July 23 (Bloomberg) -- Almost a week after the downing of a Malaysian airliner in Ukraine, U.S. officials still can’t say they’re certain who did it and whether Russia was involved.
Three American intelligence officials who briefed reporters yesterday said U.S. technical intelligence and overhead satellite images bolster the case that a surface-to-air missile fired from territory held by pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine shot down the civilian plane.
One of the officials described as solid the theory that a Russian-made SA-11 missile hit the plane and said it happened under conditions that Russia helped create. All three, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence findings, stopped short of claiming Russia played a direct role.
More than a decade after the U.S. went to war in Iraq based on false allegations that Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and ties to al-Qaeda, the intelligence agencies have reason to tread carefully in the airliner probe, according to Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“We would want to provide the most rock-solid case with credible intelligence to support it about where we think this missile came from and who operated it,” Kuchins said. “There’s no question Mr. Putin and the Russians are going to do, as they have for months, beginning with Crimea and continuing with eastern Ukraine, to lie, obfuscate, and bluster about their role.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said his opponents are using the crash for “selfish political gains,” and officials in Moscow have suggested that the plane was hit by Ukrainian government forces.
The U.S. officials attributed their caution in part on the need to preserve the integrity of an international investigation into the destruction of Malaysian Air Flight MH17 on July 17, which killed all 298 passengers and crew. The approach also leaves the option of providing further evidence if the Russians press their version of events.
The officials said they have ruled out involvement by Ukraine’s military because its missiles weren’t within range of the Malaysian airplane. While stopping short of claiming direct involvement by Russia, none of the three officials ruled it out.
Without disclosing classified information such as satellite imagery, the officials shared photos posted on social media of the crash site and what they described as missile movements across the Russia-Ukraine border.
The intelligence officials said they’ve seen an increasing volume of heavy weaponry crossing the border from Russia and that Russia has provided training to the rebels -- some of them Russian citizens -- including in the use of air-defense systems. They provided an aerial photo of a military facility outside the Russian city of Rostov, near the border with Ukraine, that they said has become a center of training and weapons supplies for the separatists.
The U.S. doesn’t need to do much to sell its version of events, said Eugene Rumer, a former national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the U.S. National Intelligence Council.
“The narrative is so clear-cut,” said Rumer, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington policy group. “Just the reporting from the field paints such an unattractive picture of the separatists that we don’t need to do anything else.”
Rumer, who was in Moscow when the plane was shot down, said Russian state television coverage concentrated on floating alternate theories for the crash “to dilute the predominant explanation that’s being put forward and broadcast from the West” that the rebels are to blame.
Officials in the Kremlin are probably counting on outrage over the airliner disaster to subside and for people to move on, distracted by other subjects, he said.
“It’s not that they’re counting on obfuscating or on confusing the public,” Rumer said. “They’re counting on the passage of time and the complexity of the investigation to do the job.”
The U.S. intelligence officials said they are confident that they detected a missile launch in eastern Ukraine at the time of the downing in an area controlled by the Russia-backed separatists.
The most plausible motive for the shooting down of the aircraft was that it was made in error by someone who didn’t know that he was aiming at a civilian airplane, the officials said. The SA-11 is meant to be operated as part of a larger system to provide more data on targets, one official said. If the shooter used it separately, he probably didn’t have the stream of data that would have discerned a commercial airliner flying within an established air corridor, the official said.
An attack by a Ukrainian Su-25 plane against the commercial airliner -- a possibility cited by Russian officials -- isn’t plausible because the damage shown in photos on the ground suggest a surface-to-air missile and not that associated with a short-range missile carried on an Su-25, they said.
The intelligence officials also cited what they said were voice recordings of rebels claiming credit for shooting down a plane at the time the airliner was destroyed.
The U.S. has verified the authenticity of those recordings by finding voice matches of the rebels in other conversations, they said. They said they were confident that the recordings weren’t doctored, as Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, said was the case on July 21.
The intelligence officials also cited a video posted on social media that the U.S. says shows a missile battery crossing the border from Ukraine back into Russia with one of its missiles missing. They said they’re relying on a posting made on social media for the location of the missile movement.
Churkin said during debate at the UN that the video was shot in Ukraine, not Russia. The U.S. intelligence community is now sorting through data to verify the location, the American officials said.
“That’s a hopeless battle,” Clifford Gaddy, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington policy group, said of a narrative tussle with Russia over events. “Who would we ever want to convince of our version who doesn’t already believe it? Russian citizens? Forget it. We shouldn’t even waste our time battling over the narrative.”
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