Yesterday, the conflict between Russian separatists and the Ukrainian government may have escalated to its most dangerous level to date. A Malaysia Airlines passenger jet carrying 295 people was shot down by a surface-to-air missile over Ukraine, approximately 35 miles from the Russian border. All 280 passengers and 15 crew members on board were killed, and burning wreckage and bodies were scattered over a 10-mile radius near the town of Shakhtars’k. Responsibility for the downing has yet to be determined, but separatist groups who have reportedly blocked Ukrainian officials from the scene claim the plane’s flight data recorder has been sent to Moscow.
The Ukrainian government claims Russia was behind the atrocity. “According to the General Staff of Ukrainian Armed Forces, the airplane was shot down by the Russian Buk missile system as the liner was flying at an altitude of 10,000 meters,” said a statement from the Foreign Ministry in Kiev. “Ukraine has no long-range air defense missile systems in this area. The plane was shot down, because the Russian air defense systems was affording protection to Russian mercenaries and terrorists in this area. Ukraine will present the evidence of Russian military involvement into the Boeing crash.”
Defense Minister Valery Heletey and National Security and Defense Council spokesman Andriy Lysenko reminded the world that this was not an isolated incident. On Monday, Heletey alerted Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko that a AN-26 military transport plane had been shot down in the Luhansk region during an anti-terrorist operation. Heletey insisted that the plane’s altitude of 6.5 kilometers put it above the threshold of a man-portable air defense system, meaning “the plane was struck by another, more powerful missile that was probably launched from Russian territory.” Lysenko insisted that Russia was also to blame for a Ukrainian SU-25 fighter plane shot down Wednesday. “A military aircraft of the Russian Armed Forces launched a missile strike against an SU-25 aircraft of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, which was performing tasks on Ukrainian territory,” he said.
Those assessments cannot be confirmed. Furthermore, it is being reported a social media site attributed to Ukrainian rebel commander Igor Strelkov that took credit for downing the AN-26 on June 14, killing 49 government soldiers, also claimed to have downed an additional “army transporter” yesterday—at the location where the Malaysia airliner crashed. An earlier post removed from the same site claimed they had seized the Russian-made Buk missile system from the Ukrainian army. The Buk is capable of downing an airline at the altitude at which the Malaysian airliner was flying. The deleted post had also noted that separatist fighters “had warned (the Ukrainian armed forces) not to fly in ‘our sky.’ And here is a video confirming that a ‘bird fell,’” it stated.
American intelligence confirmed that a surface-to-air missile was fired at the plane, but remained divided over its source of origin. Another separatist leader, Alexander Borodai, told Russia’s state-run Rossiya 24 TV that the plane was “truly shot down by the Ukrainian Air Force,’’ but offered no proof in that regard. He was aware of the reports about fellow rebels seizing the Buk missile, but noted that even if they did, no one was capable of operating it.
Educated guesses about what occurred were in plentiful supply. “To bring down an airliner from 33,000 feet you need a good air defense weapon, not just a missile itself and also the radar,” Retired Col. Ken Allard told CNBC. “That says Russian, and that says to me either a separatist element or the Russians themselves.” KT McFarland, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan, blamed the separatists themselves. “I think it’s far more likely it was rebel forces in eastern Ukraine trying to get the Russians back involved,” she contended.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Ralph Peters pointed the finger directly at Russia. “It wasn’t the separatists, although Russia will try to blame them, or blame the Ukrainians,” Peters said. “The Russians have not given the separatists complex, high-altitude air-defense systems. If this airliner was flying at 34,000 feet or any altitude close to that, it was shot down by Russian military air-defense systems perched on the Ukrainian border.”
Complicating the assessments of Allard and Peters is an AP report noting that aviation experts “have questioned whether the stricken transport plane was flying at the altitude Ukrainian officials had claimed.”
However, much like the assertion at the separatist website, Peters also believed the downing was a case of mistaken identity. He also took an indirect shot at the Obama administration in the process. “Russia has a small number of elite forces, but most of the Russian military is ill-trained, sloppy and marginally disciplined,” he explained. “With no Western response to them shooting down Ukrainian aircraft, they just got trigger happy.”
Peters is exaggerating—but only a little bit. The Obama administration initially imposed sanctions on Russia last spring, when Putin annexed Crimea and massed troops along the Ukrainian border. Those sanctions consisted of asset freezes and travel bans. On Wednesday, Obama upped the ante, targeting two major Russian banks, Gazprom Bank and VEB, and two energy companies, Novotek and Rosneft. Four Russian government officials are also on the list, as are eight Russian weapon companies that make small arms, mortars–and surface-to-air missiles. Yet once again, Obama stopped short of imposing sanctions that would completely cut off key sectors of Russia’s oil-dependent economy.
Putin is complaining that the additional targeting will hurt U.S.-Russian relations, as well as businesses in both countries. But if a report by Reuters is accurate, he is not about to abandon his expansionist agenda: Moscow has ostensibly reached an agreement with Cuba to reopen a Soviet-era base once referred to by naval historians as the “most sophisticated Soviet spy base outside the Eastern Bloc.”
Putin and Obama spoke yesterday morning, and the only thing White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest would confirm is that “President Putin near the end of this morning’s phone call with President Obama noted the early reports of a downed passenger jet near the Russia-Ukraine border.”
Members of Congress also weighed in on the tragedy. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) noted the missile was consistent with Russian technology, but he wasn’t certain “which jerk” shot the plane down. Sen. John McCain warned “there would be hell to pay” if the Russians were involved, but that leaping to that conclusion “could be very embarrassing and really inappropriate until we have more information.”
Senior Intelligence Committee member Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) warned that if Russian separatists are responsible, it “represents a tragic and dramatic escalation in this conflict.” Yet Schiff also pointed the finger at Putin. “It’s been clear from the beginning that notwithstanding Putin’s duplicitous statements to the contrary, Russia has continued to stoke the conflict and allow violent separatists in eastern Ukraine access to an array of Russian armaments,” he told Fox News.
It’s not hard to understand why, considering the Obama administration’s Orwellian determination to see the world as they wish to see it, rather than the way it is. Nothing spoke to that reality more forcefully than Press Secretary Earnest’s incredible assertion Monday. When asked by Fox News reporter Ed Henry how the White House reacts to the notion that Obama is a “bystander” with regard to the various crises metastasizing on his watch, Earnest insisted that “there have been a number of situations in which you’ve seen this administration intervene in a meaningful way, that has substantially furthered American interests and substantially improved…the tranquility of the global community.”
Obama himself briefly addressed the “terrible tragedy” while attending a political event in Delaware yesterday afternoon, adding that the administration is working to determine how many of the 23 American citizens contained in the plane’s passenger manifest were actually on board. But in the latest testament to his fundamental unseriousness, the president quickly returned to his latest stump speech, replete with jokes and complaints about Republicans.
That callowness did not sit well with the public. He was excoriated on Twitter by thousands of users, including Obama-phile Piers Morgan. “President Obama massively dropped the ball just now,” Morgan tweeted. “23 Americans killed and he says ‘it looks like a terrible tragedy’ then back to jokes?”
Sadly, the joke is on a rapidly destabilizing world where the murder of 295 innocent people, including at least some Americans, is apparently insufficient to gain the full attention our Commander-in-Chief.
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