Thursday's downing of a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane carrying 295 people, by a surface-to-air missile, has launched widespread speculation about whether the Russian military might have provided Ukraine's rebel separatists with such a weapon.
That is the inference of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko: “We are not calling it an accident, or a disaster, but an act of terrorism.”
Pentagon officials were unable to verify the reports as of Thursday afternoon. “We’ve long said that Russia provides separatists with heavy weapons, but I couldn’t begin to speculate on this,” says Eileen Lainez, a Pentagon spokeswoman.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement that the Pentagon is aware of the reports, but cannot confirm them.
Defense analysts, however, say it is likely the Russian military provided the pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine with surface-to-air missiles.
“There are three things you need to look at: evidence, probability, and possibility,” says Christopher Harmer, who served as former deputy director of future operations at the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
“I can’t give you conclusive evidence that they provided these missiles, but there’s a high degree of probability that they did,” adds Mr. Harmer, who is now senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.
Some analysts disagree.
“It wasn’t the separatists, although Russia will try to blame them, or blame the Ukrainians,” retired Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, a Fox News consultant, told the network. “The Russians have not given the separatists complex, high-altitude air-defense systems. If this airliner was flying at 34,000 feet or any altitude close to that, it was shot down by Russian military air-defense systems perched on the Ukrainian border.”
Yet the Russian military has provided the separatists with weapons including AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades – "all the standard stuff you need to fight an insurgency,” Harmer says. “I just can’t see why the Russians would say, ‘We’re going to give them all kinds of equipment, but we’re going to draw the line at surface-to-air missiles that could shoot down civilians airliners.' ”
The separatist insurgents have made liberal use of artillery, tanks, and trucks as well, some of them requisitioned from overrun Ukrainian military bases.
“Even if the Russians didn’t provide surface-to-air missiles, it’s almost certain that the separatists could pick up this type of equipment from abandoned Ukrainian bases,” Harmer says.