RUSSIA, in its first detailed version of events surrounding the final minutes of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, dismissed accusations that pro-Moscow rebels shot down the plane, instead suggesting that a Ukrainian fighter plane or missile systems could have been involved.
The elaborate, televised Defence Ministry presentation — at odds with Western and Ukrainian accusations that Kremlin-backed insurgents shot down the plane — came as the US and Russia clashed at the UN Security Council. There, both countries voted in favour of a unanimous resolution that condemned the downing of jet and called for an independent international investigation into the incident, the Wall Street Journal reports.
Russia sought to use both forums to push back against growing international criticism and US and Ukrainian assertions that Moscow could have provided the missile system that brought down the plane. American officials charged that the Russian version of events was a propaganda effort aimed at slowing the international community’s response to the geopolitical crisis — or perhaps to weaken proposed new sanctions to punish Moscow for its role in the conflict.
At the news conference broadcast from Moscow, Russian air force chief Lt. Gen. Igor Makushev didn’t say outright who the ministry thought had fired the missile that apparently brought down the airliner last week Nor did he provide any photographic, radar or satellite evidence that would show a missile track.
But he said that Russian radar had spotted a second aircraft in the ill-fated airliner’s vicinity just before the crash and that it was likely a Ukrainian fighter jet. A graphic that Lt. Gen. Makushev said was based on radar data depicted four commercial planes in the area shortly before the crash, as well as the alleged Ukrainian fighter jet.
His presentation also suggested an alternate theory, including satellite imagery showed Ukraine also had moved missile systems into the area before the incident. The air force chief presented several slides of satellite images he said showed the Ukrainian missile-system movements.
The suggested version of events echoed much of what has been reported on Russian state television in recent days, which has suggested that Ukraine could have shot down the plane, possibly via one of its fighter planes.
US officials dismissed the Russian government’s claim that a second plane was present when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down last week as “desperate” propaganda.
US officials didn’t provide their own evidence to back their arguments. But they pointed to Ukraine’s statements yesterday that the country’s fighter jets were on the ground at the time of the crash.
US officials also said that Ukrainian fighters can’t operate at 30,000 feet, where Flight 17 was cruising. “The Russian government has a propaganda machine second to none, as these latest conspiracy theories demonstrate,” one US official said.
The Obama administration reiterated its findings that Russia was the likely supplier of advanced SA-11 anti-aircraft missiles to separatists, who fired it at the Malaysia Airlines jetliner. The White House said that an international case was building that indicated Russian complicity in the tragedy.
“What’s clear is that there is a picture that’s coming into focus,” said Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary. “And Russian claims to the contrary are getting both more desperate and much harder to believe.”
The war of words spilt over into the UN Security Council, where after the resolution vote, US Ambassador Samantha Power and Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin gave sharply different versions of who was likely responsible for shooting down the Boeing 777 on Thursday, killing all 298 people on board.
“Russia has begun to blame Ukraine itself for the attack though the missile came from separatist territory that Russia knows full well Ukraine has not yet reclaimed,” Ms Power said.
“Russia must recognise that no move on the geopolitical chessboard with the West can offset the pain being felt by the passengers’ families,” she said.
But Mr Churkin chastised Ms Power in the council chamber, saying, “There can be no jumping to conclusions or political statements here.”
Mr Churkin said Ukraine would have to answer to international investigators regarding the activities of its air-traffic controllers, why a Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile battery in the area of the crash was “hastily removed,” and why Ukrainian radar was operating “at an highest high” on the day of the incident. He also accused Ukraine of “touching up” intercepted phone calls of rebel commanders with audio from before the date of the crash.
Kiev has dismissed Russian claims that it could have been involved, and Ukraine’s security service has posted intercepted phone calls that it says are of pro-Russia rebel commanders discussing having shot down a plane they discovered afterwards was a civilian aircraft. Moscow and the rebels have denied this.
The US, which has largely backed Kiev’s version of events, has said its intelligence analysts have evaluated a number of the audio recordings and said they were authentic.
Earlier on Monday, Lt. Gen. Makushev said that the two Russian radar stations near Russia’s border with Ukraine observed the presence of the second aircraft over a period of four minutes on the day of Flight 17’s crash. These stations couldn’t identify the aircraft because it mostly likely wasn’t equipped with the system of secondary identification of aircraft, “which is characteristic of fighter jets,” he said.
Lt. Gen. Makushev said that Russian radars could only spot the aircraft at the point of its ascension because the on-duty radars only detected objects at above 5000 meters. Russian radars spotted the unidentified plane patrolling in the vicinity of Flight 17, “controlling the development of the situation,” he said.
The defence ministry also said it registered the Su-25 fighter jet ascending within close range of several civil aircraft, including the Malaysia Airlines jet.
Another top military official, Lt. Gen. Andrei Kartapolov, said at the same news conference that the jet came as close as 1.8 miles to Flight 17, which is well within the range of the air-to-air missiles it is usually equipped with.
Lt. Gen. Makushev also showed satellite photos allegedly showing several Buk-M1 ground-to-air missile systems in the area close to where the plane crashed. The systems, he argued, could only belong to the Ukrainian military. The Buks were spotted in Luhansk and Donetsk by Russians, Lt. Gen. Kartapolov said, in the days leading up to the crash.
Ukrainian officials have said its own Buk systems were well out of range, and have accused Russia of giving the rebels a Buk system, which then shot down the airliner. Russia denies this.
Public tracking website Flightradar24 followed Flight 17 from its departure from Amsterdam through to its final moments over Ukraine. The aircraft was observed to be roughly 10 miles north of the L980 jetway that was a part of its filed flight plan. Such a deviation isn’t unusual, though, and can be affected by weather.
Similarly, Lt. Gen. Makushev said the Malaysia Airlines plane deviated from its course by close to 9 miles near Donetsk but then attempted to return to its course, crashing shortly after. Russian radars spotted the Flight 17 rapidly descending 32 miles away from the Russian border, Russian officials said.
He said Russia is prepared to hand all of the information it has to the European authorities, which included satellite imagery and data from its own radar.
Russian defence ministry officials also claimed that a US satellite was spotted at the time of the Flight 17 crash and asked that the US release the satellite images from that time. The US didn’t immediately comment on the claim.