Janine Davidson

Defense in Depth

Janine Davidson examines the art, politics, and business of American military power.

Print Print Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close


In Shootdown of Malaysian Airlines MH17, Two Likely Scenarios

by Janine Davidson
July 17, 2014

mh17-russia-ukraine-military The site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash is seen near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014. The Malaysian airliner Flight MH-17 was brought down over eastern Ukraine on Thursday, killing all 295 people aboard and sharply raising the stakes in a conflict between Kiev and pro-Moscow rebels in which Russia and the West back opposing sides. (Maxim Zmeyev/Courtesy Reuters)


The downing of Malaysian Airlines MH17 and death of all 295 passengers on board is a heartbreaking tragedy. It ranks as the fourth deadliest single-plane disaster in aviation history, and the deadliest from a manmade cause. While the facts of the crash will take many days to determine, the political ramifications will come almost immediately. As Russia, pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists, and the Ukrainian government each cast blame from one to the other, it is important to understand how this terrible event might have happened.

First, the known facts: MH17 was most likely struck by a surface-to-air missile system, likely an SA-17 Buk 2, or similar, while cruising at 33,000 feet roughly twenty miles from Russian airspace. This is a portable weapons system capable of coming into firing position in five minutes. It has a range of roughly twenty miles and can hit a target at a maximum altitude of 72,000 feet. The Buk 2 has a combined optical and thermal range-finder, and its missiles are detonated by radar proximity. Civilian airliners do not have advanced warning systems to indicate if they are being targeted; MH17’s passengers likely would have had no idea.


A “Buk” anti-aircraft battery launches a ground-to-air missile during the Ukrainian army’s “Duel-99” military maneuvers at the Chauda firing ground in the Crimean peninsula, October 12, 1999. (Unknown/Courtesy Reuters)

All three regional actors—Russia, pro-Russian rebels of the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” and the Ukrainian government—had access or potential access to this weapons platform. Accordingly, there are two broad, potential explanations for this disaster:

  • Purposeful targeting. There are a number of mechanisms in place—including a constantly broadcast four-digit transponder code—to clearly distinguish civilian aircraft. As Navy Pilot Lt. James Swiggart explained to the Washington Post, skilled radar operators can tell the difference between these two signatures. This means, for an actor with a more sophisticated air defense network, such a targeting decision would be purposeful. But what would be the gain from such an attack? International attention will surely refocus on the situation in eastern Ukraine—but to whose benefit?
  • Misidentification and military incompetence. An unverified report suggests that Ukrainian separatists briefly bragged about downing an A-26 military plane (they previously shot one down on June 14). Meanwhile, AP journalists claim to have seen a Buk missile launcher within rebel-controlled territory earlier in the day.  Moreover, if Ukrainian separatists do possess this platform, they lack the same verification network, link with air traffic controllers, and advanced radar instruction present in the Russian and Ukrainian systems. That said, the Russian and Ukrainian militaries are not so competent as to be immune from potential misfires; the conflict in eastern Ukraine has seen the employment of many sophisticated weapons without a lot of sophisticated soldiering.

The bottom line is that much of this confusion arises from the strange middle ground between war and peace that still presides in eastern Ukraine. Risk-averse airliners do not usually chart courses over international warzones—but is the conflict international (i.e. between Russia and Ukraine)? And is it really a war at all?

An immediate conclusion of this disaster should be the pressing need to dial down tensions in the region. The conflict is clearly escalating and becoming more dangerous; the risk of civilian casualties and spillover will only increase. There must be serious interesting shown by Western Europe to resolve the crisis—since it is literally happening in NATO nations’ backyards, just three to four hours away from European capitals who to date have dragged their feet in instituting biting sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s Russia. This should change.

As international investigators get to work, the question of blame will hopefully soon be answered. Resolving the deeper issues this tragedy raises, however, will take much longer.

Post a Comment 10 Comments

  • Posted by Craig

    One must hope that this is an accident, that the operator of the SAM system hit the wrong target. This being the case it will be far better for the individual to admit the wrong and their organisation be it separatist or military does not protect that individual escalating the conflict. If deliberate it will either be a case of pure terrorism in which case you would expect some group to claim responsibility or a equally sinister scenario in which 300 innocent lives were taken for someone’s military aspirations. Both the separatists and the Ukrainian government denied the action almost immediately without an investigation into their own organisation, leaving an admission of guilt unlikely and will use the tragedy politically. The Ukrainian government stand to gain the most from this tragedy with international support surely coming for their military campaign. To the families of the victims I can hope that this tragedy points out the pointlessness of war and political boundaries and your loss is not forgotten in politics.

  • Posted by tom moylan

    Facts? You assert or assume that is was a BUK. Where are your facts for this? I assert that it was a Ukrainian air to air rocket which did this. I too have no facts to prove this but it is at least as probably as the scenraio you propose. As you point out, the AP purports or claims that a BUK (convoy) was seen in the area. It is a common FACT however that ukrainian and NATO military jets have been flying the area.

  • Posted by Hubert Mayer

    A sound analysis, but Mr. Putin changed his position from Prime Minister back to the President of Russia.
    Doubtless just a slip of the pen.

    reply: oops, thanks for that catch. Corrected

  • Posted by Bleeding Obvious

    Since the pro Russian or simply Russian terrorists do not operate any aircraft over Ukraine, it seems simple logic to rule out the option of Ukrainian forces being guilty, or at least put them in the same category as a collision with a UFO.

  • Posted by Bleeding Obvious

    Since the pro Russian or simply Russian Russians have not operated any aircraft over Ukraine, it seems that simple logic should rule out Ukrainian forces involvement. Or at least relegate the theory to the level of a collision with a UFO.

  • Posted by Tim Symonds

    If Putin had not annexed a large slice of a neighbouring independent state and showed every intention of grabbing more if he could get away with it, it doesn’t matter if, as seems likely, it was a group of Russian-led separaists inside eastern Ukraine who Putin had given the Buk to, or Russian military itself, who brought down this plane. The world needs to show Putin he cannot hanker after Tsarist and absolutist days, or the rest of the civilised world will frankly set out to bankrupt Russia’s people – and rightly too. Already the cost to Russia has been over 100 billion dollars in lessening trade, cash flowing out of Russia, and the stoppage of direct inward investment for years to come.

  • Posted by Maximos

    Why Why Why??? How can militants have and control such weaponry, so i fear that it was not them….. Why another Malaysian Airlines & with so many planes in the sky the possibility is HUGE….
    I find this all suspicious especially when there is GENOCIDE going on in GAZA…..
    My heart goes out to the HUNDREDS of innocent lives dying each day and to say we are the MASTER race on this earth WHY WHY WHY???

  • Posted by Yoron

    Let me see. You say ” There must be serious interesting shown by Western Europe to resolve the crisis—since it is literally happening in NATO nations’ backyards, just three to four hours away from European capitals who to date have dragged their feet in instituting biting sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s Russia. This should change.”

    Now, what has changed with that since the USSR? Same distance my friend, but then we left them alone, we called it the iron wall and ‘cold war’?

    Do you live in Europe? Probably not? Big ocean, isn’t it? Remember when the Cuba crisis was, or are you too young? How close American politicians was to expecting a new world war.

    Well, we Europeans have lived with those distances our whole life, and we’re still here. Unless of course, some well meaning persons far away initiate a third world war, sitting behind that ocean.

  • Posted by Bert Slagt

    Purposeful targeting and/ or military incompetence. Who most benefits from a disaster, needing international attention desperately? Why was the airspace above the region not officially declared dangerous and closed, whilst knowing many BUK systems were operational in the region. Just hoping and waiting for a disaster to happen? Was it with a purpose by one party and incompetence from the other side?
    Air space control authorities and airliner companies have also been sleeping. The real fight is still to be expected…. over the insurance issues. And the real victims are dead and their next of kin wil endlessly suffer.

  • Posted by paule

    Ukrainian separatists shot down 12 planes
    after last won at 22,500 feet
    ukraine and russia (was 20 miles away from corrador plane was flying should make a no fly zone)
    my question cant the surface to air system see transponder code

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required