Reasons Why Malaysian Airlines MH17 Was Probably Shot Down By A Rebel Missile – And Why This Means The Rebels Have Lost

Of course, it’s still too early to say definitively what happened but this is a personal blog, not a newspaper article or a government report, so I have the space to vent and express what I think rather than what I know. So, here goes.

Although I wish it were otherwise, I feel the overwhelming odds are that MH17 was shot down by a Buk-M1 surface-to-air missile fired by the rebels (but supplied by the Russians):

1. The rebels, notably generalissimo Strelkov actually claimed to have shot down a government An-26 in the general area of the MH17’s demise. The social media claims in question have been retrospectively deleted, but in this age nothing is truly lost.

2. The rebels have shot down other government planes and indeed there is strategic merit to their denying their airspace to Kyiv’s forces, given that air power is one of the government’s real advantages. If they thought the MH17 was a government plane, then this might have seemed a great opportunity.

3. MH17 was flying too high for the man portable and light vehicle-mounted SAMs the rebels have openly deployed, but recently they admitted–and again these claims seem to have been retracted–to having at least one Buk-M1 SAM system, a tactical battlefield system that has the range to claw a civilian airliner out of the sky, and the warhead to do it with one hit.

4. The Buk is a radar-guided missile, so it could quite possibly have been launched without any eyeballing of the target. Furthermore, while the rebels may have the Buk’s radar targeting system, they lack the extensive radar network and, above all, the skilled sensor operators who might have been able to tell a passenger airliner from a government troop plane.

5. The pattern of wreckage, the state of the corpses, suggests a catastrophic in-air impact and then rapid descent, not a crash from engine or system failure. Again, this speaks to a missile attack, and there do not seem to have been Russian or Ukrainian fighter jets in the air near there. So, again we’re back to a SAM.

Yes, I am excluding the more outré conspiracy theories, that MH17 was destroyed by government forces to demonize the rebels and likewise that it was shot down by an S-300 from Russia. This was, in my opinion, a tragic and murderous blunder rather than an intentional atrocity. This in no way excuses the attack–human lives are human lives, whether Ukrainian airmen or multinational civilians–but helps explain what’s going on.

Either way, I suspect that when the histories are written, this will be deemed the day the insurgency lost. Or at least began to lose. Especially given the presence of Americans and other Westerners on MH17, the Kremlin will, for all its immediate and instinctive bluster and spin, have to definitively and overtly withdraw from arming and protecting the rebels. This is especially considering the presumption that Moscow supplied the missiles in the first place. A single Russian report alleged that the rebels had captured a Buk from Ukrainian government stocks, but this was almost certainly preemptive disinformation as there is nothing else external to the rebels’ own propaganda to support this claim. Besides which, while it is not that difficult to find crew for artillery, even tanks, the Buk does require well-trained crews, and ones trained relatively recently.

Meanwhile, Kyiv’s determination to defeat the rebels will not only be strengthened, it is likely to be blessed by the West. It’s not inconceivable that we will not only see Western MREs (meals, ready to eat) and body armour being deployed, but Western lethal weapons, trainers and even special forces.

Without Moscow’s support, the insurgency cannot last for that long. That is not to say that when it goes down, it will go down easy. If anything, the opposite is true as they may no longer have the option of finding sanctuary in Russia. Fighters with their backs to the wall are always dangerous.

Leave a comment


  1. It may not have been supplied by Russia. This post from Voice of Russia on June 19th indicates that BUK missiles were captured by rebels.
    Also you will remember that an “errant” Ukrainian missile shot down a Siberian Airlines plane carrying Jewish pilgrims from Tel Aviv to Novosibirsk in 2001, I can’t imagine the rebels identifying a civilian aircraft at 30,000 feet as a threat. I can imagine them firing a BUK and missing their original target just as the Ukrainian armed forces did in 2001.

    • Ooops I hit the wrong key that should be June 29th not June 19th.

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  July 17, 2014

      As I say, the one report of rebels acquiring Ukrainian Buks comes from a single Russian government source, replayed on Russian government media. Even the rebels simply said they had acquired a Buk; you’d think they’d crow about a successful heist like that. As for a miss, there’s no evidence of other (more) legitimate targets around to have been targeted.

  2. Great article, Mark … although you might want to proof read it (its/it’s). From position of non-expert, I’d come to much the same conclusion: a mistaken attack by the rebels. But do you think this will really harm the insurgents’ cause so drastically? The west has shown itself hesitant in standing alongside the Ukraine. Do you really think this will make a huge difference?

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  July 17, 2014

      Thanks, David. Yes, this was pecked out in a hurry on the iPad (with has a sometimes…puckish…autocorrect) and is no doubt littered with typos and grammatical infelicities. The West — especially Europe — has been hesitant but to be blunt, when it’s a matter of “our own” getting killed rather than just “poor Ukrainians” then I do think that will make a difference. If it doesn’t, if the West can even take this in its stride, then that will be a very disappointing day indeed.

  3. Mostly agree, however I think you may be underestimating the Kremlin’s ability to ‘bluster and spin.’ They have fully deployed their extensive information/propaganda arsenal to deny that the pro-Russian insurgents were responsible for this tragedy. I think that Putin understands that if he is implicated in this crime, he will suffer from more than economic sanctions. You have probably already seen, but some damning evidence at the link below.

    • I have no doubt that the Kremlin will spin this until it is dizzy in the head. Regrettably (very regrettably, in fact) I fear this will not be the game-changer that Mark expects it to be. Yes, there will be a lot of bluster from the West, but as in the previously mentioned KAL 007 disaster, as it was very likely a tragic mistake, all of this will eventually die down. I’m certain, for instance, that Ukrainian authorities will face some of the blame (deserved or not) for allowing civil air traffic through the area at all, given that there were credible earlier reports of a BUK in the hands of the “separatists” (I prefer “terrorists,” personally).

      Also, Kremlin spin has never had any real effect on the assessment of the situation made by Western political leaders. They rely on their own intelligence sources, not RT. That is, they’re likely very aware of the involvement of Russian irregulars in Eastern Ukraine, and the Kremlin’s hand in it. They just throw all that into the big pot of the potential domestic political and economic fallout of breaking ties with Putin’s Russia. The real question is whether this will sway public opinion in the West more decisively behind Ukraine and against Russia, which may actually shift the aforementioned calculus. My guess is maybe a little, but not much.

  4. I think the major escalation in Russian support for the Terrorists in East Ukraine since the signing of the EU agreement on the 27th of June has been largely ignored by the MSM. The video documentaries of large amounts of Russian armour and more terrorists crossing the border from Russia along with several reports including one today which NATO has confirmed that a Grad attack on Ukrainian troops came from within Russia. Has this lack of reporting been taken along with the token sanctions by Putin as a green light to have a free hand in escalating the conflict and has he over played his hand where he has moved from the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ of ‘non-linear’ war with ‘plausible deniability’ to one of ever increasing and open evidence of direct Russian involvement?

  5. Great piece, Mark — I think I agree nearly completely. You’re right it’s too early to say and there’s multiple possibilities for how the rebels got a Buk. I haven’t seen the Ukrainians admit that they lost one though. You’re right, they would crow about it, because just the IDEA of having a capable SAM gives some deterrent effect even if only with limited missiles. I concur with you on the strategic effect for the rebels — this is decisively NOT in their best interests. They can only hope the Russians admit to a tragic mistake (and blame it all on the Ukrainian situation, as Putin has already stated in press post-MH17). That would be the best Russian “counter” is to take the responsibility themselves…and join the list of us who have accidentally shot down civilian airliners (USSR KAL007, Ukraine over Black Sea, and US in the Persian Gulf)…

  6. Why doyou wish it were otherwise ? (as in wish it never happened or wish it was not a rebel missile?) Genuine question, just curious.

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  July 17, 2014

      As in wish it had been an accident — however terrible that would have been — rather than a deliberate killing

  7. Reblogged this on thoughtsofbinder and commented:
    Clear, well written account of what might have caused the downing of flight MH17.

    • There is a video which purports to show a BUK vehicle – with two missiles missing – being transported from the Ukraine back into Russia.

      Assuredly the longer the rebels hold the area, the more suspicious it looks that they are trying to hide anything that can link them to this atrocity.

  8. sk8 dpool

     /  July 17, 2014

    Mark. Thanks for the article. I find it very odd it is another Malaysian air flight and I think there is a connection there. When the last Malaysian air flight went missing the timing was to perfect as far as Russian headlines were concerned. The headline in every paper at the time was Russia takes Crimea. Russia invades Ukraine. It was all bad political press. And the second the Malaysian flight went missing every headline and all the worlds eyes shifted to this two week search for this airplane. There were a few days were you could not even find a story about what was happening in the Ukraine. My theory was that Russia was behind that flights disappearance as it provided the perfect distraction.
    In this case I am not sure exactly how this would help Russia but it all seems to close to home. I can’t help but think there is a connection. The only possible thing I can see playing to the Russians is if they now step in and help curb separatist rebels in a ploy to get on the good side of the west again. The plane goes down the day heavier sanctions are implemented. It might seem far fetched but you never know.

  9. Very good piece of analysis. Putin seems to have had the hare-brained idea of creating a ‘no fly zone’ with plausible deniability–and it back-fired horribly. What is also interesting is that the plane had been guided from its normal path by a storm further south. Very unlikely that the Ukrainian govt would thus even have had the time to plan or execute an ‘incident’. But I fear this is far from over. Putin is rather like Dostoevsky’s ‘Gambler’, he’s lost all of the winnings he thought he had in February. This is just one more loss, a loss that could eventually make his position untenable. I can recall a hare-brained scheme of 50 years ago that did just that. He may well feel that he has little to lose by putting all on the black.

  10. Well, maybe the rebels will, as you say, “begin to lose” now that they have committed this atrocious crime. But I cannot agree with you on the response that we can expect from Western countries. History is plentiful of markers to show that soft democracies – by comparison to hardened despots – usually wait to act “decisively” until it costs them even more than it would have, had they acted appropriately and in time. Until the very moment of the Malaysian Airliner’s destruction, and despite clear signs in recent months of Russian aggression and complicity in the dismemberment of the internationally recognized sovereign state of Ukraine, Western governments were still debating over tea and biscuits whether or not to slap the wrists of a couple of personal business leaders close to the Russian leadership. So we should not expect too much besides a short period of harsh words immediately followed by a détente. After all, there’s only one thing really important in today’s world, conflict or not: businesses must continue doing business, and states, in peace as in war, must never trouble the flow of profits.

  11. There is another video with terrorist talk from SBU

  12. With the comments by Lavrov today about further Russian intervention with targeted strikes in Ukraine, could this mean that they are going to do the reverse and use the MH / 17 tragedy as an excuse, by blaming the Ukrainians, to further their military aims and the annexation of East Ukraine?.

    The poor response so far by the US and Europe so far, suggests that there will be no tough response to anything Russia does.

  13. Why are we assuming that the rebels do not have Russian mercenaries amongst them? The destabilisation of Eastern Ukraine plays right into Putin’s hands. The rebels could have experts amongst them- hence the balaclavas. These “little green men” look like professional, well kitted, disciplined soldiers to me, with a convenient mix of local Russian seperatist thugs and anti-riot police of course. But we cant’t under estimate that Putin knows the West hasn’t done much so far and won’t be able to take direct action on this incident once all evidence (to Russia, indeed even the rebels themselves) is mysteriously removed. Apparently the BUK used has already been smuggled over the border into Russia and we know the blackbox was gone as soon as it hit the ground, the crash site will be contaminated bla bla bla…and the innocent victims and their devastated families will not get any justice anytime soon. Heartbreaking…and Putin knows it.

    • I keep thinking that the US knows no US politician will agree to another overseas adventure, nor will the British Parliament do anything but prevent people from being involved. Germany and the rest are at risk from economic and other attacks which leaves the US controlled NATO which in its day and age estimated it could only hold a Russian attack back for hours before going Nuclear as a low cost alternative.
      Russia seems to want something but they could have achieved that diplomatically and have chosen war because they feel the West is sick of war and lacks any backbone to stand up to them and war, war is considered better than jaw, jaw.
      Expect other things to happen during the US President run-up when they try for a Jimmy Carter, since Russia apparently wants a warmonger as a target.

  14. At the risk of declaring ‘non-linear war’ dead before it’s in the ground, I wonder if Putin’s strategy has throughout been misguided. Thinking that arming separatists and holding buildings would make the Ukrainian army roll over and die seems naïve in hindsight. When real fighting began with a real army this left Putin with the dilemma of giving up or pouring more and more materiel into a quasi-conventional war. Classic guerrilla war would have seemed his better option. In a sense his minions are making the same mistake as Chinese communists did in the 20’s and 30’s–trying to hold cities against a modern army with endless amounts of heavy artillery. Didn’t work then, probably wont work now, as Mao so presciently observed in Yenan. When you think you’ve invented a new kind of war–well, if no one has ever done it before, that may be a warning that it’s not nearly as clever as you think. Anybody remember ‘shock and awe?’

    • I think Putin’s miscalculation was on the level of local support he would receive from ethnic Russians in East Ukraine to turn it into a popular uprising. The Russians terrorists there have complained about not being able to get any local support, whereas with more support he would have had more scope for courting global opinion on causalities by the Ukrainian army to try and constrain their actions or for more direct Russian intervention to protect ethnic Russians. This is not surprising when you look at the polls prior and in the early days of the insurgency, where the vast majority want a united Ukraine with at most more local powers.

      For Ukrainians having their own independent country means a lot to them. Unlike in Russia where they will accept restricted freedom in return for ever increasing living standards (this make the Russian economy Putin’s Achilles heel), the reverse is true in Ukraine. They accept that they are on average poorer than the average Russian, but freedom of speech, a free press and basic human rights mean more to them and you try to remove them at your peril as Yanukovych found to his cost.

      The vast majority including ethnic Russians want closer ties with western Europe as they see it as a way to reduce corruption and to improve many other aspects of the country including living standards.

      • The lack of local support, as you rightly say, was critical. The four weeks leading up to the violent phase saw just a few thousand ‘Young Pioneers’, mostly over 60, mill around central Donetsk. I would argue that this was also the catalyst for the armed phase of the operation. Once Putin realized he couldn’t bring off a Donbass Maidan, his only alternative was an armed uprising–but an uprising manned by Russian nationals, lured to the fight by atrocity stories, and under some sort of control. I happened to be in Poland during this time, and was astounded how the Russian TV channels (free press in Poland!) were reporting ‘genocide in Donbass’ every few minutes. Putin’s was a strategy with many moving parts–arguably TOO many.

  15. Public statement by The Russian Union of Engineers:
    Analysis of the reasons for the crash of flight MH17

    Click to access en.pdf

    Click to access de.pdf

    and video:

    • The Russian government and its legions of paid “experts” continue to frantically deny their involvement in this disaster. Why? Despite their shrill protests of innocence, the pall of guilt still rests firmly over the Kremlin. As the thuggish “freedom fighters” in Novorossiya were marauding through the personal belongings of the victims, the rest of the world was given a first-hand glimpse of the destructive and deceitful essence of the Putin regime. While their 24/7 media barrage may have convinced the Russian sheeple that they are not guilty, the rest of the world understands who was responsible for this disaster. His initials are VVP.

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  29. A Closer Look At The Soviet-Era Missile System Probably Used To Shoot Down MH17 | Construction
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