Whether or not the Ukrainian Interior Ministry's claim that pro-Russia separatists shot down a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet over Eastern Ukraine today proves true, the tragedy should be the catalyst to end this manufactured conflict.
What is known for now is that Malaysia airlines lost contact with a Boeing 777 as it passed through Ukrainian airspace, on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, and crashed 30 miles from the Russian border with 280 passengers and 15 crew members on board. Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine's interior ministry, said in a statement on Facebook the plane was shot down by a BUK surface-to-air missile while flying at 33,000 feet. According to the Russian news agency Interfax, the airliner suddenly lost altitude as it flew over the city of Donetsk, which is held by rebels and surrounded by Ukrainian military.
If a civilian airliner was indeed shot down, this would be shocking news. It would suggest either that Russia has given the rebels a substantial mobile missile system that goes far beyond anything they have had before -- or that the Ukrainians themselves shot the plane down (according to Interfax, the rebels are claiming the Ukrainians thought the airliner was a Russian spy plane).
The distance from Donetsk to the Russian border would appear to rule out that the missile came from Russian territory, if a BUK system missile was involved.
There are various iterations of the BUK, which NATO calls the Grizzly, and the U.S. Department of Defense the SA-17. This is a sophisticated, radar-guided system, with a near certainty of striking a target aircraft once fired. The maximum range of the missile is about 28 miles, and with up to 150 pounds of high explosives in each 18-foot warhead, impact with a passenger aircraft would be devastating.
It isn't clear how the Ukrainian government could be certain this quickly that the Malaysian plane was shot down, or with what. Yet given the recent downing of a Ukrainian military transport at 21,000 feet, and Wednesday's claim by rebel leader Igor "Strelkov" Girkin to have shot down two Ukrainian SU-25 ground attack jets, the rebels would appear to have the means. (Ukraine says one of those attack planes was shot by air-to-air missiles fired by a pair of Russian jets, a claim Russia dismissed as "absurd.")
Anything short of an unrelated aircraft malfunction would suggest this conflict is escalating in a very disturbing way. It would also demand that Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukraine's government and Western leaders get beyond trading barbs over sanctions and find a way to disarm the rebels, send them home and accommodate the legitimate concerns of Russian speakers in Eastern Ukraine.
To contact the author on this story:
Marc Champion at email@example.com
To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org