THE DOWNING of the Malaysian jet MH17 could have a massive impact on the crisis in the Ukraine, increasing pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin over his support for anti-government rebels, experts have said.
Already suffering under the impact of sanctions – tightened only on Wednesday by the US and EU – because of its annexation of Crimea, Moscow could be subjected to much more punitive measures if it is shown to be the source of the missiles used to target the civilian airliner.
Although responsibility for the attack has not yet been determined, initial suspicions were pointing at the pro-Russian rebel forces which have established strongholds in the east of Ukraine since the ousting of president Viktor Yanukovych by protests earlier this year.
Separatist leader Igor Strelkov is reported to have boasted that his group shot down a Ukrainian military transport plane at around the time that the airliner, en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, fell from the skies near the Ukrainian-Russian border. However other militants in Donetsk later insisted that armed forces loyal to the Kiev government were to blame.
Experts said it was implausible to suppose that the rebel groups could have perpetrated the attack using a sophisticated ground-to-air missile system without Russian support.
“Of course at this stage it is still theoretically feasible that it could have been the Ukrainian armed forces, the rebels or the Russians,” said Jonathan Eyal, international director of the Royal International Services Institute in London. “But up to now there hasn’t been any instance of the Ukrainians having used their air defence system against aircraft for the simple reason that the rebels don’t have aircraft. The idea that this was mistakenly shot down by the Ukrainians is not plausible.
“It can’t be a rebel force on its own. They couldn’t have operated this system without Russian direct involvement. Even if the rebels were to have a missile system – which is possible, because it was transferred by the Russians – it is difficult to see how anyone could have operated it without a radar system which not merely guides the missile but targets the missile in the first place.”
Until now, Mr Putin has ascribed unrest in eastern Ukraine to home-grown militias seeking to defend the Russian-speaking population against an illegitimate neo-fascist regime in Kiev, and has been careful to avoid any direct involvement by Russian forces. But Dr Eyal said: “This could be the turning point in the Ukrainian crisis. There are already indications that the Russians are very worried – there was a pre-planned telephone call between Putin and Barack Obama today, and it appears it was devoted entirely to this problem.”
Nato has recently been warning about the irresponsible way in which powerful weapons like tanks, armoured personnel carriers and Manpad surface-to-air missiles have been supplied to irregular militias in Ukraine, said Dr Eyal.
“This may force Putin to be more circumspect about what he offers,” he added. “But if so, the rebels may well be overwhelmed by Ukrainian forces who are already pinning them down at the moment.”
The former UK ambassador to Moscow, Sir Andrew Wood, said: “No one knows who fired this missile, but assuming that the only credible explanation is that it is the Russian separatist forces, the risk of still further sanctions against Russia must be high and well-deserved.