The U.S. intelligence community’s best guess is that Ukrainian separatists supported by Russia, but not actual Russians, were the ones who fired the missile that brought down MH17 and killed 296 people over eastern Ukraine.
If the leading theory of America’s intelligence agencies is true, then separatists have demonstrated a level of technical skill and mastery of advanced weapons greater than was previously understood. Leading officials and experts have suggested that only Russian military or intelligence agents would be able to operate the SA-11 missile system that fired the shot. It would also contradict the official Ukrainian government line, which is that Russian personnel hit the button.
Officials said separatists have been trained by Russians on anti-aircraft systems, including the SA-11, at a facility in the Rostov region of Russia. Anti-aircraft systems have also been seen going from Russia into eastern Ukraine, but the U.S. intelligence community doesn’t know if the system used to bring down MH17 came from Russia or was stolen from the Ukrainian military, which uses the exact same system. Russia chooses equipment that matches what the Ukrainian military uses in order to provide separatists with some level of deniability.
Three senior U.S. intelligence officials briefed reporters on their latest analysis Tuesday and said there are still several questions about the disaster that remain unanswered.
“The leading theory is that it’s separatists [who pulled the trigger],” a senior U.S. intelligence official said. “We don’t know exactly who pulled the trigger, we don’t have a name, a rank, we’re not even sure about a nationality.”
There are several pieces of circumstantial evidence that point to separatists as directly responsible for the disaster, although the U.S. intelligence community can’t say for sure who operated the system that fired the missile. Regardless, senior officials said, Moscow bears some responsibility.
“We’re still working to determine whether there was a direct link, whether Russians were on the ground, the degree to which Russia may have trained these separatists…. It’s not easy to operate one of these SA-11 systems,” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said Tuesday on CNN. “We do think President Putin and the Russian government bears responsibility for the support they’ve given the separatists… We’re going to continue to pull the thread on this case to determine exactly who do we believe fired that missile.”
The U.S. intelligence community has used both social media as well as its own technical intelligence to determine that the missile was fired by an SA-11 system from a separatist-controlled area of eastern Ukraine and therefore was controlled by the separatists, the intelligence officials said.
Intercepted calls released by the Ukrainian government included separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine claiming credit on July 17 for what they thought was the shoot-down of a Ukrainian military aircraft, only to later discover they had destroyed a civilian airliner and murdered the innocent people inside. Ukrainian government intercepts also purport to reveal Ukrainian separatists acknowledging they controlled SA-11 systems.
The NSA and CIA conducted voice analyses on some of those released intercepts and determined (by comparing those calls to previous voice samples), that at least some of the Ukrainian separatists on the intercepts were in fact who the claimed to be.
Also, the U.S. has watched Russia move large convoys of heavy weapons across the border into eastern Ukraine, including tanks, armored personnel carriers, rocket launchers, and much more, the officials said. The heavy equipment deliveries to the separatists increased in the weeks before the crash and continue after the disaster. The bulk of the equipment comes from the Rostov training center.
“We’re confident no Ukrainian air defense systems were in range of the launch site or the crash site,” one official said, disputing Russian media reports that the Ukrainian military may have fired the shot. “So based on what we now know, to believe the Russian version of events, a Ukrainian SA-11 out of range travels a great distance through enemy territory, waits for a civilian airliner, does something that no Ukrainian SA-11 has done heretofore and fires a missile, fights its way out and back to base and somehow persuades separatists to post online that they shot the aircraft down.”
The senior intelligence officials said they could not independently confirm social media reports that an SA-11 missile system with at least one missile missing was moving back to Russia.
But one official said that U.S. intelligence could confirm Ukrainian government claims that Russia was still sending heavy weapons into eastern Ukraine after the crash, including 20 tanks Tuesday morning.
“There is a deep emotional tie between the Russian government and the separatists,” the official said.