By Renfrey Clarke, first published on The New Cold War: Ukraine and beyond, Nov 4, 2014
On October 13, Australia’s conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott declared to reporters that at the G20 summit to be held in Brisbane on November 15-16, he was going to “shirt-front” Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In the slang of Australian football, that term refers to an aggressively illegal tackle, not to say indictable assault.
Invoking the shoot-down over eastern Ukraine on July 17 of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, in which 38 Australian citizens and residents died, Abbott pledged:
“Look, I’m going to shirt-front Mr Putin… I am going to be saying to Mr Putin, ‘Australians were murdered. They were murdered by Russian-backed rebels using Russian-supplied equipment.’”
The Prime Minister’s poll figures promptly took to the skies, with a Newspoll survey showing 63 per cent backing Abbott’s plan to take a tough stance against Putin, and only 27 per cent opposed.
But there’s one key problem with Abbott’s ploy. He has the culprit all wrong.
The evidence has become conclusive that the Malaysian Boeing 777 was shot down not by anti-Kiev insurgents using a Russian-supplied Buk M-1 surface-to-air missile – the version fed to a salivating Western media by US officials – but by a military aircraft of the Ukrainian government.
The “Buk” story started unravelling within days of the shoot-down, when one of the first international monitors to reach the crash scene reported that various pieces of the fuselage were “really pockmarked with what almost looks like machine gun fire.”
Then in mid-August the Russian Union of Engineers published a tightly-argued 16-page report that shot down the “Buk” myth in expert detail. The only way the facts known about the tragedy could be explained, the report showed, was on the basis that a combat aircraft, probably a Sukhoi 25, had shot the airliner down using cannon fire followed by at least one air-to-air missile.
The insurgents of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic do not have combat jets, or the ability to track and target a high-flying airliner. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian authorities insist that no Russian military aircraft violated Ukrainian air space. Responsibility thus lies with the Ukrainians.
It is next to inconceivable that the US authorities were not aware of the facts surrounding the shoot-down virtually from the time it happened. Strategic areas such as Ukraine and western Russia are monitored intensively by US spy satellites. The attack on MH17 took place in bright sunlight above cloud, at a time when according to the Russian Defence Ministry, such a satellite was on watch. But repeated challenges to the US to reveal what the satellite images show have been met with silence.
In Australia since the shoot-down, there has been no such silence from Abbott. “This week, the Prime Minister has cleared his diary and cancelled his travelled plans to focus on MH17,” a Sydney Morning Herald journalist gushed in the paper’s July 24 issue.
“He has napped in his office waiting for calls from leaders overseas and convened daily meetings of the national security committee.”
The Australian victims of the tragedy, Abbott had clearly decided, would not have died in vain; they would allow him to boost his profile by playing a key role in stirring international outrage and keeping it directed against the Putin administration. As exploited by Abbott and other Western leaders, the shooting down of MH17 added important fuel to the campaign to tighten international sanctions against Russia.
Couldn’t the shoot-down be claimed as terrorism, Abbott reportedly wondered to his aides. And as early as July 20, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was reported as flying to the US to argue in the UN Security Council in support of an Australian-drafted resolution demanding a “full, thorough and independent international investigation” into the disaster.
The resolution was adopted unanimously – and the Australian government was set on a course which ironically, seems certain in time to place it in the thick of an ineffective, embarrassing attempt at cover-up.
So what have the various investigations revealed so far?
Control over the official international investigation has been ceded by the Ukrainians to the Dutch Safety Board. This organisation has a promised a full report in mid-2015. A preliminary report released by the board on September 9 is uninformative, stating what everyone accepted anyway – that MH17 “broke up in the air probably as a result of structural damage caused by a large number of high-energy objects that penetrated the aircraft from outside.”
The August 15 report by the Russian Union of Engineers on the downing of MH17 is a work of far more substance. The union is a well-regarded NGO with a record of highly professional consulting work. The team it assembled to carry out its study included reserve military officers experienced in anti-aircraft missile systems, as well as pilots with knowledge of aircraft weapons. Their findings were reviewed by a meeting of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, where, the report notes, “many variants were tested and discussed again”. The situation was also analysed using a computer flight simulator of the Sukhoi 25 aircraft.
With direct knowledge of the Buk M-1 missile system, the experts soon refuted the claim that it had been used in the attack. A Buk missile launch produces a tremendous noise, audible for 7-10 kilometres, and a prominent launch trail stretching up to the cloud base and visible for at least10 kilometres. In a well-populated farming district, hundreds if not thousands of people would have noted these effects. But no such phenomena were reported.
Moreover, the pattern of damage to the aircraft, still visible on the wreckage, is not consistent with the use of a Buk missile. This was pointed out by the chief of the Russian Land Forces air defence troops Major-General Mikhail Krush in an interview published in the July 30 issue of the military weekly Voenno-Promyshlenny Kuryer.
A Buk missile, Krush explained, is designed to explode above the target. But the holes left by the missile strike on the Malaysian Boeing’s outer skin, he stated, “indicate that the warhead blew up from below and sideways.”
This would be consistent with an air-to-air heat-seeking missile striking an engine and causing it to disintegrate – but not with a Buk. The large warhead of the latter explodes at a distance of 50-100 metres from the target, and as Krush noted, envelops the whole aircraft in a dense cloud of fragments. But photos of the wreckage of the downed Malaysian airliner show large wing surfaces substantially unmarked.
A Buk strike, according to the report, would not be expected to cause the immediate breakup of an aircraft as large as a Boeing 777, leaving it to succumb to fuel fire, failure of the hydraulic system, and aerodynamic forces as control was lost. The crew would likely be able to trigger a distress call. But with MH17, no such message went out.
Taking account of the known facts, the Russian Union of Engineers report constructs a hypothesis of what actually occurred. It begins with Russian Air Traffic Control radar tracking an aircraft, potentially a Ukrainian Air Force Su-25, climbing toward the Malaysian Boeing as it cruised at 10,100 metres, probably on autopilot.
The evidence that this military aircraft was present has been scornfully dismissed by Western commentators as Russian propaganda. Nevertheless a video recording of the Russian radar screen, posted on the internet, shows the combat jet approaching to within 3-5 kilometres of MH17, at a slightly lower level, in cloud, and on a collision course.
As hypothesised by the Russian Union of Engineers report, the combat aircraft then “sharply gained altitude and suddenly appeared out of the clouds in front of the cockpit, firing from a 30mm calibre cannon or smaller.
“As a result of multiple hits from shells,” the report continues, “there was damage to the cockpit, which suddenly depressurized, resulting in instant death for the crew… the crew could not sound any alarm.
“Since neither the engines or hydraulic system, nor other devices required for the continuation of the flight were out of commission, the Boeing 777, running on autopilot (as is standard), continued on its horizontal flight path, perhaps gradually losing altitude.
“The pilot of the unidentified combat aircraft manoeuvred to the rear of the Boeing 777… the pilot… took aim and launched his R-60 or R-73 missiles.
“The result was a loss of cabin pressure, the aircraft control system was destroyed, the autopilot failed, the aircraft lost the ability to maintain its level flight path, and went into a tailspin. The resulting overload led to mechanical failure of the airframe.
“The aircraft broke up at a high altitude.”
The compelling evidence for this version is the dense pattern of round holes found in the skin of the cockpit section of the airliner, and noted by Canadian Michael Bociurkiw when, as a member of the official monitoring team, he reached the crash site while the wreckage was still smouldering. The round holes are clearly visible in photos circulated on the internet.
Shrapnel from a missile warhead does not leave round holes but jagged ones. As the Russian Union of Engineers report explains, however, the round holes are consistent with damage from aircraft cannon shells.
“Projectiles of this kind pass through leaving a track that is perfectly round in shape; they do not explode inside the cabin and are not incendiary, but they can kill the crew and destroy the cabin.
“The general typology of the holes and their location suggest that it is most likely the Boeing 777 was fired on using a GSh-2-30 aircraft cannon or an SPPU-22 container with dual-barrel 23mm GSh-23L cannons. Sighting was targeted in the area of the cockpit, while the shells that broke through the cockpit proceeded out the other side and caused damage to the flat surface of the wing.”
In a sense, the Russian Union of Engineers team had the easy task. Much more difficult than providing technical proof of how the airliner was downed will be the job of discovering who in the Ukrainian military hierarchy – or the Ukrainian government – ordered the attack, and why. Still more difficult is the challenge that confronts honest journalists and political activists who will try to convince the public in Ukraine and the West of the facts – over the furious opposition of media lords and lying politicians.
There will be an understandable reluctance to believe that anyone in the Ukrainian state apparatus could have ordered this atrocity. Yet the attack is most unlikely to have been carried out on the initiative of an individual pilot. Meanwhile, the shoot-down was a staggering propaganda coup for Ukraine’s extreme right-wing government, and for its backers in the governments of countries such as the US, Canada and Australia. For the Russian government, and for the Ukrainian insurgents fighting for autonomy from the Kiev state and its neo-Nazi militias, the episode has of course been an unmitigated disaster.
Surely, though, the Dutch Safety Board’s official investigation will reveal the truth? Not likely – that possibility has been closed off almost from the outset.
On August 8, the Russian Union of Engineers report explains, Ukraine, the Netherlands, Belgium and Australia signed an agreement stipulating that information about the crash would be disclosed only upon the consent of all parties. With the truth as it is, will the Ukrainian government be forthcoming? Will Abbott?
As the Russian engineers are at pains to note, “there are plenty of parties interested in concealing the real facts.” We have to expect an attempted cover-up – clumsy, thuggish, and accompanied by scurrilous attacks on truth-tellers and their organisations.
Renfrey Clarke resides in Adelaide, Australia, where he is a member of the Socialist Alliance. He translates articles from Russian for Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Find a full dossier of articles on the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on the new website The New Cold War: Ukraine and beyond.