Opinion Columns & Blogs

Flight MH17 and the role of Ukraine’s rebels

There is one important reason Ukrainian authorities are so sure that pro-Russian rebels shot down a Malaysia Airlines jet: An account on the Russian social network Vkontakte, in which insurgent military leader Igor Girkin, aka Strelkov, boasted about the rebels shooting down a plane at about the time of the crash.

The Boeing 777 with 295 people on board, crashed between the village of Grabovo and the mining town of Thorez in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine. Air-traffic controllers lost touch with it at 4:20 p.m. local time, pravda.com.ua reported.

The Vkontakte account reported at 5:37 p.m. Moscow time (4:37 in Donetsk) that a large plane –identified as an Antonov An-26 transport plane, “has just been shot down near Snizhne,” a town close to where the Malaysia Airlines plane went down. This appears to be an edited version of a gloating post that is available only in screen shots now (I have one).

In that initial version, the post went on: “We warned them not to fly in our skies. And here’s a video of another bird going down. The bird fell behind a coal heap, residential areas were not hit, peaceful people did not suffer.”

The most realistic version of events is that the rebels thought they were aiming a ground-to-air missile at a Ukrainian transport plane. The government is using such planes to drop supplies to servicemen surrounded in a rebel-held area not far from where Flight MH17 crashed.

Even if new information surfaces absolving the trigger-happy Strelkov and his men, there is no denying the fact that the conflict in eastern Ukraine is their doing. Strelkov’s top cadre includes military re-enactment enthusiasts like himself who have fought in numerous local conflicts just because they like it.

The area is full of angry, badly trained people and serious military hardware. The rebels recently seized the Buk ground-to-air missiles, capable of shooting down planes at high altitude, from a Ukrainian base, according to Russian state news agency Itar-Tass.

The only solution is for professionals to intervene, separate the sides and oversee their disarmament. If the downing of Flight MH17 proves to be the work of participants in the conflict, the United Nations will have cause to send in peacekeeping troops. If Russian President Vladimir Putin resists that, he will be as guilty as those responsible for the crash.