Wow, the situation in the Ukraine certainly went downhill in the blink of an eye. Truth be told, my focus has been elsewhere for the past two weeks. I’ve started a new job and am trying to get my settled in. In my free time, I was working on a series of July Crisis posts that I planned to publish this coming week. That’s on hold for now. My workdays are now spent focused on the situation in the Ukraine, and Israel’s offensive actions in Gaza. I can handle that because it’s part of my job and I’m paid for it. Unfortunately, it’s also cutting into my non-work hours. Again, that’s part of the job so there is really no sense complaining.
Let’s begin with some basics.
The SA-11 Gadfly ( I realize that the media is using the Russian name for the system, but I’m used to using NATO designations for Soviet/Russian equipment) is a nasty, effective missile system. It entered service in 1979 and has gone through numerous upgrades. SA-11 is a battlefield system, which means it was designed and built to contend with combat aircraft. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that it had little problem shooting down a slow moving, straight flying civilian airliner equipped with no radar warning system or countermeasures. The SA-11 is also a mobile system so finding the launcher that fired the missile is not going to be easy. In all likelihood it is back on the Russian side of the border.
So, who shot down the airliner? At this point, it seems likely that pro-Russian separatists are responsible. The plane came down in a zone that is nominally under separatist control. A number of Ukrainian military aircraft have suffered similar fates in the same area. Western media has not come to terms with how a group of separatists can operate such a sophisticated weapon system. To their untrained eyes it appears that it was the Russians who fired the missile. That’s possible, but not certain. The separatists could have done so too, and quite easily. There are undoubtedly a large number of ex-Russian/Soviet and even former Ukrainian soldiers in the separatist ranks. Some of them were probably air defense troops. Russia could have provided the equipment, as well as a handful of advisers to train the separatists and bring them up to speed.
What’s currently happening in the Ukraine is a textbook example of how a crisis can take on a life of its own. In spite of Kiev and Moscow’s best efforts, the downing of Flight MH17 has transformed the dynamic of the Ukraine crisis. Vladimir Putin’s plans are in real danger of being derailed. Recent Ukrainian military successes in the eastern provinces were already placing undesirable pressure on the Kremlin. Now, the attention of the world is focused on Putin and his efforts to deflect blame for the tragedy onto Kiev. Thus far, his efforts have been unsuccessful.
The crisis is about to enter a precarious phase. Both sides have far more to gain or lose than they did one week ago.