From Kalashnikovs to Surface-to-Air Missiles in Eastern Ukraine

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On Friday, the Obama administration indicated for the first time that it believes pro-Russian separatists were behind the surface-to-air missile attack that brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, killing 298 people.

The plane was “likely downed” by an SA-11 anti-aircraft system, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power told the Security Council this morning. She also added that “we cannot rule out the technical assistance from Russia to operate it.”

Later in the day, President Barack Obama made a statement in the White House briefing room. “Evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile that was launched from an area that is controlled by Russian-backed separatists inside of Ukraine,” he said. “We know that this is not the first time a plane has been shot down in eastern Ukraine. Over the last several weeks, Russian-backed separatists have shot down a Ukrainian transport plane and a Ukrainian helicopter, and they claimed responsibility for shooting down a Ukrainian fighter jet.”

“Moreover, we know that these separatists have received a steady flow of support from Russia,” he added.

Last winter, FRONTLINE producer James Jones traveled to Ukraine to document the crisis up-close. His film, The Battle for Ukraine, which aired in May, reveals firsthand the deep-seated hatred between the Ukranian nationalists and the pro-Russian separatists vying for control of the country.

We asked Jones about his encounters with the pro-Russian separatists and the dilemma facing Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Can you talk a bit about the rebels who are suspected of being behind this? Igor Strelkov, for example, reportedly posted on social media claiming credit for shooting down a plane before it became clear that the plane was a civilian aircraft.

He posted on his VKontakte site — that’s the Russian version of Facebook — around the time that the plane came down a slightly boastful post that “We’ve got a Ukrainian transport plane.”

It’s also worth pointing out that this isn’t the first time they’ve shot a plane out of the sky. In the past few weeks, they’ve shot down a Ukrainian transport plane, a fighter jet and a helicopter. So we know that they have this kind of surface-to-air missiles. So, he posted it, tweeted about it, and people picked up on it.

Later in the evening, they deleted the post, and gave all kinds of contradictory explanations. They said, “We don’t even have that kind of weaponry that can hit something at that altitude.”

Today, Strelkov came out and said that looking at the wreckage some of these bodies were badly decomposed, and had been dead for a long time — implying that this is some weird false-flag maneuver to try and draw in international forces. …

The interesting thing is they apparently thought it was a Ukrainian transport plane. The intercepts of phone conversations that the Ukrainian government released are chilling. You hear how it went from initially one of the rebels calling the Russian supervisor and feeling sort of happy that they’ve achieved this military coup of getting another Ukrainian plane. Next call, you hear a little bit more doubt about what’s happened. By the third phone call, there’s no doubt in his mind that the passenger plane has nothing to do with the war. You get the sense it’s starting to dawn on them how big a deal this is, that the repercussions are going to be pretty huge.

Having met some of the separatists when you were in Ukraine this spring, are you surprised by their military capabilities? How would they have gotten the weapons to shoot down the Malaysian air flight, as well as the cargo plane that was shot down earlier this week?

When I was there, it was fairly early on in the uprising. The guys who were fighting in the east — it was a mixture. There were some Russians, but there were some locals.

For the most part, the weapons they had were rusty, old Kalashnikovs. They had a few rocket launchers, a few heavier bits of kit, but not anything cutting edge that could shoot a plane out of the sky.

It’s a sign that since I left in May, more well-qualified, well-trained soldiers — or “volunteers” as they’ve been called — have come across the border with serious heavy weaponry: tanks, surface-to-air missiles, kit that’s meant to fight a proper war, not just a few ground skirmishes.

The rebels when I was there still thought they would have a referendum, and start this battle with the Kiev government in which people would die in the hundreds that would give them a pretext to ask for Putin to send in his peacekeepers.

In recent weeks, they’ve been on the back foot. They’ve been pushed out of Slovyansk, which was their military headquarters. And they haven’t got the help from Russia in terms of actual troops. They’re getting some small numbers of fighters and some weaponry, but I think they genuinely thought when I was last there that Putin would send in Russian troops to protect the Russian speakers in the east. …

One of the guys I met in the film, Dennis Pushilin, who was the chairman of the Donetsk People’s Republic … when I was there, he was saying, “We can appeal to our Russian brothers to send in troops to help us once we hold our referendum. This is the beginning of our independence.” You know, very optimistic. He, over the month and a half since I left, has become pretty disillusioned. Recently he said, “Putin said all these beautiful words about defending Russians, but they were just words.”

And today, he’s actually resigned.

It’s possible that what the rebels have done is so appalling that even some of their own members are asking, “Is this really something I want to be associated with?” They viewed themselves as protecters of the Russian speakers in the east, and to go from that to being the perpetrators of this mass murder, a terrorist atrocity that Europe hasn’t seen for a while. Pushilin probably thinks, “We’re now fighting a losing battle. We’re pariahs around the world.” …

What position is Putin in now? What options does he have? How do the rebels currently feel about him?

A lot of the rebels have spoken about how they feel betrayed by the Russians, and they haven’t got what they thought what they were going to get. The rebels were staked out for a brief, final battle in Donetsk, but the Kyiv government forces were starting to win. This has just transformed their landscape completely.

Putin faces the dilemma now whether he distances himself from the rebels and admits they’ve gone too far and says they don’t answer to him — which is publicly what he’s been doing for a while now. Or whether he persists in his usual game of denying the reality on the ground and pointing a finger at the Kyiv government. The early signs suggest that’s what he’s doing.

The Russian media is kind of backing him up on that, not quite directly accusing Ukrainian forces of shooting down the plane, but laying the blame squarely at their feet by saying that they let the plane fly over a war zone. Saying [the Ukranians have] been the ones stoking fires in the east, attacking their own people, so it’s their responsibility.

As Obama and Samantha Power said today, the Americans aren’t giving that much credibility.

You said when you left Ukraine last spring you thought there was a more violent and critical chapter to come. What did you see at that point that made you come to that conclusion? What were the warning signs?

We followed Right Sector, which is this ultranationalist Ukrainian movement. Partly because the Ukrainian army wasn’t set up to fight a war, they had to incorporate lots of volunteers into a national guard. As part of that effort they recruited lots of ultranationalists, especially from western Ukraine. The Russian narrative they created of ultranationalists from western Ukraine coming and killing separatists in the east — we saw that sort of coming true.

It just felt like the longer the fighting went on, the more pronounced the divisions would get.

The Ukrainian government has been achieving their goals pretty well. The question now is do they do what Obama is saying, call a ceasefire, or does the Ukrainian government use this as an excuse to wipe out the rest of separatists. If they try and take back Donetsk, it would be hundreds if not thousands of dead because it’s a city of almost a million people, very densely populated. It would be street-by-street gun battles, and it could get very bloody.

There are reports now that the separatists near the crash site turned back Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) investigators with warnings shots. At this point, does it seem like Moscow is in control of the situation at all?

This whole incident shows that Putin is not in control. He must have thought, “What the hell have I done?” He had the worries for a while, that these guys were getting out of control.

When I was there, they were a rabble. They were a group of thugs, who smelled of vodka. About a month after I left, you saw Chechens come in, more disciplined, more well-drilled. That was probably a Russian initiative to say this is embarrassing, we can’t have this kind of ill discipline.

But then for something like this to happen, it shows that they are not sophisticated, sensible fighters. They’re trigger happy and incredibly irresponsible.

Photo: Pro-Russian fighters walk at the site of a crashed Malaysia Airlines passenger plane near the village of Hrabove, Ukraine, eastern Ukraine Friday, July 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
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