Step through the looking glass over to Russia, and you hear a completely different story: the plane was shot down by the Ukrainians in order to frame the rebels and Russia in an attempt to pull NATO into the conflict. Here, we have numerous supporting “facts,” at varying levels of truthiness. But I have no way to independently verify any of them, and so instead I will organize what has been known into a pattern, and let you decide for yourself which story (if any) you should believe.
When trying to catch a criminal, a standard method is to look at means, motive and opportunity. Was the criminal physically capable of committing the act? Did the criminal have a good reason for committing it? Did the criminal get a chance to do it? One more criterion is often quite helpful: does the crime fit the perpetrator's known modus operandi? Let's give this method a try.
Did the rebels have the means to shoot down the plane? They have no military aviation and no functioning airport (the one near Donetsk is out of commission and occupied by Ukrainian troops). They have shoulder-fired missiles, which can take out helicopters and planes flying at low altitude, but are useless against airliners flying at cruising altitude. They also have a “Buk” air defense unit (one truck's worth of it) which they took from the Ukrainians as a trophy, but it's said to be non-operational. A rocket from this unit could have shot down MH-17, but only if it were integrated with a radar system, which the rebels did not have.
Did the Ukrainians have the means? They had five “Buk” units active in the area on that day, integrated with a radar system which was also active that day. (Deploying an air defense system against an enemy that does not have any aviation seems a bit strange.) According to a report from a Spanish air traffic controller who was working in Kiev (and has since been dismissed, along with other foreign ATCs) MH-17 was followed by two SU-25 jet fighters. According to a Russian expert on “Buk” systems, the damage to the fuselage visible on photographs of the crash site could not have been from a “Buk” surface-to-air missile, but could have been caused by an air-to-air missile fired by a SU-25.
Did the Russians have the means? Of course they did. Never underestimate the Russians.
The rebels had absolutely no reason to want to shoot down that plane. This leaves open the possibility that they shot it down by mistake, but that's not a motive, and if that is what happened, then this is not a crime but an accident, because a crime is an intentional act.
On the other hand, the Ukrainians had a really good motive for shooting it down. This part takes a little more explaining.
You see, the Ukrainians have been doing everything they can to pull Russia into the conflict, in order to then pull NATO into it as well, because their chance of victory while acting alone is nil. To this end, they have been shelling civilian targets relentlessly, causing many dead and wounded, in the hopes that Russian troops would pour across the border to defend them. This failed to happen; instead, the Ukrainians have succeeded in precipitating a refugee crisis that has produced something like half a million refugees seeking asylum in Russia. This has had an effect opposite of the intended. Whereas previously the rebels' recruitment activities were somewhat hampered by a wait-and-see attitude on the part of the population, now they have seen all they need to see and are ready to fight. Also, the Russian population inside Russia itself has found the stories of the refugees sufficiently compelling to open their wallets, so that now the rebels are drawing healthy salaries and have good kit and a steady stream of supplies. They are highly motivated to fight and to win, with a steady rah-rah of support coming from across the border in Russia, while the Ukrainian forces they face consist of underfed, untrained, badly armed recruits being goaded into battle by Right Sector thugs. Their recent battle plan was to directly attack the population centers in Donetsk and Lugansk while cutting the rebels off from the Russian border. One column managed to break through to the defunct Donetsk airport, where it has been kettled ever since (it is currently trying to break out in the direction of Donetsk). The troops massed along the Russian border got kettled there and decimated, with quite a few Ukrainian soldiers walking across the border sans weapons seeking food, shelter and medical treatment.
So much for Ukrainian military strategy. But the other thing to note is that time is not on the Ukrainians' side. First, a bit of background. Ukraine has always been a rather lopsided country. There are the Russian provinces in the east, which had coal, industry, good farmland, and lots of trade with Russia proper. They used to be Russia proper until Lenin lumped them into Ukraine, in an effort to improve it. And then there is western Ukraine, which, with the possible exception of Kiev, could never earn its keep. In terms of economic and social development, it resembles an African nation. Since its independence, Ukraine had subsisted through trade with Russia and through transfer payments from (Russian-speaking) Ukrainian citizens working in Russia. Because of fighting in the east, trade with Russia has been disrupted. Ukraine has been cut off from Russian natural gas supplies due to nonpayment; as a result, more and more Ukrainian cities no longer supply hot water, and come winter, there will be no heat. The economy is in freefall. The Ukrainian government received some funds from the IMF, but these are being squandered on the failing military campaign. The association agreement which Ukraine signed with the EU remains a dead letter because Ukraine does not make anything that the EU wants, and Ukraine has no money with which to buy anything the EU makes. So much for Ukrainian economic strategy.
And so, from the Ukrainian government's perspective, shooting down an airliner and blaming it on Putin (which is something that western governments and media are only too happy to do) probably seemed like a good ploy.
What about Russia? Well, the Russian government's chief concern is with avoiding becoming drawn into the conflict. The basic Russian strategy is, as I put it a couple of months ago, to let Ukraine stew in its own juices until the meat falls off the bone, and this strategy is working just fine.
It is important to draw a difference between the Russian state (Putin, the Kremlin, etc.) and the Russian people. According to Russian law, any Russian-speaking person born on the territory of the USSR has an automatic right to a Russian citizenship, so the people of eastern Ukraine are by default Russian citizens. It is a fine line between providing support to your fellow-Russians across the border as a people and being drawn into an international conflict as a nation, and the Russian government has been rather careful to preserve this distinction. Thus, the Russian government was very highly motivated to prevent this incident.
For the rebels, the opportunity amounted to looking up and seeing a plane. If, at that moment, they made the split-second decision to shoot it down using one of the “Buk” rockets (provided they had one ready to go) without radar support they could have only fired that rocket in “pursuit mode,” where the rocket flies to where the plane is, not to where the plane will be, and it is rather uncertain whether the rocket would have caught up with the jet before running out of fuel.
On the other hand, the Ukrainians gave themselves the opportunity by having Dnepropetrovsk ATC redirect the flight over the conflict zone, where they deployed their “Buk” systems.
I have trouble imagining a scenario in which Russian air defense forces would have been presented with an opportunity to shoot down MH-17.
Although some criminals commit just one crime (and sometimes even get away with it), typically a life of crime follows a pattern. What is the pattern behind shooting down MH-17? It is to kill civilians for political gain. What has the Ukrainian government been doing, for quite some time now, in shelling apartment buildings, schools and hospitals in the east of the country? Killing civilians, of course. And why have they been doing it? For a political reason: to attempt to draw the Russian military into the conflict, in order to then appeal to NATO for help. This is part of a larger plan on the part of the US to use Ukraine as a wedge between Russia and the EU, to deprive the EU of Russian natural gas supplies and make it even more dependent on the US.
My effort here is to present you with a better framework for analyzing these events than you might find elsewhere, but I hope that you uncover your own “facts” (to the extent that facts can be said to exist on the internet) and draw your own conclusions.
But I would like to point out a few things.
First, I often encounter a certain attitude among Americans. They may absolutely hate the evil clowns in Washington who are ruining their lives, but when looking at the world, they suddenly decide that every other government is equally bad, that theirs is not so bad after all, and since the Ukrainians are suddenly our friends (or so says John Kerry) then they are not so bad either. Don't make such assumptions. Look for evidence. To me it indicates that your government is run by evil clowns; other governments—not so much.
Second, citizens of the European Union shouldn't think that it is only the dark-skinned people in faraway places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and so on that get killed in the various wars instigated by the US. Continue outsourcing your foreign policy to the evil clowns of Washington (and the spineless jellies in Brussels) and you too will get killed.
Lastly, we already know who the criminals are in this case: they are the western politicians and journalists. Airliners fall out of the sky with some regularity. This is tragic, but not unexpected, and is not necessarily the result of a crime. The real crime is in exploiting this tragedy in order to smear and insult an entire people. Don't worry, the people in question are too wise to respond to such ridiculous provocations. But the reputations of western journalists who have been covering this tragic event have already gone up in smoke. All of western media is now about as good as Pravda was back in the Soviet days—good for wiping your ass with, that is. It's a sad day for anyone who cares about the truth but can only understand English.
[Update: I spoke too soon. Robert Parry has come out with an excellent write-up on the situation.]