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How far were Russia’s ‘little green men’ involved in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17?

The shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 in Eastern Ukraine on 17th June has placed the conflict which has engulfed that part of Ukraine into an entirely new context. It has transformed the…

Pro-Russian separatists guarding the crash site. EPA/Anastasia Vlasova

The shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 in Eastern Ukraine on 17th June has placed the conflict which has engulfed that part of Ukraine into an entirely new context. It has transformed the event from a localised, regional rebellion into a crisis that brings Russia’s role into the open.

At present the vast bulk of international opinion holds that Russian-backed separatists were responsible for the shooting down. And therein lies the difficulty: what exactly do we mean by “Russian-backed”?. That Russia has been supporting the separatists has been inferred from extensive and wide-ranging but mainly anecdotal evidence. As a result, is there evidence to conclude that Russia is implicated in the shooting down of the civilian airplane?

Clearly, it is germane to explore how the separatists obtained this weaponry. While rumours initially abounded that they were taken from Ukrainian forces, this has now been denied by the Ukrainians who are saying that the BUK system which brought down the plane must be Russian military hardware, which is supposedly supported by numerous geo-located photos of separatists posing with their newly-acquired hardware. In a similar vein, the BUK is a highly sophisticated system which requires extensive training to operate. So, were the operators Russian fighters with extensive military experience, who, according to various sources, form the core of the separatist forces?

The separatists’ initial claim made on Facebook that they had downed what they thought was a Ukrainian military plane, at the time and place the Malaysian aircraft was shot down, was subsequently deleted together with any references to the BUK system. At the same time, inside Russia various theories prevailed, diverting the blame away from the separatists, including Putin’s assertion that the tragedy would never have happened had the Ukrainians not resumed military activities in Eastern Ukraine after the ceasefire. While perhaps surprising to international observers, this line of argumentation simply continues the pattern of the Russian government and media putting the blame squarely on the Ukrainians for any casualties resulting from the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.

But in this three-month old conflict, the blowing up of the jet certainly seems to represent a new phase. Following a swift and largely bloodless annexation of Crimea in March 2014, attempts were made to repeat this scenario by focusing on South-Eastern Ukraine at large (referred to as Novorossiya in Russia, thereby emphasising the region’s historical links to Russia, even though the name has little meaning and resonance in Ukraine). After some unrest in the cities of Kharkiv and Odessa, involving a fire in which a number of pro-Russian demonstrators died in Odessa, the “Novorossiya project” has failed to engulf the eastern half of the country. However, rebellion has succeeded in igniting a smaller part of Ukraine – the Donbass region, consisting of two large cities, Donetsk and Luhansk.

Igor Strelkov: self-styled defence minister of “Donetsk People’s Republic”. EPA/Photomig.
In Donbass, Russia’s approach was characterised by lending implicit support to separatist forces, while depicting them as a bottom-up, local rebellion. This kind of “hybrid warfare” blurs the boundaries between state-controlled regular armed forces and the rogue local and mercenary forces. This strategy was viable owing to the porous border between the Donbass region and Russia (the demarcation of the Ukrainian-Russian border has long been opposed by Russia), easy transportation routes and ready volunteers within and from beyond Ukraine. However, it was noticeable that the top commanders of the various self-proclaimed republics were Russian citizens from Moscow – such as Alexander Borodai and Igor Strelkov – the last one with extensive military experience in various hotspots in post-communist Europe.

Under the radar

During my trip to Ukraine in June 2014, I queried the role of the Russian militants as opposed to local volunteers in a discussion with a Ukrainian expert from Donbass. The town of Snizhne – from which the expert came – had been taken over by the separatists three days earlier. She pointed out that nowhere in Donbass had there been an outburst of bottom-up support for separatism without so-called “little green men” arriving first and taking over the local administration building and subsequently recruiting the local population. These same “little green men” were seen in Crimea before its annexation.

Russian authorities vehemently deny any role in any of the conflicts and while the Russian media provides strong endorsement of the separatist cause, it has been particularly careful to avoid mentioning any Russian support. Rather, the conflict is depicted as an internal. It is happening within Ukraine with the separatists characterised as defenders of the local population against the onslaught of the Ukrainian military. At the same time, extensive evidence of killings, kidnapping and torture committed by the separatists, as evidenced, amongst others, by an Amnesty International report, has not been covered by the Russian media.

Nevertheless, this under-the-radar strategy started to unravel following the election of the new Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, and his unexpected decisiveness in instigating military action against the separatists. After the initial lack of co-ordination and effectiveness of the Ukrainian forces, they found a new sense of purpose (after significant reorganisation) by the end of June. This gradually placed separatist-controlled areas under increased pressure, culminating in the separatists (led by Igor Strelkov) being pushed out of their symbolic stronghold in Slovyansk in early July.

This noteworthy retreat of the separatists raised the stakes. After they regrouped in the region’s two largest cities, Luhansk and Donetsk, Russia started to back the separatists with heavier armour, with a higher flow of fighters and weaponry observed since May. Then on July 14 and 16 two Ukrainian military jets were shot down (one by a Russian military jet, according to Ukrainian military sources). This was followed by the re-appearance of the mysterious “little green men” who were largely taken to be Russian troops with their military insignia removed (as noticed by the local residents) and the alleged shelling of the Ukrainian armed forces from the Russian territory in support of the separatists on July 17. The downing of the Malaysian airliner took place later that same day.

What is Russia’s role?

Against this backdrop, the shooting down of the civilian aircraft draws attention to the aspect of the conflict which has been hidden by the “hybrid warfare” and which now focuses international attention on the perpetrators, their motives, access to weaponry and support. This has brought unwelcome international scrutiny to the role of Russia in the conflict. Putin’s ambivalent reaction, initially laying the blame at Ukraine’s door but making no comment about Russia’s support for separatist rebels, testifies to the sensitive nature of this very topic. Yet, this is hardly surprising given the growing evidence that the rebel forces used surface-to-air missiles indiscriminately against a civilian aircraft.

If the international scrutiny and investigation establishes a direct link to Russia, the unintended consequences of supporting separatism via “hybrid warfare” in Eastern Ukraine will have immense ramifications for Russia’s international standing in general and relations with the West in particular.

The shooting down certainly changes the dynamics within the EU. Despite the reluctance of some member states, such as Spain, Italy, Bulgaria and Cyprus as well as Germany, their position will be significantly weakened vis-à-vis the member states – such as Poland, Sweden, Lithuania and the UK – which championed stronger sanctions against Russia on the basis of evidence which had accumulated even prior to the airplane’s crash. But this does not imply a unified position, judging by the still cautious reaction from Germany. At the same time, the continuous reluctance to impose stronger sanctions on Russia amongst more pro-Russian states in the EU will create a deeper rift within the EU and between the US and EU.