Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Did Ukrainian rebels really take credit for downing MH17?

Igor Strelkov, left, with other leaders of his rebel group Donetsk People's Republic DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images

It looked like the smoking gun: exactly 35 minutes after Malaysia Airlines flight 17 went down over eastern Ukraine, a social media account belonging to the eastern Ukrainian rebel commander Igor Strelkov posted a message bragging of having "brought down" an aircraft.

"We warned you, stay away from our skies," the message said in Russian, according to translations posted by Russian-speaking reporters. The message was posted at 5:50 pm local time on Thursday; the flight had crashed at 5:15 pm. The post included two videos that appeared to show a large explosion. One of them is still viewable on YouTube.

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The now-deleted Strelkov post on VK taking credit for downing a plane

Many read this as Strelkov taking credit for his separatist rebels shooting down MH17, killing the 295 people on board. But there are real reasons to doubt that the message was genuine.

It's not hard to see why people would believe Strelkov's post. Strelkov is a top figure among eastern Ukraine's rebels, who have been receiving arms from the Russian government. His official title is Prime Minister of the Donetsk People's Republic, named for the eastern Ukrainian city where they've seized territory and declared independence. He's known for being highly unpredictable; the New York Times called him "as mysterious as he is fearsome." The report warned, "many analysts fear that Mr. Strelkov could go rogue."

Here's the most worrying detail: Just last month, eastern Ukrainian rebels had reportedly seized BUK surface-to-air missile systems — the kind of thing used to shoot down airplanes.

The pieces certainly seem to fit. But there are also some strange aspects of Strelkov's claims that should at least give pause before reaching definitive conclusions about MH17. Here are three big ones:

(1) Strelkov's post, on the Russian social networking site VK, was quickly deleted. A later post appeared to blame Ukrainian government forces for shooting down the plane.

(2) The VK account may not actually be run by Strelkov at all. BuzzFeed's Max Seddon spoke to eastern Ukrainian rebels who said the page "is a fake made by fans." If that's the case, it may be that Strelkov fanboys saw the plane go down, surmised (perhaps wrongly) that rebels had shot them down, and bragged about it on the VK page. It is also possible, to be fair, that the rebels were lying to Seddon about the VK page.

(3) Strelkov's post appeared to claim credit for shooting down not a civilian airliner but an Antonov AN-26, a two-prop transport plane that is often used by militaries in eastern Europe. The AN-26 is 78 feet long; MH17 was a Boeing 777, which is 242 feet long. It's possible that rebels mistook the large Boeing 777 for a much smaller AN-26, especially from thousands of feet away. But this casts a bit further doubt on the idea that people fired on the airplane and then posted on VK about it; if someone fired on the plane they likely would have noticed it was a large jet and not a small-ish prop plane.

None of this specifically exonerates eastern Ukrainian rebels, who are after all heavily armed, poorly organized, and highly aggressive. Armed rebels shooting down a civilian airliner they'd mistaken as a military plane is sadly within the realm of possibility. But the strangeness surrounding Strelkov's posts should cast doubt on conclusions that he or his forces were directly responsible, at least until further evidence comes in.

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