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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 31, July 26, 2014

Tragedy in Donbas Sky and Ukraine Crisis

Saturday 26 July 2014, by Arun Mohanty


The Malaysian aircraft crash on July 17 over the Donbas sky in Ukraine that caused death to all the 298 passengers and crew members of the flight is no doubt a serious tragedy of huge magnitude. But playing dirty politics around the tragedy and using it as a weapon in the geopolitical game is absolutely immoral and obnoxious. The blame-game surrounding the incident is so intense and unprecedented that it appears as if some forces were just waiting for this kind of tragedy to happen in order to launch their Russia-bashing and new cold war-mongering. Without waiting for the investigation to begin, Washington started accusing the anti-Kiev insurgents and Russia for shooting down the Malaysian aircraft. Ukraine did not wait even for ten minutes after the tragedy to hurl accusations against Russia and anti-Kiev insur-gents supported by it.

The tragedy became a pretext immediately for political speculations. The Obama Administration declared that it does not believe that the Ukrainian forces were responsible for this crime, and the Australian Prime Minister went a step ahead by directly accusing Russia for the tragedy. Ukrainian President Pyotor Poroshenko went even further by talking of external aggression against his country and blaming ‘terrorists’ (rebels from the east of the country) for the crime.

In her statement, Ukraine’s gas queen and former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko said Russian militants were no way different from the Al-Qaeda terrorists and the world should treat them as it treats the Al-Qaeda, demanding NATO intervention on the issue. Ukrainian Prime Minister Arsenei Yatsenyuk threatened Russia with the Hague Tribunal promising that there were enough space to accommodate all of them there. Zoryan Shkiryak, advisor to the Ukrainian Interior Ministry, called for the supply of sophisticated military hardware to Kiev and NATO’s immediate military operations against the ‘Satanic forces’. If you summarise all the comments made by the Ukrainian leaders it leads to one conclusion: “Russia is responsible for everything and the NATO intervention should begin immediately to put her in place.”

The air-crash took place over the conflict zone of Donbas, and debris of the aircraft fell on the territory within a radius of 15 km controlled by the anti-government insurgents. Though the leaders of the rebellious, self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic starting from Prime Minister Alexander Baradai to Defence Minister Igor Strelkov have time and again said that there is absolutely no problem from their side for the international experts and investigators to reach the crash site, the inter-national media—taking a cue from the Ukrainian Government—has been accusing that insurgents are creating obstacles for the arrival of inter-national experts and trying to destroy evidence at the crash site. There were reports that insurgents have started collecting corpses and sent one of the black boxes of the aircraft to Moscow. However, the fact is that represen-tatives of the Donetsk People’s Republic neither collected the bodies nor started the search operation till July 20 because the OSCE experts present at the site did not permit them to do so notwithstanding the fact that the dead bodies were on the verge of being decomposed under 30 degree temperature and that there was fear of wild animals from the nearby forests might have a field day there.

Finally, 219 corpses and 66 fragments of human bodies have been recovered and pre-served in four refrigerator-wagons of a special train. The Donetsk Republic’s representatives are ready to send these to any place where the Kiev authorities would like to have them. Latest reports suggest that the train with the dead bodies is moving towards Kharkov belying the speculations that insurgents are not willing to hand them over to the Kiev authorities.

Regarding the accusation that rebels are playing delaying tactics, it should be stated that the second group of international experts from various countries were held up at Kiev for several days till July 21 under various pretexts making it clear that Kiev is trying to delay the investigation process.

Belying the reports that insurgents have handed over the black box of the ill-fated Malaysian aircraft to Moscow, it has been established that one black box found at the crash site is in Donetsk, and the local authorities would like to deliver this to the international investigation team, but by no means to the Kiev authorities who are capable of tampering with it. In the backdrop of accusations that insur-gents are creating obstacles, using delaying tactics, holding back the dead bodies and the black box etc., the OSCE representatives at the crash site have made no complaints as such against the representatives of the local autho-rities, and more than that none of them has jumped to the conclusion that the Malaysian aircraft was shot down by the anti-Kiev rebels through a Buk missile.

The international media, following the lead from the US and Britain, has gone hammer and tongs against Moscow and accused the Donetsk rebels of being responsible for the crash as they hit the Malaysian aircraft with a Buk missile supplied by Russia. The insurgents have strongly denied the charge by stating that they do not have such missiles in their arsenal at all. The fact that insurgents have downed transport aircrafts, SU-25 jets, belonging to the Ukrainian armed forces in the past is being used as evidence that the rebels have shot down the Boeing 777 passenger aircraft of the Malaysian Airlines. The rebels claim that they have means in their arsenal to hit targets only up to the altitude of three to 3.5 km, but have no Buk missile with them. However, the ill-fated Boeing 777 aircraft was flying at an altitude of more than 10 km, which could be hit perhaps by a Buk missile or SU-25.

The armed forces of Russia and Ukraine definitely have Buk missiles in their arsenals. It is absolutely unlikely that Russia could fire this missile to hit the Boeing 777 aircraft. This leaves only Ukraine which could have fired the missile to hit the aircraft. Ukraine claims that it has not fired any Buk missile to hit the Malaysian aircraft, and it is the rebels who have hit the aircraft causing the deadly crash.

Now let us analyse the following facts which might provide some clue to nail the culprit. President Obama has said “Ukraine neither has the possibility in the region nor the motivation to hit the aircraft”, which contradicts the facts provided by the Russian Defence Ministry according to which there were Ukrainian armed forces with 27 “Buk M1” missiles in the crash zone on July 17 when the tragedy unfolded.

Some Russian experts believe that the Malay-sian aircraft was deliberately diverted by the Ukrainian side to the zone of active military conflict where Air Force and anti-air defence systems were used. Conventional wisdom says that the airspace over zones of active conflict is usually closed for flights, which should have been done in the case of the Malaysian Airlines flight too. Instead, the Ukrainian dispatchers asked the Malaysian aircraft to deviate from its designated corridor to deep into the conflict zone where Kiev was conducting its so-called anti-terrorist operation with heavy artillery and air power. To make matters more intriguing, the pilot of the Malaysian aircraft was asked to lower the altitude of the flight from 10.6 km to 10.3 km. Malaysian Airlines Senior Vice-President Heub Gortor, in his press conference at Amsterdam airport, has confirmed that their aircraft had to deviate from its course and fly at a lower altitude on the demand from the Ukrainian avia-dispatchers on the ground.

One Spanish dispatcher working in Kiev’s Borispol airport asserts in his twitter that the Malaysian aircraft was seen with two military aircrafts of the Ukrainian armed forces next to it, one of which was supposedly a SU-25 aircraft, few minutes before the crash. Kiev is not providing any information about this and its silence on the issue only heightens the suspicion. “The military aircrafts were flying next to 777 three minutes before it disappeared from the radar, only three minutes,” writes the man in his twitter account. “When the Boeing disappeared from the radar, the Kiev Government told us that it had crashed. How could they have known so soon?”—writes the man.

Russian online newspaper Dni-ru, quoting the press office of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic of Lugansk, reports that the Malaysian aircraft could have collided In the air with Ukraine’s SU-25. Apparently, witnesses have seen the Boeing being attacked by the Ukrainian Air Force jet, after which the plane broke into two pieces in the air and fell on the territory of Donetsk region, writes the publi-cation, quoting a source in the Republic’s press service.

 In the meanwhile the Russian Defence Ministry has announced that on July 17, the day of the tragedy, the Russian Radio’s technical services recorded the activity of the Ukrainian radar station ‘Kupal’ of a Buk-M1 anti-aircraft missile system battery, which was deployed in the vicinity of the settlement of Styl situated 30 km south of Donetsk. The Ministry said that Buk-M1 anti-aircraft’s system‘s technical specifics permit the exchange of information on air targets among batteries from the same division. Apart from this, the Russian Defence Ministry stressed that the missile, therefore, could have been launched from all batteries deployed by the Ukrainian Army in the settlement of Avdeevka, situated at 8 km north of Donetsk or in Gruzko-Zoryanskoye, situated at 25 km east of Donetsk.

 One of the villains of Ukraine’s post-coup history is Dnepropetrovsk’s Governor, notorious oligarch Igor Kolomeisky, who is associated with all the important happenings of the country. The dispatchers service handling the Malaysian aircraft is situated in Kolomeisky’s fiefdom, the Dnepropetrovsk city, and indeed, it had asked the pilot to enter the conflict zone by deviating from the designed corridor and lowering the altitude. This happened near Avdeevka, the settlement housing the military garrison captured by the rebels. This garrison apparently had a few defective Buk missiles, which are now being described as the main culprits in the Boeing crash. According to Russian media reports, some foreigners who were present in Dnepropetrovsk those days, about whom Donetsk Defence Minister Igor strelkov had also spoken, were most likely assigned the task to hit the Malaysian Boeing.

There are a number of contradictory versions about the presence of Buk missiles in the arsenal of the insurgents of the unrecognised Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics. Alexander Borodai, the Prime Minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s republic, strongly denying the insurgents’ complicity in the tragedy, stressed that they have no Buk missiles at their disposal, and whatever means they have in their arsenal can hit objects at an alti-tude of three to 3.5 km. This has been virtually confirmed by some Ukrainian officials as well. Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Vitaly Yarem in an interview has confirmed that the rebels from the Donetsk and Lugansk regions have not captured any Buk missile complex. He has stated that after the air crash, the military represen-tatives have reported to the President that the terrorists (insurgents from the south and east of Ukraine) have neither Buk missile complexes nor S-300 anti-air system, adding that these weapon systems were not captured by the ‘terrorists’. The other version says rebels had captured some defective Buk missiles near Avdeevka but they can hardly use them as they do not have the expertise.

There are conspiracy theories doing the rounds in the media. Russian sources report that the aircraft carrying President Putin also flew in the same route with an interval of 36 minutes after the Malaysian carrier, suggesting that President Vladimir Putin was the real target.

On the first day after the crash, international media highlighted the interception of the conver-sation of a rebel commander with a Russian intelligence officer boasting about the shooting down of an aircraft in Donetsk region. Russian experts firmly believe that the tape was doctored, edited and moreover, uploaded few hours before the crash took place, which apparently can be easily proved. After this, the Ukrainian side has stopped talking about this tape, raising suspi-cions about their motive. Of late President Poro-shenko is talking about new evidence with sputnik photographs etc., but has so far failed to produce them.

In the meantime, experts draw attention to Ukraine’s old habit of resorting to falsehood and manipulation citing the example of the shooting down of a Russian passengers plane by the Ukrainian forces in 2001. The Ukrainian missile complex S-200 had then hit a Russian Tu-154 aircraft with 78 passengers on board over the Black Sea flying from Tel-Aviv to Novosibirsk. All passengers and crew members of the ill-fated flight perished. For ten long days, the Ukrainian side refused to confess that one of its rockets deviating from its designated route by mistake hit the Tu-154 aircraft. Finally Ukraine’s then President, Leonid Kuchma, in the face of strong evidence, had to admit that his forces had hit the Russian aircraft but did it in a very strange manner, saying: “We are neither the first nor the last ones to make such a mistake. There is no need to make a tragedy out of the incident.” He said this without expressing any condolences. We have to take note of the fact that Kuchma at that time did not enjoy the support of the US as the current Ukrainian President Poroshenko does.

 This time it remains to be seen how long will it take for the truth about the crash to be established. The facts that Ukraine gave the air-space over a conflict zone, asked the pilot of the ill-fated aircraft to deviate from the designated route to enter deep into the war zone and then lower its altitude point fingers towards the Ukrainian authorities. Specialists observe that, according to international law, it is not the avia-dispatcher or the Aviation Minister, but the head of the state himself, who takes the decision on such issues. That means permitting flights in the war zone falls within the responsibility of the Ukrainian President himself, despite all his rhetoric about involvement of terrorists, external aggression from Russian side etc.

Certain things would be clear if you look at the incident from the motivation point of view or ask the question: who gains from such a situation? Neither Russia nor rebels from the east of Ukraine gain absolutely anything from the crash. Russia, after the Crimean crisis that was followed by Western sanctions, can hardly afford to aggravate the situation any further for itself. Rebels also do not gain anything from the air-crash, particularly at a time when they were inflicting heavy causalities on the govern-ment forces. Firing a missile at the aircraft by mistake cannot be ruled out. But the whole episode, going by the media hysteria, looks like a well-conceived provocation aimed at malig-ning Russia and the insurgents from the east of Ukraine. There is already a call for NATO inter-vention along with further Western sanctions     on Russia to stop support to the Ukrainian rebels.

President Putin , who is being much maligned and demonised in the international media in the aftermath of the air-crash, has been pursuing a prudent policy by calling for a ceasefire and objective, international investigation of the tragedy. There is a Russian saying: there is no happiness, it is unhappiness that helps to have it. The tragedy in Donbas sky should push all sides for a lasting ceasefire that is being consistently proposed by Russia and the rebels from the east of Ukraine and is supported by many European leaders. However, the Kiev regime, bolstered by the US, does not seem keen to have a lasting ceasefire, which might further complicate the peace process in that war-torn country. And the ceasefire should be followed by meaningful dialogue between the represen-tatives of the Kiev Government and insurgents from the east and south of the country that should ultimately open the path for transforming Ukraine into a federation. This is the only peaceful solution of the Ukrainian crisis. This could be possible if good sense prevails over the Kiev regime and its US backers.

The author, who is the Chairperson of the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and the Director of the Delhi-based Eurasian Foundation, was recently in Moscow.

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