Whoever shot down the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Donetsk on Thursday, killing all 298 people aboard, probably didn’t know what they were shooting at. It appears that the plane was taken down by a Soviet-era Buk missile system, which separatists claimed to have gotten their hands on when they gained control of a Ukrainian air defense base on June 29.
The Buk is a Soviet-era air defense system used by both Ukrainian and Russian defense forces. “When you’re sitting behind a radar screen of one of these things, there’s no way to tell what it is. With the Buk, there’s no way to distinguish between friendly and foe. You’re just going to take a shot at it,” says Raymond Finch, a Eurasian military analyst at the Foreign Military Studies Office. “If [the separatists] had reports that the Ukrainians were flying over their airspace, they would shoot. It begs the question of who is sitting behind the trigger. Are they highly trained? My guess is no they are not.”
It’s highly possible that the civilian airliner was mistaken for a Ukrainian Il-76 military transport plane, the same model that separatists in Luhansk shot down on June 14, killing all 49 people on board, mostly Ukrainian servicemen. This Monday, rebels from the Luhansk People’s Republic shot down another Ukrainian army transport plane.
If a Buk system was in fact used to shoot down the MH17, it must have lacked an automatic disengagement system that equips more sophisticated air defense missiles, designed to prevent deployment against civilian aircrafts. “A lot of these earlier systems don’t have that,” says Finch. “But they’re still highly efficient, especially against a civilian airliner.”
There are unconfirmed rumors that rebel commander Igor Strelkov has publicly taken credit for the incident, even though the Donetsk People’s Republic has officially denied responsibility. But it's not hard to connect the dots as to how this might have happened: An outdated missile system, captured by an inexperienced group of rebel fighters, could have plausibly taken down any aircraft within firing range. Plus, Nataliya Gumenyuk raises the point that Ukrainian forces haven't been using anti-aircraft missiles in this fight—the separatists don't have planes.
It’s not the first time that Soviet-era weapons have mistakenly taken down a civilian aircraft. In 1983, the Korean Air flight 007 was shot down by a Soviet SU-15 interceptor after being mistakenly taken for a military aircraft. All 269 people aboard were killed, and at first, the Soviet Union denied wrongdoing. The Soviet pilot who fired at the Korean Air jet told The New York Times, “I knew this was a civilian plane. But for me this meant nothing. It is easy to turn a civilian type of plane into one for military use.''
Thursday's incident is even deadlier, and will no doubt ignite an information war over who is in fact responsible for the 295 lost lives. But, Finch says, “With the facilities that we have, we’ll be able to tell who fired it. We’ll be able to say where that missile came from.”
This article has been updated.