Ukrainian rebels gain firepower but may have blown their cause

Ukrainian separatist rebels under the banner of the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ are reportedly responsible for shooting down Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine. EPA/Stringer

The downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine represents considerable escalation of the military capabilities of the insurgency based around the “Donetsk People’s Republic”.

Although this group has previously brought down a number of military fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft, these have been achieved through the use of short-range, low-altitude, shoulder-launched missiles, commonly known as MANPADS (man-portable air defence systems).

Where previous targets have been hit at only a few hundred metres above the ground, MH17 was cruising at around 10,000 metres, leaving it far out of the range of the IGLA MANPADS used previously by the rebels. Instead, a number of sources are pointing to the 2K12 family, a Soviet-Russian platform known in NATO circles as the SA-6.

Whereas the IGLA was designed to defend infantry units from close air attacks by helicopters and low-flying attack craft, the 2K12 was made to provide a lethal, high-altitude umbrella over tens of kilometres. To achieve its great range it relies on radar detection to guide its half-tonne projectiles. Operators often can fire at targets beyond visual range.

The 2K12 is immense compared to its MANPAD cousins. Early models consist of an armoured chassis mounting four missiles operating alongside a separate targeting radar vehicle. Later variants combined the two.

The 2K12 missile system is a much more formidable weapon than the shoulder-launched, low-altitude missiles used up to now in the conflict. Wikimedia Commons/US Airforce

Although it is not the most advanced of platforms, the 2K12 still retains a fearsome reputation. In May 2013, Israeli warplanes carried out targeted strikes on a Syrian convoy believed to be carrying a modernised variant of the system. The mere prospect of moving such hardware into southern Syria or Lebanon clearly caused Israeli policymakers great consternation.

Currently, the 2K12 languishes in the stockpiles of both Ukraine and the Russian Federation. This makes it difficult for onlookers to discern the origins of such systems if they have fallen into rebel hands. But while MANPADS have been part of the rebellion for months, the MH17 incident represents the first recorded use of this type of hardware in the Ukraine conflict.

This at a time when evidence is mounting of direct Russian material support for the faltering separatist cause through the provision of heavy combat vehicles and other arms. For the Russian government, this may represent a major political faux pas in the strategy of plausible deniability it often employs in conflicts on its border.

The downing of MH17 may represent the first time the 2K12 missile system has been used in this conflict. EPA/Alyona Zykina

But history suggests that this is a massive bungle, rather than a direct terror attack directed against civilians. As Hanlon’s razor tells us, never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. Instances of civilian airliners being down by military and paramilitary forces have typically resulted from misidentification on the attackers’ part.

In 1988, an American missile cruiser, the USS Vincennes, shot down Iranian Air flight 655, killing all 290 on board. Similarly, in 1983, Soviet interceptors downed a Korean airliner, killing 269. In both instances the airliners were identified erroneously as possible enemy aircraft.

In both instances, the resulting political fallout proved highly damaging to the offenders involved, showing elements of their respective militaries to be trigger-happy and incompetent.

Such an error may very well be at the heart of the MH17 tragedy, although it is too early to definitively conclude about the motivations. What seems more readily apparent is that the incident – if credibly linked to the separatists – will serve only to further weaken their claims to legitimacy, even among sympathisers.

Although the military capabilities of eastern Ukrainian rebels may have just improved, the prospect of an independent “Novorossiya” has seemingly just become even more remote.