhard Zand
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: Attack Could Mark Turning Point in Ukraine Conflict
- Part 2: 'We Warned Them Not To Fly through Our Airspace'