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Not an air attack

Interview: Egor Winogradow, Mikhail Bushuev / reJuly 19, 2014

All parties involved in the Ukraine conflict could be responsible for the crash of the Malaysian passenger jet, says Russian military journalist Alexander Golz. It appears that the plane was shot down from the ground.

a pile of debris from an aircraft (Photo: Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: AFP/Getty Images

DW: Can we now definitely say that the Malaysian passenger flight was shot down, and that it didn't crash due to technical failure?

Alexander Golz: Several prominent US media outlets have reported that the US intelligence services have registered the location of the rocket launcher and the actual launch of the rocket. So I think there is hardly any doubt any more that the plane was shot down.

Different versions are circulating of how it came about. Which of them can we already reject as false?

We are in an information war, in which all sides are accusing each other and lying to each other. You can't trust either the Russian or the Ukrainian media or official sources. The only objective source, in my opinion, is US satellite reconnaissance. And this says that a rocket was launched.

As there are no fixed anti-aircraft systems in the region, we can say that the plane was shot down by a portable anti-aircraft system. Thus we can exclude the version that says the plane was attacked from the air.

What capabilities do the various conflict parties have of shooting down a plane at a height of 10,000 meters?

At the moment Ukraine has an anti-aircraft system of the type S-200, which can hit targets at a distance of 100 kilometers on the ground, or a height of 30 kilometers. Russia has far better systems of the type S-300. Additionally, both sides have the anti-aircraft system “Buk-M1,” and Russia has also the newer “Buk-M2” system. These systems are intended for the defense of ground troops, but they can also intercept objects flying at a height of 10,000 meters.

Alexander Golz (Photo: Wladimir Izotow/DW)
Alexander Golz: "Apparently they wanted to hit an enemy jet, but it was wrongly identified"Image: DW

Furthermore, the Russian media, above all the Russian TV broadcaster Vesti [Russia 24] and the news agency Itar-Tass, reported in June this year that the pro-Russian separatists brought a military base with anti-aircraft systems under their control. Buk-M1s were said to have been deployed in the process.

Do you think it was a coincidence, or was the jet shot down on purpose because it was thought to be a military plane?

First of all, you have to define what is coincidental and what is intentional. It seems more or less obvious to me that they weren't trying to shoot down a Malaysian aircraft. None of the parties in the conflict has any interest in doing that. Apparently they wanted to hit an enemy jet, but due to a lack of qualification it was wrongly identified. When you set up a real military anti-aircraft system, which relies on several radar, it has to be operated by experts who know about air corridors and have information about passenger flight timetables.

In this case, the people operating the anti-aircraft system obviously had no real anti-aircraft training, and they couldn't check their data. All they could see were the signals on the radar screen. One signal is a bit stronger, the other a bit weaker, and pretty soon someone's going to make a mistake.

Pro-Russian militants with guns alongside the MH17 crash site, Ukraine 18.7.2014
Ukraine claims the plane was shot down by Russian citizens, and has accused pro-Russian separatists of tampering with the crash siteImage: picture-alliance/dpa

What if the information should be confirmed that the Ukraine military was involved in the tragedy?

The Ukraine military has a tic: They are all convinced that their military planes regularly shoot down Russian fighter jets. I'm thinking purely theoretically here, but you shouldn't underestimate the psychosis that has taken hold of senior officers in the Ukrainian military. They feel the pressure from above, but they don't have much luck. I wouldn't want to totally exclude Ukrainian military involvement in this incident.

But you exclude the possibility that the rocket was launched from Russian soil?

That is the least likely scenario.

And what do you think about the version some Russian media broadcasters, citing sources in the Russian aviation authority, are spreading: that the possible target of the attack could have been the Russian president's plane?

I would immediately expel employees of the presidential protection service if they were to allow the presidential plane to fly along route over the conflict zone. That would be sheer madness.

What are the possible consequences of this incident?

If we discover that the so-called territorial army [pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine - ed.] is responsible, no one in the world will differentiate between them and Russia any more. Remember what happened in September 1983, when the Soviets shot down a Korean passenger plane. The reaction was not just indignation but hatred, felt by the whole world. If the Ukrainian military is responsible, the same will happen to them. There will be no trace left of international sympathy.

Alexander Golz is a Russian journalist and the editor-in-chief of the Russian news website ej.ru.