Editor’s Note: The Diplomat is currently monitoring this rapidly developing event. This piece will be updated as more information becomes available.
Reports from Interfax news agency, verified independently by Reuters via the Russian aviation industry, state that Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 crashed in Eastern Ukraine, over the province of Donetsk. The aircraft was a Boeing 777-200 twin-jet passenger airliner that was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur carrying 295, including the crew. A Ukrainian Interior Ministry adviser, according to Reuters, declared that all 280 passengers and 15 crew perished in the crash. According to Interfax, the airliner was shot down from an altitude of 10 km, likely by Russia-backed separatist rebels in Donetsk province. Malaysia Airlines and the Malaysian ministry of transport reportedly have “no information about any airliner that may have crashed,” according to Reuters (Malaysia Airlines later confirmed that it had “lost contact” with MH17). Shortly after reports of the crash emerged, the YouTube account “EuroMaidan PR” posted a video to YouTube allegedly showing the smoke plume emanating from the downed jet:
If it is confirmed that this crash was made possible by Russian arms and munitions support to separatists in Donetsk, Ukraine, the incident will have major international ramifications. Russia will likely face widespread condemnation for making such an incident feasible by arming anti-government, pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine’s Eastern Provinces. The fact that the jet was shot down from an altitude of 10 km suggests that a Russian anti-aircraft missile was likely involved. The Associated Press reported earlier on Thursday, prior to the reports of the Malaysian Airlines crash, that a Russian air-to-air missile shot down a Ukrainian air force jet. Pro-Russia rebels in Donetsk have claimed responsibility for having shot down a military transport plane in the past as well. Igor Strelkov, a leader of the Donetsk separatists, allegedly ordered the attack, thinking the flight was Ukrainian. If the separatists did indeed shoot down the jet, it was likely because they thought it was a Ukrainian military aircraft. Deleted social media posts from the rebels earlier in the day on Thursday mention that they had shot down an “An-26,” a twin-engine turboprop military transport used by the Ukrainian military.
The missile used is likely to have been of the Russian-made BUK SA-11/17 families. The SA-11 has the more limited range of the two types, covering 100 – 46,000 ft; the SA-17 covers a range of up to 82,000 ft. Conventional passenger airliners cruise in the range of 30,000 to 40,000 ft. There is still considerable ambiguity about the precise nature of anti-air and air defense technology available to Ukrainian separatists at this time. The Ukrainian military does operate BUK SA-11s. According to the Associated Press, the Ukrainian president has confirmed that the country’s armed forces took no action against “any airborne targets.” In late June 2014, pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists seized a Ukrainian military anti-air installation. A deleted tweet by the Donetsk People’s Republic showed a BUK-M1 system in the group’s possession. The source of the attack is as yet unconfirmed.
According to RIA Novosti, Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama have discussed the situation.
This incident is the second international tragedy to involve a Malaysian Airlines flight this year. Earlier in the year, Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 went missing over the South China Sea.