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MH17 crash in war zone poses security challenges, but may be aided by more ‘eyes’

July 18, 2014 at 6:19 PM EDT
Leaders from around the world have called for an investigation into who shot down the Malaysian passenger plane over eastern Ukraine. But how can that be done in the middle of a violent, political conflict? Hari Sreenivasan gets more insight from P.J. Crowley, former State Department official and Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Leaders from around the world called for an investigation into who shot down the Malaysian passenger plane. But how can that be done in the middle of a war zone?

Hari Sreenivasan has that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For that, we turn to New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti, and P.J. Crowley, who served as assistant secretary of state during the first Obama administration and is now a fellow at George Washington University.

Mark, I want to start with you.

From your sources in the intelligence community, is there any certainty on whether the surface-to-air missile was from Russia or from the rebels?

MARK MAZZETTI, The New York Times: Not total certainty on that point.

You heard President Obama say — put the blame pretty squarely on Moscow today, saying either they did it themselves or they gave it to the rebels and they were doing this by proxy. Either way, the president said, and as intelligence officials are sort of pointing out, it’s — Russia is escalating the conflict by introducing these surface-to-air missiles.

But you raise a good point. Exactly how this happened, exactly how the missiles got there and when they got there is still an important point to — question to answer.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is there any kind of a timeline on how they could make such a determination?

MARK MAZZETTI: It would be going back to satellite images, looking at the plumes of smoke, about where exactly these were fired, going back to signals intelligence.

We have heard in the last couple days the Ukrainian government put out intercepted communications — or alleged intercepted communications among insurgents about the transfer of these weapons. So, it could be something that in the next few days we know a lot more. But it’s always in the first couple days after the fact hard to know because they’re trying to double-check all the different intelligence sources.

HARI SREENIVASAN: P.J. Crowley, considering that this is an active war zone, wouldn’t that mean that there are more eyes in the sky watching?

P.J. CROWLEY, Former State Department official: Absolutely.

The contrast between, say, Malaysia Fight 370, the mystery for which we do not yet know what happened to that airplane, is in sharp relief to what we have here. We do have a crash site. We do have eyewitnesses. And because this is a conflict zone, intelligence agencies, not just U.S., but others, have already been concentrating a lot of assets in this piece of territory.

So, notwithstanding some of the concerns that have been raised about the lack of security at the crash site, there’s going to be a lot of information at the crash site anyway, but beyond that a lot of intelligence information over time should be able to help us answer many of the key questions that this has raised.

HARI SREENIVASAN: P.J., staying with you for a second, we heard the president earlier this afternoon call for a cease-fire, call for unfettered access. And as we heard from Matt Frei and others, that that’s just not happening, is that there’s not a secure area. What can we do or what can be done to change that?

P.J. CROWLEY: Well, it’s going to be very, very difficult.

Obviously, this is not a part of the country of Ukraine that the government in Kiev controls. So you’re going to have to do some negotiating to figure out what kind of access, who will control it, and then rumors about whether the black boxes are still at the scene or have been moved.

So when the president says there should be a credible international investigation, trying to figure out the roles and missions of that will be a challenge, obviously, given the high political stakes behind what the investigation produces.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mark, from your reporting, what’s happening behind the scenes, especially in the intelligence community?

MARK MAZZETTI: Well, they’re trying to nail down exactly the sort of providence of these weapons, and, if they can, tie them back to either the Russian military.

I mean, there were accusations made today that went part of the way, as I said. President Obama accused them of training, Moscow of training separatists. The top NATO general several weeks ago said that there had been training going on in Russia of Ukrainian separatists.

So these things are adding up. And so the intelligence community would be adding the signals intelligence, the images, other kind of sourcing to be able to nail down a more solid case.

Another really important data point here is, on Monday, you had a Ukrainian military transport plane shot down by a surface-to-air missile. That’s the first case of a surface-to-air missile shooting down a plane. And that was the first signal that these weapons had been issue introduced into this conflict. And that was a really significant development.

HARI SREENIVASAN: P.J., wouldn’t that be a warning sign enough, a big flag that goes up, if they are able to shoot something that is at 20,000 feet? Why wasn’t the world alarmed about it?

P.J. CROWLEY: Well, I think the critical aspect here, you have got the conflict, and it’s perhaps a deeper conflict than perhaps we recognized in recent weeks or months.

But the real question is, what does this say about Russian support for the Ukrainian separatists? This will be the political challenge behind the investigation. Putin has been conciliatory in public, but, obviously, the invisible hand of Russia has been — reached deeply into Ukraine. And they are providing meaningful support and have largely achieved their objective of regaining leverage over Ukraine, and also potentially destabilizing the eastern part of the country.

The challenge for not only the United States, but also Europe, is, can you use this tragedy and the investigation that follows to reestablish some leverage that moves this back towards a political solution, a negotiation that Russia has spoken in favor of, but really undermined over the past few months?

HARI SREENIVASAN: P.J., staying with you for a second, you mentioned the word leverage. The U.S. has had very little leverage over Russia, especially in the past few months. What if there is a direct determination or a determination that there’s a more direct connection between Russia and what happened? What does the U.S. do then?

P.J. CROWLEY: Well, I think there’s a fork in the road here.

And, Hari, you’re exactly right that, while the United States has a profound stake in this, in terms of one imposing costs on Russia for its foreign policy, that’s something that largely — that rests more significant in European hands than in American hands, since the European economy is far more integrated with Russia than is the American economy.

But if — and this will be an opportunity for Vladimir Putin. Does he change his policy? Does he — does this scare him sufficiently, that his proxies have overstepped international norms, to de-escalate, as the president and others have called for, but he has not yet actually done?

But if the — Russia is not responsive to what international community is demanding, then you have got to relook at the nature of the Russian/U.S. relationship, the nature of the Russian/European relationship, and perhaps structure that for the foreseeable future for as long as Putin is in power.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, P.J. Crowley, Mark Mazzetti, thanks so much.

MARK MAZZETTI: Thank you.

P.J. CROWLEY: Thank you.