“A Bird Fell”: Malaysian Airlines 17, and The Growing Tragedy of the Ukrainian Crisis

In what seems like an almost coincidental merging of this year’s top news stories, a Malaysian Airlines plane crashed in the troubled Donetsk Oblast of Ukraine, just a few miles away from the Russian border. MH17, en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, lost contact with  Dutch aircraft control operators at around 16:20 (Kiev time) on Thursday, July 17th. This new calamity afflicting Malaysian Airlines serves as an eerie parallel to the disappearance of  flight MH370 in March of this year.

Unlike its preceding tragedy, debris of MH17 were discovered almost immediately after contact was lost with the Boeing 777 in the afternoon; various images of charred metal began springing up around various social media outlets by Ukrainian users who stumbled upon the remains of the airliner.

It is in the nature of this debris that the situation grows more complex: the remains of MH17 were scattered in a radius of up to 15km, suggesting that the airplane had in fact been destroyed while still in the sky, and not when it made contact with the ground. The reality of these implications is quite severe: A civilian aircraft has been shot down over the European continent.

As news broke about the crash throughout the day, there was much finger-pointing between the two sides of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, shifting the blame to the Government forces in the area, or to the separatists fighting under the banner of the recently formed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR).

Petro Poroshenko, the President of Ukraine, issued his comments on the tragedy Thursday evening, where he labeled the event as a “terrorist attack” conducted by the separatist forces in the area, to which the rebel fighters responded with a twitter post claiming that jets flying under the banner of the Ukrainian air force had shot the civilian aircraft out of the sky. As the day continued, the Donetsk People’s Republic continued posting claims of “provocations” and “false accusations” by the Ukrainian government on its official twitter page (@dnrpress), in what is becoming a war fought out on land and social media.

Donetsk rebels (Photo credit: VK)
Donetsk rebels (Photo credit: VK)

As evidence surfaces, it is becoming apparent, however, that the cause of this catastrophe, of this completely senseless loss of life, was not some dubious tactical operation, but a lack of sophisticated training and tragic circumstance which has added almost 300 casualties to an increasingly devastating war.

The conflict in Ukraine, initially sparked by the ousting of Viktor Yanukovych in February of this year,  has grown exponentially more violent leading into June, following newly elected President Petro Poroshenko’s pledge to win back the seceded territories in the Eastern portions of the country. The renewed surge by government forces has  used shock tactics in their fight against the rebel groups of Donetsk and Luhansk, relying on superior armaments to wear away at the separatists’ will to resist. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has mentioned previously in reports on the conflict the use of air power and heavy artillery by Government forces to fight rebels based around Luhansk and Donetsk. Other locations, such as the city of Slovyansk, have been completely leveled by heavy artillery and rockets fired from the sky.

Aside from the usual small arms and rocket propelled grenades, separatist forces had little to match the superior equipment of the Ukrainian army, but this changed on June 29th, when fighters of the DNR reportedly seized a Ukrainian BUK anti-air system, which they proudly boasted on their twitter page as a token of victory. In response to recent events, this image, along with many others in the separatist social-media pool, have been removed. The Voice of Russia, Moscow’s international broadcasting service, confirmed the capture of the anti-aircraft battery the same day.

The BUK missile system was designed and used during Soviet times, entering service in 1979, and is largely outdated by the standards of modern warfare. However, the system still sees a wide range of service throughout the former Soviet-bloc states, with Ukraine being no exception, and remains a strong option for securing anti-air cover by any fighting force lacking sophisticated surface-to-air technology. The BUK relies on a semi-radar based tracking system, and can fire at targets located at a distance of 30km away, but does not have the means to differentiate radar signals produced by military or civilian aircraft.

The addition of the BUK system to the arsenal of Donetsk was a considerable check on previous Ukrainian air superiority, and reports began coming in early in the week that the separatists had been successfully shooting down fighter planes of the Ukrainian air force operating in the troubled region. It is unclear if the BUK system was used in these previous engagements, but various images and video clips have surfaced on the internet apparently showing the movements of the BUK missile system throughout the Donetsk countryside throughout the week. The DNR continues to deny their access to any anti-air technology through websites Rusvesna.su and DNR2.org.

The infamous “we did warn you, do not fly in our skies” posting on VK.

Early reports of the tragic downing of a civil airliner were made through the Russian-language social media system Vkontakte (VK), with a page apparently representing rebel leader Ivan Ivanovich Strelkov posting that the the rebels had shot down an AN-26 military transport plane in the Torez region of Donetsk, adding that “We warned them-not to fly in our sky.” As the events of the day continued to unfold, the VK post was removed, but the image had already started making its rounds around the internet.

Later in the day, a disclaimer was posted on Strekov’s VK page, reminding readers that the account was not directly associated with Strelkov himself, but rather re-posted his musings from a local website. The infamous “fallen bird” screen capture circulating the internet was therefore not a direct quote pulled from the rebel leader:

Screen Shot 2014-07-18 at 10.30.44 PM

“We remind you, that on our account, the statements of Strelkov, I.I. are only published with the special banner “STRELKOV INFORMS”. All other posts we gather from open sources, but also from the diaries of volunteers and those impacted by events. STRELKOV ONLY WRITES ON ONE SINGLE FORUM, we only transfer his writings onto this page, ALWAYS accompanied with the SPECIAL BANNER. If there is no banner, then the post is NOT from Strelkov, but from other open sources”.

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Andrey Matveyev

Andrey Matveyev studied International Relations at Franklin University, Switzerland and is currently living in the United States. His interests include literaure, travel, and foreign affairs, with a particular focus on the role of his native Russia in the modern world.