By now I’m sure everyone has heard about the Malaysian airliner that was shot down over Ukraine yesterday, killing nearly 300 people including over 20 Americans and about 100 HIV experts who were traveling to a conference in Australia. The plane was flying at an altitude (about 30,000 feet) that is outside the range of shoulder-fired surface-to-air-missiles, but within the range of mobile (truck-mounted) rockets. These kinds of rockets are in the hands of the Ukrainians, the Russians and–alarmingly–also pro-Russian separatists within Ukraine.
Lots of folks are saying we shouldn’t rush to judgment, and that’s usually the position I take, but in this case I think the evidence is already pretty clear. Within hours of the tragedy, NPR and others were reporting that a leader of the pro-Russian separatists had bragged on Twitter about downing a Ukrainian military transport plane at approximately the same time the Malaysian flight went missing. No such Ukrainian transport plane is missing, and the tweet was quickly deleted.
“In Torez An-26 was shot down, its crashes are lying somewhere near the coal mine “Progress,” read the tweet, obtained by FoxNews.com and translated into English. “We have warned everyone: do not fly in our skies.”
The self-titled “Self-defence forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic” boasted in a June 29 press release of having taken control of Buk missile defense systems. The Buk, or SA-11 missile launchers, have a range of up to 72,000 feet.1
The wreckage of plane came down in a separatist held region, and the black boxes are reportedly already shipped off to Moscow. It’s very unlikely that we will ever get really open, credible evidence because it is probably damning for Russia (since they gave the rocket launcher to the separatists). Meanwhile, the Ukrainians want to blame not only the separatists, but Moscow directly by alleging that it was Russian military forces (and not just their hardware on loan to rebels) that shot down the plane. It’s because we’re unlikely to get good information going forward that we may as well tentatively conclude what happened at this point.2
The other reason it seems OK to call a tentative conclusion at this point is that the political ramifications are just not as important as people believe they are. ABC has a list of commercial airliners that have been shot down, and it includes the Ukrainians accidentally shooting down an airliner from Air Siberia in 2001, the infamous downing of Iranian flight 655 by the United States Navy guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes in 1988 and a Soviet fighter jet shooting down a Korean Air Lines plane in 1983.3
I don’t mean to diminish the tragedy at all. Quite the opposite. In some ways what is most tragic about this is that, from a geopolitical standpoint, it probably won’t really have much of an impact. If the Ukrainians, Russians, and Americans have all shot down passenger planes before on accident (and there’s no reason to suspect this wasn’t an accident as well) and World War III was averted, it’s unlikely major changes will come from this either. It might serve as a goad or a pretext for the EU to stiffen their stance somewhat in regards to Russia’s role in Urkaine, but it’s not going to change the fundamental nature of the conflict. The only real result, and I saw this with a sense of resignation, will be that airlines give up a little bit in their fuel-saving algorithms and re-route flights around the region.4
One more note: part of why I think the first theory (that pro-Russian separatists shot down the plane when they thought it was a Ukrainian military transport) is that it’s so non-conspiratorial. There’s no great mystery, just a case of mistaken identification in a warzone. Something that, tragically, happens all the time. But if you do need any additional perspective on why a conspiracy is unlikely, read this: Count to ten when a plane goes down… It’s the first-hand account of how a 23-year old techie accidentally ignited decades of conspiracy theories after that Korean Air Lines jet was shot down in 1983 with a single mistaken keystroke.