WASHINGTON – The Pentagon said Thursday it was a Russian Buk surface-to-air missile that downed Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine, killing all 295 people aboard.
Analysts, consequently, warn the attack could have a major impact on the fight between Russia and Ukraine over Crimea and other territories.
The Pentagon has expressed doubts that the missile was launched by the Ukrainian military and hinted strongly that the Buk, known by NATO as the SA-11 Gadfly, that hit the Boeing 777 came from Russian separatists, who have been taught by Russia how to use the weapon.
MH-17 was carrying people of various nationalities from Amsterdam with an intended destination of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The jetliner was over the war zone in eastern Ukraine, at an altitude of about 33,000 feet, when it apparently disintegrated.
Wreckage of the aircraft and the bodies of the victims were strewn over a nine-mile long area, reports said.
In its analysis of the tragedy, the Pentagon said the Buk missile is capable of reaching up to 72,000 feet. The U.S. intelligence community now is in the process of determining the missile’s trajectory to identify the exact location from which it was fired.
The finger pointing at Russian separatists comes at least partly because of the downing of a Ukrainian military cargo plane from Russian territory close to the border where there has been fighting with pro-Russian rebels.
Russian separatists also bragged about downing a Ukrainian jet fighter just days before.
And the separatists, in an initial social media account – later removed – claimed to have recently captured a Buk surface-to-air missile system.
If the U.S. intelligence assessment turns out to be correct, the blame could rest squarely on Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has made moves to fulfill his vision of restoring territory lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Russian separatists in the troubled eastern Ukraine claim to have found the black boxes, which record crucial flight data. A spokesman said the black boxes have been sent to Moscow for analysis, which raises concerns of tampering.
If it turns out that the Boeing 777 was shot down by Russian separatists with a weapon supplied by Moscow, pressure on Europe to penalize the Russians will surge.
The Europeans, especially Germany, have been reluctant to impose sanctions because of their dependence on Russian oil and gas exports for some 30 percent of their needs.
Sanctions that could bruise Russia and directly hurt some of its industries could boomerang on Europe, due to its economic interdependency with Russia.
The United States has just increased sanctions on Moscow aimed at its energy, defense and banking sectors. If Russia is shown to be culpable, it would be up to the Obama administration to press the Europeans to impose similar sanctions.
Analysts say the destruction of a passenger jet carrying 295 not only could persuade Europe to impose sanctions, it also might pressure Russia to reach a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis.
Moscow likely will insist that any discussions with Kiev of a resolution to the Ukraine crisis involve the Russian separatists who seek to split from Ukraine and join Russia, much as the citizens of the Crimean Peninsula did earlier this year.
Sources add, however, that even Putin is uncertain of what outcome he wants for eastern Ukraine.
Moscow appears intent to ride out the impact of the MH-17 incident and continue pressing to make the eastern province autonomous from Kiev while diminishing the Kiev government’s tilt toward the European Union and the Western military alliance, analysts said.