clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Malaysia Airlines crash over Ukraine: what we know and don't know

A man stands next to the wreckage of the malaysian airliner carrying 295 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur after it crashed, in rebel-held east Ukraine, on July 17, 2014.
A man stands next to the wreckage of the malaysian airliner carrying 295 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur after it crashed, in rebel-held east Ukraine, on July 17, 2014.
Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images

Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine on Thursday morning, according to US intelligence. The plane was carrying 298 people.

This has the potential to become a serious international crisis if the plane was shot down by the Russia-backed separatists who are currently fighting in eastern Ukraine, as a preliminary report from US intelligence claimed.

Here's a list of what's confirmed and unconfirmed. This will be updated as the events unfold on, so keep checking back for details.

What we know


Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 leaving Schiphol Airport in Schiphol, the Netherlands, on July 17, 2014. Fred Neeleman/AFP/Getty Images

About the flight

MH17 was shot down in Ukraine with 298 on board. There were no survivors of the crash.

MH17 was traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

Malaysia Airlines lost contact with the plane at 14:15 (GMT) at 30 kilometers from Tamak waypoint, approximately 50 kilometers from the Russia-Ukraine border, per a company statement.

How it was shot down

A preliminary US Intelligence report suggests that pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine likely fired the missile from within Ukraine that brought down MH17.

Multiple reports, including from UN Ambassador Samantha Power to the United Nations Security Council, have said a Buk anti-aircraft missile system was used in the attack on the plane.

The Buk surface-to-air missile system is a "sophisticated system requiring a whole suite of radar and command vehicles," according to the US embassy in Kiev. In other words, this isn't some shoulder-fired missile in the style of ragtag militias; it takes real training and resources to use.

Who shot it down

An intercepted phone call (audio here) between a separatist leader and a Russian security official indicates the separatists were responsible for the attack, but it's still not verified.

Rebels are denying responsibility. "We simply do not have such air defense systems," they're quoted as saying in a tweet from New York Times reporter Ellen Barry sourced to Interfax. But the rebels had previously claimed to have a Buk system, according to a June 29 report sourced to the rebel Donetsk People's Republic press service.

Russia is denying responsibility for the MH17 disaster. "We didn't do it," Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said, according to the Financial Times. Vladmir Putin is blaming Ukraine for the attack.

A social media account associated with Ukrainian rebel commander Igor Strelkov appeared to take credit for shooting down a plane over Ukraine on Thursday, but later deleted the post. Here's an analysis of what this might mean.

The victims

One American citizen was killed in the crash, President Obama said in a statement Friday. The plane had Dutch, Australian, Malaysian, Indonesian, British, German, Belgian, Filipino, South African and Canadian passengers. Here are the nationality counts.

Among the passengers were researchers traveling to an international AIDS conference being held in Melbourne, including Joep Lange, former president of the International AIDS Society. Seven deaths of conference attendees have been confirmed by the society so far.

How this fits with the Ukraine-Russia crisis

Russia has had thousands of troops stationed just across the border since the crisis in eastern Ukraine began; NATO says Russia had recently increased its force on the border to between 10,000 and 12,000 troops.

Two military planes flying at high altitudes over Ukraine have been shot down under mysterious circumstances this week. Ukrainian rebels took credit for one of the attacks; the Ukrainian government blamed Russian forces for the other. The sophistication of the missile systems makes it seem likely the rebels would have needed training or help. Read more about those incidents here.

Over the weekend, Russia-backed rebels seized control of the MH17 crash site in eastern Ukraine and blocked access as respondents tried to recover evidence and bodies. The move has further angered the international community as it tries to respond to the crash.

What we don't know


People commemorating passengers of MH17 in front of the Embassy of the Netherlands in Kiev on July 17, 2014. Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

Who shot down down MH17. Whether, if they were separatist rebels in Ukraine, they had direct Russian support or training, particularly in surface-to-air missile systems.

Whether MH17, a commercial Boeing-777, was deliberately targeted, or whether it was attacked because it was mistaken for a military aircraft. The Times is reporting that the rebels were using a missile system that lacked full radar capabilities, causing them to inadvertently hit MH17, but it's not certain.

We also don't know how any of the major players — including the United States, Russia, and Ukraine — will respond to the incident. President Barack Obama said Friday afternoon that he did not foresee any US military response beyond what the US was already doing in Ukraine.

It's not clear how, or whether, this will change Russia's relationship with the rebel groups in eastern Ukraine, which Moscow has been supporting. It's not clear how Europe and the US will respond if the plane was shot down by Ukrainian rebels or, even more consequentially, by forces inside of Russia.

What major leaders are saying


Russia's President Vladimir Putin looks on while speaking with journalists in Itamaraty Palace in Brazilia, early on July 17, 2014 Alexis Nikolsky/Getty Images

— President Obama on Friday called for a ceasefire in the area so "a credible international investigation" could be conducted. "I think it's very important for folks to sift through what is factually based and what is merely speculation," he cautioned. Obama said separatists have received "a steady flow of support" from Russia, including sophisticated weaponry. "Time and again, Russia has refused to take the concrete steps necessary to deescalate the situation," he said. "It has continued to violate Ukrainian sovereignty and to support violent separatists… Now is, I think, a somber and appropriate time for all of us to step back and take a hard look as what has happened. Violence and conflict inevitably lead to unforeseen consequences."

— Russian President Vladimir Putin said Ukraine ultimately bears responsibility: "I want to note that this tragedy would not have happened if there were peace on this land, if the military actions had not been renewed in southeast Ukraine. And, certainly, the state over whose territory this occurred bears responsibility for this awful tragedy." He also announced that Russia would investigate.

— Vice President Joe Biden warned about the wider consequences: "It is important to get the bottom of this sooner than later because the possible repercussions that could flow from this beyond the tragic loss of life."

— Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said that if pro-Russian separatists shot down the plane, Putin should pay a "heavy price": "It's an outrageous and incredible act of terrorism that people [should be] held responsible — and not only the people directly responsible, but indirectly. And if these are the, quote, 'separatists,' which are also Russian, Vladimir Putin should be paying a heavy price. But I am not concluding yet until we find out all the information. I don't want to jump to any conclusion."

— Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also warned about potential consequences for Russia — if they were involved: "The questions I'd be asking is who could have shot it down, who had the equipment — it's obviously an anti-aircraft missile. Who had the expertise to do that? There does seem to be growing awareness that it probably had to be Russian insurgents. If there is evidence pointing in that direction, the equipment had to come from Russia. What more the Russians might or might not have done, we don't know." She cautioned, however, that the investigation was still ongoing.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.