WASHINGTON – Russia Today, or RT, already under considerable criticism for biased coverage of the shoot down of Malaysia Airlines’ Boeing 777 MH-17 flight, has now relented in its defense of Russian-backed Ukrainian rebels by calling for an international probe to determine culpability for the deadly attack.
Mainstream media had accused the Russian government-backed RT, a major English-speaking television channel in the United States, of coming up with “conspiracy theories” to divert attention from pointing fingers of accusation at the Russian-backed rebels.
One such theory that received prominent play on RT was the possibility that the Ukrainian government thought the aircraft may have been carrying Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Russian president was due to fly back from viewing the World Cup in Brazil, and RT referred to similar colors on Putin’s aircraft with that of MH-17.
In insinuating that the Ukraine government had directed the aircraft to a lower altitude and flight path directly over the war-torn eastern portion of Ukraine, RT insinuated – but did not say directly – that the Ukrainian government may have wanted the aircraft shot down to cast the blame on the Ukrainian rebels.
But now Abby Martin, in an RT editorial comment, has called for an independent investigation over culpability to bring to justice those responsible for the shoot down.
RT even referred to the allegation from the United States and a suggestion from President Barack Obama that Russians assisted Ukrainian rebels in shooting down MH-17, which killed some 298 people, some 80 of whom where children.
Obama, however, also appeared to backtrack in a televised statement when he said he didn’t want to get out front of any international investigation in determining culpability, even though in the beginning of his statement he had placed the blame for the shoot down on Moscow and the Russian-backed rebels.
The international Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or OSCE, has sent investigators to examine the crash site where wreckage, bodies and personal effects remain strewn over a nine-square mile area in a farmer’s field outside Donetsk, which is in the contested area held by Ukrainian rebels.
The European Union has not yet established blame for the missile attack on MH-17, awaiting the outcome of the OSCE probe, which is being hampered by evidence tampering, pilfering and contamination of the crime scene by pro-Russian Ukrainians.
There even is conflicting information on the status of the so-called black boxes, which record all events on the aircraft. Initial reports say that the Ukrainian rebels found them and sent them to Moscow, while other reports deny that.
In an apparent justification for Moscow’s backing of the rebels in eastern Ukraine, RT had pointed out that giving military assistance to militias isn’t anything new, citing weapons the United States is supplying to militias and giving military assistance to the Israelis who are currently bombing in the Gaza Strip, resulting in hundreds of civilian casualties.
All sides in the finger pointing over culpability acknowledge that a missile brought down MH-17. The issue to be investigated is which side – the Ukrainian government or Russian-backed rebels – shot the missile. The Pentagon has identified the missile as the Russian surface-to-air Buk, which has the NATO designation of the SA-11 Gadfly.
Both the Ukrainian government and Ukrainian separatists have the Buk system. Sources say the rebels recently captured the Buk system from the Ukrainians. The sophisticated system, however, would require Russian assistance to successfully hit an aircraft flying at 33,000 feet.
The Buk is capable of hitting an aircraft up to 72,000 feet. One eye witness who saw the aircraft fall from the sky before exploding on the ground said it appeared to have one wing missing, suggesting the heat-seeking missile went for an engine on one of the wings of the two-engine Boeing 777 aircraft.
The U.S. and other Western intelligence services are zeroing in on the Russian-backed Ukrainians as having fired the missile at the MH-17. Some media are showing a video of a Buk system on the back of a truck-pulled platform purportedly being smuggled back to the Russian border, which is only 40 kilometers away.
Sources say that a the pro-Russian Ukrainians had captured a Buk system a few weeks ago and had shot down other aircraft, including a Ukrainian transport plane, a helicopter and a Ukrainian jet fighter.
The Ukrainian Security agency, SBU, has released what purportedly is an exchange of conversation between a Russian intelligence officer and a pro-Russian rebel, identified as Igor Bezler, 20 minutes following the shoot down.
“We have just shot down a plane,” Bezler reportedly told Russian Colonel Vasil Geranin, said to be with the main intelligence department of the general headquarters of the armed forces of the Russian Federation.
In addition to being a Russian military intelligence officer in Ukraine, Bezler also is the leading commander of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.
Bezler’s boss, Igor Girkin, who also goes by the pseudonyum Igor Strelkov, has been identified as the self-styled minister of defense of the Ukrainian separatists. He is a Russian citizen from Moscow and has been sanctioned by the E.U. for his leading role in the insurgency in eastern Ukraine.
The Ukrainian government says Strelkov, or Girkin, is a covert agent and is a colonel in the Russian GRU intelligence service.
Soon after the downing of MH-17, Strelkov posted a statement on Russia’s largest social network claiming responsibility for the downing but later deleted the post.
Strelkov was involved in the First and Second Chechen wars and in the Russian takeover of the Crimean Peninsula earlier this year.
He admits to having served in the Russian FSB, the Russian intelligence service, until March 2013. Separate sources say he worked in the FSB’s counter-terrorism unit, the Directorate for Combating International Terrorism.
Reuters reports that a leaflet distributed in the rebel Donetsk region said that “Colonel Igor Strelkov” had assumed command of all rebel forces and called for Russian army help to ward off what he calls the threat from the Kiev “junta” and NATO.
Sources say that Strelkov’s association with the Russian FSB and GRU and his self-declared role as minister of defense in the Donetsk province underscore assistance from Russia to aid the rebels.
It also suggests that U.S. relations with Russia are going to get worse before they get better. The U.S. had just imposed sanctions on Russia’s energy and defense sectors. There is a possibility that U.S. could increase those sanctions.
F. Michael Maloof, senior staff writer for WND/ G2Bulletin, is a former security policy analyst in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He can be contacted at [email protected].