Buk missiles: but who is friend and who is foe?

Cold facts and conspiracy theories

Yassamine Mather examines the most likely explanation for the tragedy in eastern Ukraine

In the midst of all the propaganda about Malaysian airline MH17 and the loss of 298 lives, myths have replaced reality. New conspiracy theories appear seemingly every hour, making it almost impossible to distinguish fact from fiction when it comes to understanding the causes of this tragic event.

Indeed truth has become the first victim of the conflict between the Kiev government and pro-Russian separatists in what is now developing into a west vs Russia conflict. Ukraine accused pro-Russian separatists of shooting down the plane, while the Russian media blamed everyone but pro-Moscow rebels. On July 21, prime minister David Cameron echoed the headlines of the tabloids: bringing down the plane was “murder” - in other words, the intentional killing of innocent civilians. We have not heard the same sort of outcry about the hundreds of civilians killed in Gaza since last week - the western media does not seem to see the hypocrisy in the way the two events are reported.

This is what we know for certain. The European air traffic control body recorded flight MH17 flying at 10,000 metres - just 300 metres above the disputed/restricted airspace - when it was shot down. According to the Malaysian transport minister, Liow Tiong Lai, the pilot had asked to fly at 10,700 metres over Ukraine’s airspace but was told by air traffic control in Kiev to fly at 10,000 metres. Two units navigated the plane: Ukrainian air traffic control and the Rostov centre for air traffic control in the Russian Federation.

According to Ukrainian air traffic control, “The Boeing’s beacon disappeared abruptly, without any warnings or SOS signals. The plane dropped from the flight level instantly, in the Torez area. After exchanging opinions with our Russian colleagues, we jointly concluded that the Boeing was shot down.”1 All this was confirmed by Malaysian airways. Both air traffic controls should have recordings of this joint conversation/conclusion and this should be available to air accident inspectors.

It is doubtful if flying at a slightly higher altitude (300 or even 1,000 metres higher) would have made much of a difference. According to current information, the airliner was hit by a Buk missile system, which can reach targets up to 23,000 metres. The air safety organisation, Eurocontrol, has recordings of the Ukrainian authorities barring aircraft flying at up to 9,750 metres. However, at 10,000 metres, the plane was still flying over a danger zone and was not out of reach from missile attack.

Back in June, the UK Civil Aviation Authority urged carriers to avoid overflying Crimea and parts of southern Ukraine. This did not include Donetsk and the Dnepropetrovsk flight zone, although the CAA advised airlines to “review current security/threat information”. British Airways, Air France, Cathay Pacific and a number of other airlines have avoided the area since the conflict started, but other airlines have not. Since April, when the conflict started in eastern Ukraine, Singapore Airlines, for example, has flown 75 planes over the same area. Ukraine is a vast country and avoiding its entire air space is costly both in terms of flight time and fuel.

We also know that at least one Malaysian airline pilot refused to fly this route, while the pilot of MH17 is reported to have radioed a message saying he “felt uncomfortable” about the route given to him by Ukrainian air traffic control. However, Russian claims that he then decided to change his route without authorisation, with fatal consequence, are hard to believe. Pilots are not in a position to challenge or ignore air traffic controllers’ directives and it is highly unlikely that the pilot flying the Malaysian airliner did so.

The most likely scenario is the one proposed by Dr Igor Sutyagin, a research fellow in Russian studies from the Royal United Services Institute, who believes separatists mistook the passenger flight for a Ukrainian government military transport aircraft.

The crashed plane was a Boeing 777-200ER, and unfortunately for both Boeing and Malaysian Airlines, it is the same model as the flight which disappeared on the Kuala Lumpur-Beijing route in March. However, the plane had no known technical problems - it was last checked six days before the incident.

The missile

The Buk is considered a mid-range surface-to-air missile system that can hit targets at an altitude of up to 23,000 metres. It was designed in the 1970s in the former Soviet Union. The Buk is not hand-held (such weapons have a much shorter range), but a mobile system that is usually installed on vehicles and guided by radar. A plane at 10,000 metres would not be visible to the eye.

The Buk works in this way. The radar identifies a potential target, and on the screen in front of the operator the plane will appear as a dot. While the size of the dot is proportional to the size of the plane, there is no way to identify whether this is a military or passenger plane. The personnel in the land device might share a view on their interpretation of the image or they may have been given sufficient information to identify a particular target. When it is launched the missile is guided by a radar locked to the target, but later its own radar system takes over. There is another method of delivery, whereby the missile is remotely detonated.

However, both methods would require a level of Russian involvement. The accusations against pro-Russian separatists are based on a report carried in Jane’s Intelligence Review of a conversation between Russian military intelligence officers, assumed to be in separatist-held Ukrainian territory, and recorded by the Ukrainian security service, SBU. According to tapes quoted by Jane’s, immediately after the incident the separatists sent a team to investigate. They reported “bad news” - the target had been a civilian airliner, not a military aircraft. A Russian officer is heard saying the flight “was probably trying to drop spies”, but, in any case, it “should not have been flying over a war zone”.2

US secretary of state John Kerry claims he has evidence of Russian complicity in the incident, and the US airforce alleges a Buk launcher was moved back into Russian territory soon afterwards.

However, as Peter Hitchens, of all people, reminded us in the Mail on Sunday, “Powerful weapons make it all too easy for people to do stupid, frightful things. Wars make such things hugely more likely to happen.” He gives examples of the shooting down of a Korean Airlines 747 by the Soviet airforce, “inflamed by cold war passions and fears”, in September 1983, when 269 people were killed. Then, in July 1988, “highly trained US navy experts aboard the cruiser Vincennes, using ultra-modern equipment, moronically mistook an Iranian Airbus, Iran Air Flight 655, for an F-14 Tomcat warplane.” This resulted in 290 deaths - “all kinds of official untruths were told at the time to excuse this”. Then, in October 2001, Ukrainian servicemen on exercise were “the main suspects for the destruction of Siberia Airlines Flight 1812 over the Black Sea”.3

By the way, the US government always refused to admit any responsibility for the July 1988 incident, blaming unspecified “Iranian hostile actions”. However, in February 1996, the US agreed to pay Iran $131.8 million in out-of-court compensation when Tehran took the case to the International Court of Justice.

For all the hype about the delay in handing MH17’s black boxes to investigators in the UK (and Cameron’s claims that this is in recognition of UK expertise in air accident investigation), it is unlikely that they will have much value. Experts might learn something from the last comments recorded in the cockpit, but in this particular case black boxes are not going to shed much light on the event.

Whatever the definitive truth about the shooting down of MH17, socialists should have nothing to do with western or Russian ruling class manoeuvres in eastern Europe. Sections of the left have openly sided with Russia and some are now among those coming up with the most fantastic conspiracy theories about the downing of the plane, including the idea that it was all an HIV/Aids cover-up - a number of well known HIV scientists were said to be on board, travelling to an Aids conference. Other pro-Russian elements have suggested the incident was actually an attempt on the life of Russian president Vladimir Putin, as his own plane was said to be flying over the same area on the same day (obviously not true). Meanwhile, the pro-separatist website Russkaya Vesna even claims some of the passengers were already dead when the plane left Amsterdam! It quotes eye witnesses at the crash site claiming that “a significant number of the bodies weren’t fresh”.4

When such idiocies are repeated by the pro-Russian left, they are expressions of a nostalgia for the former Soviet Union - illusions about a phenomenon which remains an obstacle to socialism more than two decades after its demise.



1. http://maidantranslations.com/2014/07/17/source-in-ukrainian-air-traffic-control-crashed-malaysian-airlines-plane-was-shot-down.

2. www.janes.com/article/40908/mh017-mostly-likely-downed-by-russian-backed-separatists.

3. www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2698652/PETER-HITCHENS-Mourn-victims-dont-turn-one-tragedy-global-catastrophe.html.

4. www.news.com.au/travel/travel-updates/rebel-leader-gives-bizarre-account-of-plane-crash/story-fnizu68q-1226994524959.