Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said Friday that Russia bears some responsibility for the downing of a Malaysia Airlines aircraft in Ukraine.
While saying the Pentagon has no direct evidence that a Buk anti-aircraft system or an SA-11 missile crossed into eastern Ukraine from Russia, Kirby expressed extreme doubt that the separatists could have obtained such sophisticated weaponry or learned how to use it on their own.
“It strains credulity to think that they could do this without some measure of Russian support and assistance,” Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon. “Some separatists have received some training in these vehicle-borne (anti-aircraft) systems. There’s no question about that.”
Asked whether a Buk system had crossed the border, Kirby responded, “We’re not ruling anything in or out at this point.”
Kirby acknowledged that U.S. satellites and other surveillance equipment could have missed such an anti-aircraft system going into Ukraine from Russia.
“We don’t have perfect visibility into every capability that the separatists have,” he said. ‘We certainly knew that this was a capability that …. they aspired to have access to.”
In a June 30 briefing at the Pentagon, Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, the NATO supreme allied commander, said Russian tanks, armored-personnel carriers and other heavy weapons had moved across the border, but not air-defense vehicles.
Breedlove said, however, that Russian forces were training Ukrainian separatists in using air-defense vehicles in western Russia near the Ukraine border.
Asked what kind of system had been used to shoot down two Ukrainian military transport planes in recent weeks, Breedlove said he didn’t know whether they were MANPADS – smaller, portable missiles – or vehicle-borne bigger missiles. But he added that the United States had observed Russian forces training only with the vehicle-borne systems.
Despite the downing of Malaysia Flight 17 with apparent Russian involvement, Kirby said the United States does not plan to provide weapons or other lethal supplies to Ukrainian security forces.
“They have requested a lot of material, some of it lethal in nature,” he said. “But the focus has been and remains on the nonlethal side of the assistance.”
The Pentagon has delivered radios, body armor, first-aid kits, sleeping mats and uniforms to Ukrainian soldiers, Kirby said. In the next few months, it plans to send night-vision goggles, thermal-imaging equipment, Kevlar helmets, more radios and robots that can defuse and dispose of bombs.
Kirby said he didn’t know whether Ukrainian military planes or other aircraft were in the air near Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 at the time of the shoot-down.
Asked whether separatists might have mistaken the commercial jetliner for a Ukrainian military plane, Kirby responded: “I’m not going to get into the motivations, the intent, the reasoning that went into this.”
Kirby said the Pentagon was investigating whether the missile system that downed the Malaysia Airlines jetliner was more powerful than the systems used to down the Ukrainian military transport planes.
Kirby criticized “a steady, concerted campaign by Russia’s military to continue to support and resource, advise these separatists.”
Kirby noted that “there have been incursions across the border by Russian aircraft” and said the number of well-equipped Russian troops on the border just outside Ukraine has increased to 10,000 to 12,000, up from earlier Pentagon estimates of 5,000.
“They’re growing in size week by week, and they continue to do nothing more than escalate the tension,” he said.
Kirby said there were no plans to include any Pentagon personnel in the team of U.S. investigators dispatched to the crash site in eastern Ukraine.