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 Ukraine: race to the bottom

 Wednesday 23 July 2014

If one struggles past the firewall on the Financial Times, to read their latest piece on the MH17 developments, one gets a small insight into how precious the "intelligence" communities are, and how once again they have delivered "dodgy" goods.

Yet, together with their professional hangers-on, they seem to be more concerned with protecting their sources and reputations than they are in delivering information.

The FT tells us the "crash" (which is not how I would put it) has "created a quandary for the US intelligence community". While officials express confidence about its conclusions, the intelligence failures in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war still colour its willingness to enter public debates.

At the same time, we are graciously informed, the US is concerned that if it releases too much of the data it has collected from satellites and other monitoring tools, it will give away insights into its intelligence capabilities to the Russians.

The thing is here that there is a huge amount of detail in the public domain about the capabilities of the US satellite systems, and it takes little imagination to work out what information is available to the US – and what it does not know.

With the media grudgingly conveying the US intelligence appreciation that conceded there is no evidence that Russia supplied the missile which shot down MH17, we can take it that if the US did have a "smoking gun" they would be splattering the details over every source they could lay their hands on.

The problem for the US (and the rest of the self-regarding intelligence "community") is that they have made assumptions that were not warranted by the evidence and they have been unable to find anything that stands up the case they have already made.

However, it would seem that their greatest asset is not their intelligent resource but the utter incompetence of the Russian intelligence services. Not only have they sought to reposition the YouTube pictures of the BUK low loader to a location where there are no trolley bus lines, despite the video showing the cables in the shot, they have also assigned magical properties to the Su-25 which even some of the British media have been able to see through.

Thus, this is not a question of the respective intelligence services vying with each other in their appreciation of the evidence. It is more like two blundering, clumsy wrestlers snacking into each other, with the winner declared on points in a contest that looks both pointless and incomprehensible.

One can only sit back and reflect that these are the intelligence services which, had the Cold War ever turned hot, would have been appraising their respective governments on what was going on. By most recent performance, had we been forced to rely on what they were delivering we would have been in very great danger indeed.

Richard North 23/07/2014 link

 Ukraine: propagandised by the slaughter

 Wednesday 23 July 2014

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 I had no idea last Thursday, when I first heard of the downed MH17 that, five days later I'd still be writing about the issue, virtually without break. Thrown into the deep end, with James Delingpol asking me to do a piece for Breitbart, I got just over an hour to research and write it at a time when there was very little published.

At that time, it should be recalled, the Mail was describing the BUK as a "shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile" that "can be packed into a golf bag and assembled and fired very rapidly by one person with minimal training". 

It was only a few hours later that the Sun was coming off the printing presses with the headline: "Putin's missile", setting the scene for the rest of the media which had already decided that the Russians in general and their President in particular were responsible for downing the Malaysian Boeing with the loss of 298 lives.

Why this is so very wrong, of course, is not because we assert, or even believe, that Putin is innocent. Simply, in this country where the rule of law is supposed to prevail, we do not – or should not – do things this way. To decide on guilt before an investigation has even been started is mob rule.

My first full blogpost, therefore, I sought to explore the reasons why MH17 has been so tragically downed, and to establish some of the events that lay behind the incident, something that was never going to be easy.

In the six more blogposts written, here, here, here, here, here and here we have covered a great deal of ground but have yet adequately to express the sentiment in the latest piece by Mary Ellen Synon, who asserts: "Pinning everything on Putin is too easy".

The British newspapers, she writes, like the British government, are pinning the blame for the Malaysian Airlines disaster on Putin. Most Americans, whether Democrats or Republicans, would see things the way these UK headlines do: "Putin is a pariah – he must be treated as such"; "Britain and America implicate Russia in Flight MH17 missile attack"; and "Two British families killed by 'Putin the terrorist'".

Even the politicians are getting in on the act. A column written by Prime Minister David Cameron bore this headline: "This is an outrage made in Moscow".

However, writes Mary Ellen Synon, some well-informed conservatives in Britain are pointing the finger for the war in Ukraine not at Putin, but at the empire builders of the European Union. Peter Hitchens, a leading British conservative commentator, summed up the argument in the Mail on Sunday:
… those who began the current war in Ukraine – the direct cause of the frightful murder of so many innocents on Flight MH17 on Thursday – really have no excuse. There is no doubt about who they were. In any war, the aggressor is the one who makes the first move into neutral or disputed territory.

And that aggressor was the European Union, which rivals China as the world's most expansionist power, swallowing countries the way performing seals swallow fish (16 gulped down since 1995).

Ignoring repeated and increasingly urgent warnings from Moscow, the EU – backed by the USA – sought to bring Ukraine into its orbit. It did so through violence and illegality, an armed mob and the overthrow of an elected president.
As for the question of Vladimir Putin arming the pro-Russian militia with BUK missiles, M E Synon accepts that the evidence points in another direction: the missiles were not supplied by Putin, but were among the arms stolen by the militia from a Ukrainian military unit at the end of June.

That is not to say there is proof, nor even good evidence, but the fact that the BUK missile is on the Ukrainian Army inventory, that it has been reported in the area, that separatists claimed to be in possession of them after Military unit A1402 (Donetsk SAM regiment) was captured on 29 June or thereabouts, and that we have a separate voice claiming that equipment was repaired and delivered to the insurgents, all constitutes a plausible narrative.

On the other hand, the politico-media nexus seems to rely entirely on circumstantial evidence, mainly on the premise that the equipment is so complex that the separatists could not operate it without outside assistance.

To support this assertion, much is made of the difficulty of operating a complete tactical unit, with search radar, the command vehicle and the launcher, while not allowing that the launcher is capable of autonomous operation, and vastly more simple to operate.

No one is asserting that untrained operators could use the equipment to shoot down an aircraft but, as the website quoted notes, "untrained" is a relative term. To be able to fire at a "soft" target such as an airliner, the operator needs relatively little training (a few hours of seeing the system in action and getting some answers to the "why did you push that button?"-type of questions).

With the media trailing behind the curve, though, we have the Guardian striving to prove that which we do not see the need to contest – that there was a BUK M1 launcher in the hands of the separatists on the day MH17 was shot down.

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Nor would we contest the idea that the same BUK, once it had brought down MH17, was moved across the border to Russia. Unlike the 312 launcher, it seems as if the YouTube pictures of the while transporter, with the blue flash on the side of the cab (pictured above),  may have been genuine, despite Russian attempts to muddy the water. 

In a remarkable piece of detection, the YouTube position has been narrowed down to the rebel controlled city of Luhansk, around 30 miles from the area where it was reportedly sighted earlier in the day, and about 30 miles by road from the Russian border.

That, however, is not evidence of Russian government complicity in the supply of the weapon to the separatists and what characterises the entire case against the Russians is that no evidence of any nature has been produced to support such a claim. Five days after MH17 was downed, we've seen assumption, conjecture and assertion, but no evidence.

And, at last, we get official confirmation: via Fox News and others, we are told that senior US intelligence officials will only says that Russia was responsible for "creating the conditions" that led to the shooting down of MH17, but have offered no evidence of direct Russian government involvement.

The intelligence officials were "cautious in their assessment", noting that while the Russians have been arming separatists in eastern Ukraine, the US had no direct evidence that the missile used to shoot down the airliner came from Russia.

As it stands, my best guess remains that a single BUK launcher was seized from the Ukrainian Army on 29 June, but in a non-operational state. It may well have been transported into Russia where it was repaired by "civil society", and then returned to the separatists on or about 13 July and put to use against the An-26 on 14 July. It was used again on 17 July to shoot down MH17 and the taken back over the border that evening, before nightfall.

This is all part of what Hitchens calls a "filthy little war" that has been under way in Eastern Ukraine for many months. Many innocents have died, unnoticed in the West. Neither side has anything to boast of – last Tuesday, eleven innocent civilians died in an airstrike on a block of flats in the town of Snizhne, which Ukraine is unconvincingly trying to blame on Russia.

But, if there is going to be any resolution of this slaughter, we are going to have to work with Putin and the Russians. Unwholesome, unreliable and aggressive Putin may be, but calling him a murderer and accusing him and his government of conspiring to bring down an airliner full of innocent people is got going to help us prevent further slaughter. And neither will further sanctions nor other empty gestures.

"So please", writes Mary Ellen, "do not be propagandised by Thursday's horrible slaughter into forgetting what is really going on". In my view, we owe it to ourselves to assert our own civilisation, and uphold the values that others so freely traduce. We do not do this for Putin. We do it for ourselves.


Richard North 23/07/2014 link

 Ukraine: part of the "evidence" unravels

 Tuesday 22 July 2014

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Some of the evidence adduced by the Ukranian Security Services (SBU), as to the movements of the "BUK" SA-11 missile launchers, and the number in the hands of the separatists, comes from their website on 19 July.

There, the SBU tells us that, on 18 July at 2 am in the Luhansk region, two trucks crossed the border with Russia, each of them carrying a "BUK-M" launcher, said to be in the possession of the separatists. And, by way of evidence, we are offered two sources, one a video of a low loader and another, a still photograph of a similar low loader, hauling a "BUK-M" launcher with the vehicle designation 312 (photograph above).

We remarked on this launcher in our own post, noting that apparently the same unit had been seen as part of a Ukrainian Army convoy on 5 March 2014, to the north of Donetsk - suggesting therefore that the launcher illustrated by the SBU was of Ukrainian Army origin.

However, now flagged up by the Interpreter website is a short note referencing a Facebook page which shows what appears to be the same truck and launcher combination (below). But, for the SBU, there is a slight problem here: the datestamp (which cannot be changed by a user) is Tuesday 18 March 2014, at 10.35pm. This is a "mobile upload" so it could be very close to the time the photograph was taken.

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Furthermore, the location is identified as the Yasynuvata post, just north of Donetsk. It is not so very far from Gorlovka where what appears to be the same launcher was spotted, only 13 days earlier, and only about five miles from the A-1402 regimental base on Stratonavtiv Street.

The Interpreter is of the view that the Facebook photos (there are two of them – the second is below) were clearly taken at the same time and in the same location as the picture released by the SBU. It considers, therefore, that the SBU has "made a mistake" by including this picture in their latest release. It does not appear to show a BUK that was in possession of the rebels – and nor indeed that it was on its way to Russia. 

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Yet, this has not stopped the Washington Post (and many other newspapers, including The Times) accepting the original photograph as evidence of the launcher having "been spotted entering Russia from Ukraine at 2 a.m. Friday".

We don't know whether the SBU was simply mistaken, or deliberately lying, but a service which is offering a four-month-old photograph as evidence of an event that supposedly happened last week is not one to be trusted. And nor, without independent corroboration, can any other evidence they have on offer.

And that is the problem that is blighting the whole of this affair – much of the so-called evidence that has been presented is unverifiable and contradictory, in the context where none of the parties can be trusted to be telling the truth.

But, given that the Western media and intelligence services have been so reliant on the SBU, nothing they have to report – particularly as to the BUK missile launchers - can be taken as read.

When it comes down to it, there is simply no evidence as to the number of SA-11 launchers that have been in the possession of the separatists, from where any were obtained and where they are now.


Richard North 22/07/2014 link

 Ukraine: the plot thickens – Part IV

 Tuesday 22 July 2014

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I really don't know what is more fatuous – the idea that Mr Putin was personally responsible for supplying the missiles that shot down MH17, or the idea that it doesn't matter – that as long as he is supporting the separatists, he bears the ultimate responsibility for the downing of the Malaysian airliner.

The reality, of course, is that Putin is playing a dangerous game, supporting the separatists to an extent, but only to an extent. He has no interest whatsoever in escalating the conflict to a level where it gets out of control, or in causing dangerous international incidents, which can have serious economic and political consequences.

Furthermore, it only takes a very slight knowledge of the situation in Russia and on its border to understand that Putin does not have full – and in some cases even partial – control of events. He must carry the "hard men" with him, and if he steps outside the bounds of the acceptable, his own power base comes under threat.

To a very great extent, therefore, Western leaders have greater control over their own machines than Putin, at least within their own domains. And in that context, people such as President Obama have in certain respects as much power to shape events in Ukraine as does the Russian President.

And it is here that we need to be looking, at whether the United States could have done anything to influence events, and  prevent the loss of MH17.

Here, we have already looked at Ukraine and whether it should have sounded the alarm about the existence of high-performance anti-aircraft missiles in the hands of the separatists. But what applies to the Ukrainians applies in spades to the United States and Mr Obama.

The crucial issue here is that downing of the An-26 on 14 July, and whether it was picked up by US satellite systems. It is now widely acknowledged that the shooting down of MH17 was witnessed by satellites, but there is no evidence that the US intelligence agencies were watching the area on 14 July.

Nevertheless, there is absolutely no question that the SBIRS network is capable of detecting, monitoring and recording the deployment of a surface-to-air missile, and there is also the Defence Support Programme, which launched 23 missile warning spacecraft between 1970 and 2007.

But, as this blog also tells us, several SIGINT and ELINT satellites cover this area, including various MENTOR (ORION) satellites and one MERCURY satellite in GEO, and USA 184, which is both a TRUMPET-FO SIGINT satellite and a SBIRS platform, in HEO.

One does not have to understand the jargon to appreciate the significance of all this. SIGINT satellites amongst others serve to detect and monitor signals from military radar and missile systems. Given the interest of the USA and NATO in closely watching military developments in the Ukraine conflict, it is almost certain that some of these are (and were) targeting the area.

With the flare-up of fighting in eastern Ukraine over June and early July, there is every reason to expect that the US would have deployed satellites to observe the area, and if they picked up the BUK launch which destroyed MH17, then it is entirely reasonable to assume they picked up the downing of the An-26 on 14 July. Furthermore, the equipment could have identified the launch of an SA-11 missile.

From what we know of the way the US administration works, it is also the case that the President is given a daily security briefing. The fact that Ukrainian separatists had acquired a missile system which could threaten commercial aviation, and the lives of US citizens, is surely something he would have been told during such a briefing.

Sadly though, with the media (and Western politicians) obsessed with Putin's role and his degree of responsibility for the actions of the separatists, they have been distracted from events of 14 July. No one is asking, therefore, whether it was possible as a result of satellite intelligence delivered to the US President  to have warned the world's airlines of a potential threat, taking measures to keep them out of harm's way.

Amongst a very few others, one journalist in particular is asking what the US satellites might have seen. Investigative reporter Robert Parry thus comments:
… here we are yet again with the MSM relying on unverified claims being made by the Kiev regime about something as sensitive as whether Russia provided sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles – capable of shooting down high-flying civilian aircraft – to poorly trained eastern Ukrainian rebels.

This charge is so serious that it could propel the world into a second Cold War and conceivably – if there are more such miscalculations – into a nuclear confrontation. These moments call for the utmost in journalistic professionalism, especially skepticism toward propaganda from biased parties.

Yet, what Americans have seen again is the major US news outlets, led by the Washington Post and the New York Times, publishing the most inflammatory of articles based largely on unreliable Ukrainian officials and on the US State Department which was a principal instigator of the Ukraine crisis.
The alarming thing is that, when we look at the State Department and John Kerry - responsible for many of the headlines yesterday, we find that he is very far from offering evidence of Russian complicity. Kerry is asked: "Are you bottom lining here that Russia provided the weapon?", whence he responds:
There's a story today confirming that. But we have not, within the administration, made a determination. But it's pretty clear, when, you know, there's a build-up of extraordinary circumstantial evidence. You know, I'm a former prosecutor. I've tried cases on circumstantial evidence. It's powerful here. But even more importantly, we picked up the imagery of this launch. We know the trajectory. We know where it came from. We know the timing. And it was exactly at the time that this aircraft disappeared from the radar. We also know, from voice identification, that the separatists were bragging about shooting it down afterwards.
But, when it comes actually to answering the question, all he can say is: "… there's a stacking up of evidence here, which Russia needs to help account for. We are not drawing the final conclusion here".

PressTV picks up this sleight of hand, calling the Kerry accusation a "hoax", remarking that nowhere has he made statements about the source of a missile, noting that dozens of journalists around the world have been "burned" by this type of story.

What has been called a "reckless rush to judgement", however, is more than a matter of shoddy journalism and gullible journalists. The role of US intelligence, its threat assessment of the events of the 14 July and the failure to give a warning to the world's airlines is part of the story. And it is being missed.

Peter Mckay in the Mail is one of those who is beginning to question the consensus and we see some sensible writing from Mary Dejevsky in the Spectator, who argues that the "blame game reflects badly on all of us".

That, though, is the least of it. There is a case to be made that there has been a major system failure here, with the US authorities every bit as culpable in their own way for the MH17 tragedy as the Russians - culpable in the sense that they could have stopped it from happening.

Thus, when Mr Cameron says, as he did yesterday, that the shooting down of MH17 was "a defining moment for Russia", he needs as much re-education as the journalists who report his words. The real story - the whole story - has yet to be told. What did satellite intelligence tell Mr Obama, and why didn't he insist on the world's airlines being warned of the emergent threat? 


Richard North 22/07/2014 link

 Ukraine: the plot thickens – Part III

 Monday 21 July 2014

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With hardly any more evidence that it had on Saturday – which was none at all - it seems the United States, represented by John Kerry, is prepared to accuse Russia of sending "powerful rocket launchers" to the separatists who shot down MH17.

This is according to The Times which carried the report on its front page, claiming "Damming US intelligence puts Russia in the dock". It is referring to an "American intelligence report" which also alleges that President Putin allowed separatist fighters to receive training inside Russia - including on the air-defence systems apparently used to bring down MH17.

The US report then goes on to claim that three BUK-M1 surface-to-air missile units of the type believed used for the attack were hurriedly taken back into Russia at night, within hours of the incident on Thursday.

The interesting part of that claim is that it relies largely on "intelligence" from the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). However, the evidence suggesting that the origin of the missile launcher(s) was the Ukrainian Army, and that one launcher at least had been in use on 14 July, has been largely glossed over.

In fact, we have the New York Times saying that American officials have ruled out the possibility that the separatists used a captured system from the Ukrainian government's arsenal. The SA-11 unit that the separatists said they captured in June, American officials say, "is not operational and is in a different region of Ukraine".

Thus, the SBU is still asserting that it has "compelling evidence that a Boeing 777 aircraft was shot down with the use of BUK anti-missile system which together with a crew had been transferred from Russia to Ukraine".

Intercepts from mobile phones, it is claimed, have revealed that a BUK missile launcher controlled by an all-Russian crew of between three and six men had crossed the Russia-Ukraine border at 1am on Thursday near the village of Sukhodolsk.

The launcher is said to have been tracked to the rebel stronghold of Donetsk and then escorted by rebel forces to the village of Pervomayski in the battle-torn area around Luhansk. Just after 4pm its radar system detected a large aircraft flying at 33,000ft. According to the official, the BUK's Russian operator reported the size of the aircraft to his commander, a junior rebel officer, who gave the order to launch a missile, believing the target to be a Ukrainian transport.

In a statement issued on Saturday, Security Service then said: "The SBU conducts investigative actions and receives irrefutable evidence that Russian citizens were involved in the act of terrorism", adding that, "the Russian side ordered terrorists to withdraw BUK launchers from Ukraine".

As a result, the SBU says, at 2:00 (am presumably) on 18 July (the day after MH17 had been downed, "two movers each with a BUK missile launcher crossed the Russian border in Luhansk region. At 4:00, another three movers: one of them empty, other carrying a launcher with four missiles and the latter allegedly with a control unit, crossed the state border".

A senior SBU official has also told The Sunday Times that "the missile launcher that shot down the passenger jet was smuggled into eastern Ukraine from Russia on the morning of the attack and hastily withdrawn back over the border hours after the tragedy".

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That the launcher was taken across the border to Russia after the attack is indeed possible, as this report suggests. But that does not constitute evidence of the original source of the launchers. And where this gets especially interesting is that the SBU has posted several pictures of one BUK unit, on a low loader with a white tractor cab. The launcher is clearly an M1 model, with the vehicle designation 312 (pictured above).

From an entirely different source, however, we see what appears to be exactly the same launcher, vehicle designation 312 (pictured below), claimed to have been filmed in March in the Gorlovka area, north of Donetsk (outside the separatist area), as part of a Ukrainian Army convoy. The YouTube video is here (see 37 seconds in). 

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If these two pictures do show the same launcher, and the March video does indeed show a Ukrainian Army unit, then the SBU have very kindly furnished evidence that supports the case that the launcher used to down MH17 was indeed captured from the Ukrainian Army on 29 June and subsequently repaired.

What is also possibly an issue is that while the Russians and the Ukrainians both use the BUK anti-aircraft missile system, the Ukrainians are equipped with the older M1 version, which pre-dates the break-up of the Soviet Union. Russian forces tend to use the upgraded BUK M2 model (NATO code SA-17 Grizzly), most easily identified by the different radar package (picture below).


There remains little doubt that the separatists did have one or more M1 launchers (possibly up to three). And such that we have reported already is further reinforced by a report from an Associated Press reporter who claims that on Thursday 17 July that he saw a BUK missile system, alongside seven rebel-owned tanks, parked at a petrol station outside the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne.

Then there is this picture of the BUK missile system said to be in the possession of pro-Russian separatists, reported on 17 July, the location now identified as Gagarin Street in close-by Torez, one of the nearest towns to the MH17 crash site.

The appearance of the BUK M1 312 launcher (with the photograph published by the SBU) is of course entirely compatible with assertions made by analyst Sergei Kurguinjan, who has it that a Ukrainian launcher was repaired by Russian "civil society" and put into use by the separatists.

This same report is expanded upon here, with Kurguinjan claiming on 13 July in a video report (now deleted, but possibly this one) that the separatists already had a BUK anti-aircraft missile system and that they were ready to use it.

According to Kurguinjan, styled as a pro-Kremlin political analyst, "Civil society delivers a large number of armoured vehicles and other equipment on private terms". He adds that, "Russian civil society will never cross the line and will supply very modest equipment. They will not supply Iskander or C-300 or other ambitious systems because it is not in [the] competence of a civil society to do so and because it is not needed".

He affirms that the separatists have BUK, which was allegedly "seized from the Ukrainian military". Kurguinjan goes on to say: "Our talented electricians will of course repair it. I think that they seized from the Ukrainian bandits - it is already repaired. They will restore it in the near future. It will be restored. It is possible that there are few of them".

The report closes with Kurguinjan stating unequivocally that the militants are ready to use the weapons. "I do not recommend to Kyiv to make any foolery", he says.

That the separatists had possession of the BUK system on and before 14 July can be triangulated with the SBU mobile phone transcripts, and also the downing of the An-26 which Kiev is now accepting was brought down by an SA-11. Yet part of the US intelligence case is that the launcher which downed MH17 was part of a convoy of 150 military vehicles that secretly crossed into Ukraine "days before the atrocity".

What is turning out to be typical of John Kerry's brand of "intelligence", though, there is no physical evidence offered of the existence of this convoy – much less that it included an M1 launcher. US assertions, it seems, can be believed without the need for evidence, even when made by officials on condition of anonymity, while Russian denials are just denials.

You can see why Putin is not exactly impressed by what the West has to say.


Richard North 21/07/2014 link

 Ukraine: the plot thickens – Part II

 Monday 21 July 2014

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In Part I, we reviewed a specific newspaper report from yesterday which failed somehow to inform us that there is no good evidence that Russia (as in the Russian government) supplied or conspired to supply SA-11 anti-aircraft missiles to Ukrainian separatists.

That does not in any way diminish the evidence that Russian and the separatists are working closely together, but that is not sufficient in itself to assert that the Russian government is complicit in assisting the separatists in what amounts to a major and dangerous escalation in a growing civil war in eastern Ukraine, one far more serious than has been generally appreciated.

But, the media in particular seem to be ignoring the admission that any evidence of Russian complicity is supplying SA-11s is very slender indeed, while CNN is going way over the top in alleging Russian complicity, with no evidence at all other than unsupported statements by anonymous officials.

In the main, the media also seems to be ignoring reports that the separatists obtained the equipment on 29 June from the Ukrainian air defence regiment A1402 in Donetsk. The evidence is not even being contested. Largely, it is simply being ignored.

However, there have been reports to the effect that, while launcher systems were captured, they were non-functional - even "junk" or broken beyond repair - at the time of capture.

What we have now though is an uncorroborated report which tells us that that Russian "civil society" assisted the separatists in repairing a launcher after it had been captured, returning it to a working condition, allowing it to be put into use by the 14 July (see screen grab above).

A point of interest here is that the term "civil society" does not necessarily imply official Russian support. Furthermore, in that the border between the separatist-held territory and Russia is porous, it is quite possible that the launcher, having been captured from the Ukrainians, could have been transported over the border, and than then back into Ukraine, where it was used against an An-26 military transport on 14 July.

What then becomes quite crucial is that, if movement across the border implies complicity of the Russians, we cannot necessarily use this movement as evidence of high-level support from the Russian government, and not can we say that, even if one launcher was seen coming in from Russia (which does not appear to have been the case), that does not necessarily mean it was supplied by the Russians.

What is also extremely significant from the source just cited, though, is that we see confiormation that the SA-11 launcher was used to down an An-26 military transport on 14 July, after the equipment had been repaired to make it usable.

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This is the first Russian language source I can recall which specifically suggests that the Antonov was downed by an SA-11. Nevertheless, this is by no means the only report. We also see it from the Financial Times, which tells us that the aircraft was hit while flying at 6,500m – well beyond the range of a portable missile system.

The attack, we are told, sounded alarm bells in Kiev. And although then it was regarded as "an isolated" incident, we are told that officials in Kiev are now in little doubt as to what caused it – and the crash of MH17. They point the finger at a Russian-made "BUK" missile launcher.

At the time, though, it seems the Ukrainians were keen to blame Russia, charging that "a more powerful missile" than a shoulder-carried missile had been used, "probably fired" from Russia.

David Stern for the BBC even then described the accusation that Russian forces had shot down a Ukrainian transport plane as "potentially a game changer". If Russia was indeed targeting Ukrainian aeroplanes from inside its territory, it was "an act of aggression of the highest order".

However, the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) claims it knew full well from a telephone intecept on 14 July between a pro-Russian militant and a man identified as "Oreon", an intelligence officer with Russia, that the separatists were talking about "avenging for planes today", with Oreon recorded as saying: "We already have BUK, we'll be shooting down them to hell".

Yet, on the day, the SSU did issue a press release about the detection of anti-aircraft missiles, but what it was reporting was the finding of a cache of man-portable "Igla-1" missiles. There was no hint whatsoever, that massively more dangerous missiles were in the hands of the separatists.

However, despite choosing publicly to pin the blame on the Russians, the Kiev authorities that very day imposed a minimum height requirement of 32,000 on all overflights. It was a thousand feet higher than that, on the instructions of Ukrainian air traffic, that MH17 was later to fly.

What has been completely missed, however, is that Ukraine bears the primary responsibility for ensuring the safety of aircraft in its own airspace and, if it had been aware that the separatists had missiles which could reach 72,000ft - and they had already shot down one aircraft - then it had a duty to publish a warning and exclude aircraft from the danger area.

That it kept silent, revealing its knowledge about "BUK" only after MH17 had been shot down, puts the Ukrainian government in the frame as responsible for putting the Boeing 777 in harm's way. 

Not least, Ukraine was protecting the revenue from the overflight fees levied on the 350 aircraft transiting each day, amounting to millions each week. But one can only speculate on further motives. The indications are that the government was looking for a "game changer".

With the separatists in possession of high-performance anti-aircraft missiles, and the air traffic control obligingly routing a stream of airlines over their territory, it could only be a matter of time before the Ukrainian government got its wish.

In fact, it took a mere three days for that "gamer changer", with the "BUK" system intercepting MH17. Things will never be the same again. And that brings us to the conclusion of Part II.


Richard North 21/07/2014 link

 Ukraine: the plot thickens – Part I

 Monday 21 July 2014

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Far from the situation getting clearer as time goes on, the events around the destruction of Flight MH17 are getting murkier with each passing hour, the reporting from the popular media continuing to obscure rather than inform.

Having followed the developments all Sunday, a single post I have written is now over-long so I have broken it up into several parts, starting with a review of a piece in The Observer that offers a headline proclaiming "MH17: the evidence against Russia".

What grabbed my attention, though, was the sub-heading, which immediately goes on to declare: "In the hours after the Malaysia Airlines crash in Ukraine, evidence assembled from various sources appeared to point the blame at militants armed with Russian missiles".

This seems classic of the genre, tainting the media coverage. The "militants" (or separatists) are being automatically linked with the Russians – fair enough in normal circumstances but not in this situation, where the assumption that the two are working together has Russia share the responsibility for the destruction of HM17.

After rehearsing matters familiar to readers of this blog, we thus find The Observer failing to make any mention of the reported capture of one or more missile launchers from the Ukrainian Army base at Donetsk airport on 29 June, thus suggesting that the "militants" obtained the equipment independently of the Russians. This is simply not part of the newspaper's narrative nor, it seems, any part of the British media's remit.

In this particular article, which is reviewing the "evidence" linking the Russians to the downing of MH17, we get is the paper telling us of a report that satellite images show a plume of smoke left by a ground-to-air missile. These, we are told, help to compile an intelligence analysis shared with the UN security council by US ambassador Samantha Power, which she claimed showed the airliner was "likely downed by a surface-to-air missile, an SA-11, operated from a separatist-held location in eastern Ukraine".

This, we have no problem in accepting, but evidence that the separatists fired the missile is not in any way evidence that the Russians supplied the equipment or provided support, unofficially or officially. We need more than just the assumption that linkage on other matters necessarily means high-level involvement in this tragedy.

Yet – according to The Observer - Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby had declared that: "It strains credulity to think [the missile] could be used by separatists without at least some measure of Russian support and technical assistance". This, would appear, is sufficient grounds to assert that the Russian government – and Mr Putin in particular – is responsible for the murder of 198 innocent civilians.

The interesting thing, though, is that Kirby does not actually allege that the equipment comes from Russia. What, effectively, we are getting is that since it "strains credulity" to suggest that the Russians are not involved, they must therefore be involved. If this was a trial, I would be very worried indeed.

But, from the Observer, this is all we are allowed to see from what is just a very short extract from a Department of Defense press briefing on 18 July.

What readers are not given the opportunity to see is what happens immediately after Kirby effectively asserts that the Russians must have helped the separatists. In fact, he is asked by a journalist: "Do you have evidence of that?" This is the response:
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I - look, there's a lot that's gonna be investigated, and I think we want to - we want to let investigators do their work. I don't have an indication now that - that a system was brought over. And we don't exactly know who is responsible for firing that missile, or with -- or with what assistance. What I'm saying is that that system is fairly sophisticated.
Rear Admiral Kirby is then asked: "What is the level of their training and systems? Does it include Russian forces going across the border to act as training and advisers side-by-side with the separatists?" And, once again, the answer is anything but unequivocal:
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well there have been Russian, I mean there have been incursions across the border by Russian aircraft. So, I mean we don't have any reason to suspect that they have not provided some measure of support on the other side of that order. These paramilitary forces that we do not talk about as much anymore certainly didn't act or behave or organize or resource like some ragtag militia.

So nobody is suggesting that Russian military advice and assistance hasn't somehow crossed that border. It's just unclear exactly how much and when and who. Again, that's what the investigators are going to look at and we've got to let them do that.
In other words, if the Americans have any evidence of collusion, at this stage they are not releasing it. But the Admiral does say: "I don't have an indication now that - that a system was brought over".  That is unequivocal: at this time, there is no evidence available to the Pentagon which supports any claim that any SA-11s were supplied to the separatists by the Russians. And if the US does not have the evidence, it is hard to see anyone else in a better position.

This brings us to the conclusion of part one, with the second part to follow shortly.


Richard North 21/07/2014 link

 Booker: the insult to the countryside

 Sunday 20 July 2014

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This week, Booker takes up cudgels on behalf of Owen Paterson. Of all David Cameron's moves in that bizarre reshuffle, he writes, one told us more about his judgement and character than any. It is hard to recall recently a more direct political insult than his contemptuous sacking of our Environment Secretary; a man who, below the media radar, has been the most effective of all his ministers.

The feelings of those aware of what Paterson achieved in two hectic years were expressed on Friday when he attended the Game Fair in Oxfordshire. Mentions of his name twice brought standing ovations from hundreds of disbelieving country folk, once in response to a fulsome tribute paid him by Nigel Farage.

When Paterson was made Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs he was, in practical terms, far better qualified for the post than anyone in the House of Commons. Some years earlier, as a countryman himself, he was a superbly well-briefed front-bench spokesman on agriculture and fisheries, travelling the world to meet experts on the scourge of bovine TB and fisheries management.

In September 2012, he took over a department that for years had been a sadly dysfunctional backwater, not least because, more than any other ministry, almost all its vast and complex responsibilities, from farming and fisheries to water and waste management, are subordinate to policies originating in Brussels.

One of his more remarkable achievements, as a "Eurosceptic" but also as a good French and German speaker, was the way he quickly came to play a leading role in all those endless meetings with his European counterparts, working the Brussels system as cleverly as any British minister has ever done, winning respect by his practical grasp and good humour even from those who disagreed with him.

Gradually, he galvanised Defra out of its long sleep, turning it into an effective player, as we saw nowhere more than in my own county of Somerset, where he made such a decisive intervention in last winter's floods crisis and won the gratitude of hundreds of farmers for his masterminding of our remarkably successful badger cull.

This summer, dairy farms that have been losing scores of cattle every year to TB are reporting that, for the first time in decades, their herds are free of infection.

In "Westminster bubble" and media terms, none of this has counted for anything. Enraged green activists and their media allies tried to paint Paterson as "the worst environment minister ever", while out in the countryside he is rated as easily the best.

But the tsunami of vitriolic green propaganda is all that the denizens of No 10 seemed to notice. Mr Cameron and his urban advisers were so embarrassed by the anti-Paterson hate campaign, over everything from badgers to wind farms, fracking to GM crops, that he had to be fired.

The respect Paterson had won in fighting for common sense and British interests, not just from millions of country folk but from his opposite numbers in Brussels, was far less important than what were perceived to be the electoral interests of his party.

He is replaced by a woman who appears to have no qualifications for the job and who will be totally out of her depth in Brussels. Defra will once again sink back into its dysfunctional torpor, under a minister wholly in the hands of officials who will have to tell her what to say, think and do about everything.

Cameron’s treatment of his most effective minister is not just an insult to Paterson – it is also an insult to the countryside and to the political process; a surrender to those who put mindless spin above the need to see our country sensibly and intelligently run.

When the epitaph comes to be written on Cameron's bid to create a "Not the Conservative Party", Booker concludes, the ignominious sacking of Owen Paterson will be seen as one of the most revealing of all his many mistakes.


Richard North 20/07/2014 link

 Ukraine: MH17 – what we know so far

 Saturday 19 July 2014

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"Here's what we know so far", said President Obama yesterday: "Evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile that was launched from an area that is controlled by Russian-backed separatists inside of Ukraine".

"We also know that this is not the first time a plane has been shot down in eastern Ukraine. Over the last several weeks, Russian-backed separatists have shot down a Ukrainian transport plane and a Ukrainian helicopter, and they claimed responsibility for shooting down a Ukrainian fighter jet", he added.

"Moreover", the President went on: "we know that these separatists have received a steady flow of support from Russia. This includes arms and training. It includes heavy weapons, and it includes anti-aircraft weapons".

This, of course, is the President of the United States speaking and it is fair to assume that he is privy to an amount of information that would support such unequivocal declarations.

In fact, it is the LA Times which gives some clues as to the President's sources. The Pentagon, as one might expect, have available several intelligence gathering satellites monitoring the Ukraine border. They are part of the Defence Support Programme (or DSP) satellites, orbiting the Earth around 36,000 kilometres above the equator, operated from a control station at Buckley Air Force base in Colorado.

However, the DSP system - highly capable in its own right - has been partially replaced by the more advanced SBIRS. AS with DPS, only better, their sensors are capable of picking up anti-aircraft missile radars, and locating the launchers. They can detect the heat signature of a missile and, having been designed to give an "IR view" of the battlefield, when the warhead of a missile detonates, that too can be picked up and analysed. 

Furthermore, the missile characteristics – emissions (or not), speed, launch profile and warhead energy (part of what is known as phenomenology analysis) – can give fairly reliable indications of the type. It is said of the current system that it is so sensitive that it can pick up when a military aircraft cuts in its afterburner.

Thus, it is a fairly good bet that US intelligence has an accurate idea of when MH17 was hit, and witnessed the event via its satellite system. It knew exactly when the missile was launched and its location (within whatever margin of error that affects the sensors). Within reasonable bounds, it will also be able to identify the type of missile deployed.

Furthermore, if the President says that several aircraft have been downed by missiles, there is a very good chance he is telling the truth – as much of it as he needs to. Ukrainian separatists – by whatever name you chose to call them – have acquired high performance anti-aircraft missiles, and have been using them against a variety of targets.

Crucially, much of this part of what President Obama has said is independently verifiable, from a multiplicity of sources. And there will be more to come. The balance of probabilities is that he neither needs to lie nor gets any advantage from so doing. And any major deviation from the truth would in due course be found out, to his very great disadvantage.

On balance, therefore, with what I have collected so far, plus much more (including this in which the separatists claim to have downed an aircraft), I am reasonably satisfied that the separatists did down MH17, and used an SA-11 unit to do so.

Where I begin to diverge from Mr Obama's analysis is when, at the end of his speech, he answered a question on "how much blame" he put on President Putin. The slightly edited answer is here:
THE PRESIDENT: We don't exactly know what happened yet, and I don't want to ... get out ahead of the facts. But what I do know is, is that ...  these separatists ... are heavily armed and that they are trained. And we know that that's not an accident. That is happening because of Russian support.

So it is not possible for these separatists to function the way they're functioning, to have the equipment that they have - set aside what's happened with respect to the Malaysian Airlines - a group of separatists can't shoot down military transport planes or, they claim, shoot down fighter jets without sophisticated equipment and sophisticated training. And that is coming from Russia.

So we don't yet know exactly what happened with respect to the Malaysian Airlines, although obviously we're beginning to draw some conclusions given the nature of the shot that was fired. There are only certain types of anti-aircraft missiles that can reach up 30,000 feet and shoot down a passenger jet. We have increasing confidence that it came from areas controlled by the separatists. But without having a definitive judgement on those issues yet, what we do know is, is that the violence that's taking place there is facilitated in part - in large part - because of Russian support. And they have the ability to move those separatists in a different direction.

If Mr Putin makes a decision that we are not going to allow heavy armaments and the flow of fighters into Ukraine across the Ukrainian-Russian border, then it will stop. And if it stops, then the separatists will still have the capacity to enter into negotiations and try to arrive at the sort of political accommodations that Mr. Putin himself says he wants to see. He has the most control over that situation, and so far, at least, he has not exercised it.
The point here is that Mr Obama is moving away from fact to conjecture, in asserting that the "sophisticated equipment" – i.e., missiles – was "coming from Russia". He offers no evidence for this and, in the greater scheme of things, his claim has no greater substance than the Russian counter-charges that the Ukrainians were deploying SA-11s and that no Russian weapons were crossing the border. Such border crossings "can't be performed in secrecy", an official representative for the Russian Defence Ministry told journalists in Moscow.

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Considering how the separatists' movements have been observed (see above and below), there is a great deal of truth in that, especially as the Pentagon has admitted that there is no US intelligence showing an SA-11 crossing the border into Ukraine. The Pentagon itself is not able to support the President's claim that the SA-11s came from over the border.

Inevitably, though, the "fog of war" is descending. The separatists are now denying responsibility for the downing of MH17, with an added twist. With the Ukrainians now saying the separatists did capture SA-11 launchers (having previously denied it), the separatists, having claimed initially that they had them and then most recently denied capturing them, are now admitting they did obtain the launchers but they "were totally unsuitable for combat operations. They were even beyond repair. Just a pile of scrap metal".

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As for Mr Obama's claim that sophisticated training is needed to operate the SA-11, there is testimony that contradicts that. And, in any case, there are enough Ukrainians of Russian origin, with military service, to be able to handle the equipment. Against, the President is out on a limb.

Therefore, against the claims that the separatists captured a regiment of missiles, the Ukrainian prosecutor's ex post facto denial that they obtained missiles by this route simply adds to the volume of propaganda. And it is the same whether it is Obama, the Ukrainians or the media making the "noise". This is a polluted narrative on offer, which only goes in one direction: Putin is not only arming the separatists - under his authority, the separatists were supplied the equipment which shot down MH17.

But what is artfully concealed by Obama's accusations is a very obvious fact. If US intelligence knew that the separatists were equipped with "sophisticated equipment" in the form of SA-11 missiles and were bringing down Ukrainian aircraft with them, they must have known that this represented a clear and present danger to overflying civilian aircraft.

Mr Obama can't have it both ways. If he knew, as he tells us he does, that the separatists had these missiles, then he should have insisted that the intelligence was shared with other governments, and that collectively, a warning was issued to all airlines. The source mattered less than the threat.

One recalls the very recent drama over charged mobiles and the huge disruption to airline travellers, yet here we have the US government in possession of information of a far more serious and – as it turns out – much more real threat, and it says nothing. The New York Times is not alone in saying that the threat was underestimated.

As to the separatists' current intentions, Delingpole points out that their reported raid on the Donetsk A1402 air defence regiment could have furnished them with an armoury that may exceed 100 missiles and a dozen or more launchers (at a conservative estimate). 

If this is the case, and the report on the raid on Donetsk seems far more credible than some of Obama's claims, then we have situation which is as potentially dangerous to the Russians as it is everybody else. Obama would be far better off making a show of seeking co-operation than taking his confrontational line.

As it is, it seems that attention is being distracted from the failure to warn airlines about an avoidable threat, by stoking up claims that do not have much by way of evidential support, all at the risk of making international relations far worse than they need be.

This situation is dangerous enough already, and the tragedy of MH17 far too grievous, for politicians to be playing their venal games. We need some candour, and some grown-up behaviour. Lives are at stake.


Richard North 19/07/2014 link

 Ukraine: the fate of MH17

 Friday 18 July 2014

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The loss of Malaysian passenger flight MH17, a Boeing 777-200 airliner, with 295 people on board, near Donetsk, Ukraine, where pro-Russian rebels have been fighting Ukrainian government forces for several weeks, has been blamed on a missile strike.

The downing has been attributed to a Russian-built "Buk" anti-aircraft missile (translated as "Beech"), a medium-range missile designated by NATO as the SA-11 "Gadfly". If so, this is a credible report. As Breitbart reports, the missile is on the Ukrainian Army inventory, it has been reported in the area (see recent picture, above). Breakaway fighters have claimed to be in possession of them, after Military unit A1402 (Donetsk SAM regiment) was captured on 29 June or thereabouts (more here).

The missile system has both the range and the capability to track and bring down a modern airliner, having been used successfully on a Russian Tupolev Tu-22M strategic bomber during the 2008 South Ossetia war. But only now, 24 hours after the first reports started coming in, is Reuters beginning to pick up what has been going on.

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If the Malaysian aircraft has been shot down by a missile, one possible explanation is that it was an accident, brought about by a nervous Ukrainian military, fearing a Russian bomber attack – or even airborne invasion. If that was the case, it will not have been the first time a civilian airliner has been accidentally shot down by an anti-aircraft missile.

On 3 July 1988, Iran Air Flight 655, an Airbus A-300, was shot down by the United States Navy guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes in the Arabian Gulf, killing all 290 on board, including 66 children and 16 crew.

Nor is this sort of tragedy a stranger to the region. On 4 October 2001, a Russian Tupolev-154 airliner exploded and plunged into the Black Sea, killing all 78 people on board. Terrorism was immediately suspected but US sources said the aircraft had been shot down by a misfired Ukrainian missile.

Flight 1812 from Tel Aviv to Novosibirsk, in Siberia, left Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport shortly before 10am with 66 passengers, including two babies, and 12 crew. As it flew off the Black Sea coast, it blew up plunging 35,000 feet to the water. Ukrainian officials later admitted that a missile fired by their forces had shot down the airliner.

Another horrific possibility is that aircraft, on a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur having left about noon yesterday, was shot down by a renegade Ukrainian faction, seeking to raise tension in the region and to embarrass the Ukrainian government.

The missile itself is sophisticated, but comes in a ready-to-launch package, typically on a tracked vehicle. It can also operate with a radar tracker on a separate vehicle. But, although the launcher is a substantial piece of equipment, it is a semi-automatic system and simple to operate. A system was sold to the Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2013 – although destroyed by the Israeli Air Force before it could be brought into use. 

Questions will be asked as to why the Malaysian passenger jet was overflying what amounts to a war zone, with a Ukrainian Sukhoi Su-25 ground attack aircraft having on Wednesday been downed by an air-to-air missile, claimed to have been fired from a Russian fighter, while another Su-25 was damaged by a hand-held anti-aircraft missile (known as a "manpad"), presumed to have been fired by separatist insurgents. There is now doubt about both these reports, though, as these may also have been SA-11 strikes.

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There is in any case no question of a "manpad" having downed the high-flying Boeing – it simply would not have the range and a jet the size of the Boeing could possibly survive the impact of a man-portable missile.

Nevertheless, the Mail initially described the Russian-made BUK as a "shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile" that "can be packed into a golf bag and assembled and fired very rapidly by one person with minimal training".  The Sun, however, has no doubts about the nature and source of the weapon. It's Putin's missile, it says, despite the equipment also being used by the Ukrainians, and the report of a unit being captured by insurgents. 

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Ominously, the TASS News Agency has been saying saying that a Ukranian An-26 military transporter was brought down last Monday on the outskirts of the town of Torez, with eyewitnesses saying it was hit by a missile.

The downing was attributed to "Militiamen of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic" (DPR), and is the second of these transports reported to have been brought down. Previously, on 14 July, militiamen of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic had also claimed an An-26 of the Ukrainian Air Force. They too attributed the downing to a missile strike. 

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The loss of these two aircraft suggest a more substantial capability in the hands of the breakaway Ukrainian militia, which adds credibility to claims that the Malaysian aircraft suffered an SA-11 missile strike.

Furthermore, according to a report in the Kiev Post, which says it has obtained transcripts of conversations between insurgent groups, the aircraft was shot down by a group of Russian-backed Cossack militants near the village of Chornukhine, Luhansk Oblast, some 80 kilometers north-west of Donetsk. 

The transcripts are claimed to be of recordings of intercepted phone calls between Russian military intelligence officers and members of "terrorist groups", released by the Ukrainian security agency (SBU). One phone call apparently was made at 4:40 p.m. Kiev time, or 20 minutes after the Flight MH17 crashed. It records comments by Igor Bezler, who the SBU says is a Russian military intelligence officer and leading commander of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic. He admits to his group having shot down the aircraft. 

However, there are some suggestions that the aircraft was off course and should not have been flying over eastern Ukraine. Its more normal routing is south of Ukraine, over the Black Sea. However, there is a NOTAM (notice to airmen) in force for South Ukraine/Black Sea (with an FAA version in force since April). Although no equivalent warnings for eastern Ukraine appear to have been issued, a report says that there was a Eurocontrol restriction on flying below 32,000ft. The aircraft was reported at 33,000ft.

If investigators are allowed access to the crash site, it should be simple to confirm the proximate cause of the crash. Although a major fire has been reported, pictures from the scene show substantial pieces of wreckage, suggesting that the "black box" flight recorder may well have survived. Late reports suggest it has already been recovered and sent to Moscow. There will also be a cockpit voice recorder to recover.

These, plus forensic tests of residues found, examination of shrapnel and damage patterns (and even acoustic analysis of the cockpit voice recorder, if recovered)  will relatively easily show how the aircraft was downed. 

With the Russians, the Ukranians and the militiamen all fielding the same weaponry, though, proving whose finger was on the trigger may prove harder - unless, of course, the 'phone intercepts prove genuine. And even then, that leaves open the possibility of the incident being a ghastly accident, with the aircraft having been mistaken for a military transport.


Richard North 18/07/2014 link