To sum up:
- MH17 was shot down over a region of Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists.
- Said separatists have shot down several Ukrainian military aircraft in recent weeks, including an AN-26 transport aircraft.
- Said separatists recently bragged about having acquired a powerful truck-mounted anti-aircraft missile battery.
- Said separatists posted publicly on social media, complete with eyewitness video, about having shot down another AN-26 at the time when MH17 crashed, and in the same region.
- The posts came from a source that was accepted as credible in the past, and were widely circulated in Russian media.
- The posts were removed a few hours after it became clear that the aircraft in question was in fact a civilian airliner.
- The Ukrainian government published intercepted cellular telephone calls, in which alleged separatist leaders, and possibly their Russian contacts, were discussing the incident. Although the source (Ukraine) is not impartial, no reason was presented so far to question the authenticity of the intercepts.
In light of all these facts, even if the black boxes can never be analyzed, even if the wreckage has been disturbed, even if the site has been looted, even if no investigators are allowed on the scene, I think that the basic conclusion is rock solid: MH17 was shot down by pro-Russian separatists who mistook it for a Ukrainian military airplane, and who were possibly not aware of the fact that international air traffic was allowed to fly over the disputed region at altitudes greater than 32,000 feet.
The only real questions that remain, in my opinion, concern the extent of Russia’s involvement. Where did the missile come from? Was it captured by the separatists themselves or was it provided by Russia? Who operated the missile? Was it Ukrainian rebels who may have received relevant training while serving in the military, or was it personnel provided by Russia?
The answers to these questions determine the degree of Mr. Putin’s culpability.
The Ukrainians also presented a video, showing the alleged missile truck, with one of four missiles missing, en route to Russia. There were also reports according to which the airplanes black boxes were found and have since been removed to Russia. If true, these facts only increase the culpability of Mr. Putin’s government.
Meanwhile, Russia’s propaganda machine is now in high gear, full of insinuations, including these:
- Ukrainian air defense forces were tracking MH17. (Of course they were. That’s what air defense forces are supposed to do. I know… I served in one of them 33 years ago as an unhappy conscript, trained as a radar operator.)
- Ukraine is responsible for a crime that happened over her territory. (Except when said territory is controlled by separatists who are supported, overtly and covertly, by a foreign government.)
- MH17 earlier flew near Mr. Putin’s presidential airplane, which had similar markings, and NATO may have been trying to murder the Russian president. (Mr. Putin’s airplane never entered Ukrainian airspace. NATO does not usually miss its target by several hundred miles. And the actual locations of civilian aircraft in European airspace are available to anyone with a Web browser, which includes NATO officers but not necessarily ragtag paramilitaries in the fields of eastern Ukraine.)
So there. Tensions are never a good thing, especially with a nuclear superpower like Russia, but I nonetheless believe that at the very least, Mr. Putin should be held accountable for being an accomplice in a crime against humanity.