Fog of war

Some days ago, we reported a widespread conspiracy theory (not of our making) that the shooting down of Malaysian Flight 17 was a “false flag” attack conducted by the Ukrainian government to put pressure on Russia’s leadership.

We came in for a lot of flak from a variety of people for giving oxygen to the theory, despite saying that our best guess was, in fact, that pro-Russian Ukrainian rebels shot the plane down, either as the result of a ghastly error or an act of unbelievable bastardy.

Why conspiracy theories need answering

On this blog and elsewhere we pointed out that any criticism of Russia needed to be watertight, and thus the conspiracy theories needed to be answered – debunked – to prevent Putin and his cronies being able to slough off responsibility.

Well, now, the Russians – entirely predictably – are making much of the alleged presence of a Ukrainian jet fighter near the ill-fated civilian aircraft.

The Russian claims

They have responded to the widespread opinion that Russia is responsible for the downing of MH17 by reportedly claiming that it has flight records showing a Ukranian fighter jet was close to the passenger jet before it crashed.

At a specially called briefing, Russian Lieutenant-General Andrey Kartopolov said MH17 had strayed from its regular route (why?) and had been recorded in the proximity of a Ukranian SU-25 fighter jet, which is equipped with air-to-air missiles.

“An altitude gain was recorded for a Ukrainian armed forces plane,” he said, adding that the fighter jet is capable of reaching a height of 10,000 metres. “Its distance from the Malaysian Boeing was three to five kilometres.”

“With what aim was a military plane flying along a civilian aviation route practically at the same time and at the same flight level as a passenger liner? We would like to receive an answer to this question.”


The Russian briefing earlier.


The Lieutenant-General, head of main operational department of Russian military’s General Staff, left, can be seen above speaking  to the media during a news conference in Moscow. (Photo: AP.) General Kartopolov further claimed that the Russian Defence Ministry had detected a significant reduction in Ukranian radar stations after the accident.

Citing data displayed on slides and charts, General Kartopolov claimed that nine radar stations, which are used to operate missile systems, were operating close to the site of the MH17 crash on the day of the tragedy. Within 48 hours, only two remained.

He also strongly denied Russia supplying Buk missile systems to Ukranian separatists, which has been widely speculated across the world.

“I want to stress that Russia did not give the rebels Buk missile systems or any other kinds of weapons or military hardware.” Well, whilst the first part of that sentence could be true, the last half is very obviously not. (Rebels are using Russian-supplied tanks in Donetsk as we speak.) So does that mean the whole sentence is rubbish? You be the judge.

Elsewhere, US network NBC reported that a report on Russia’s Channel One claimed the CIA was to blame for the shooting down of MH17.


In the interests of integrity, we also point out this story, which has Western defence experts arguing that what damage pattern can be seen on the plane would seem to indicate a ground launched Buk-type missile rather than an air-to-air missile. If that is the case it would seem to be a crucial piece of information to be verified as quickly as possible. US intelligence officials think that the most “plausible” case scenario (and we agree) is that these separatists were not aware that MH17 was a passenger flight when they fired what the United States believes was a Russian-made SA-11 surface-to-air missile.

Seeing through the fog

So what’s going on here? Bluster? Fact? Mis-information? Genuine disagreement? Are these the bleatings of a regime (and an unpleasant one, at that) who which to avoid responsibility being sheeted home to them, or the legitimate complaints of a Government that does not wish to be unfairly blamed for a murderous tragedy?

We do not purport to know. We really do not, and we do not make a judgement. It is virtually impossible to parse what is going on without access to all the technical information and analysis of a dozen intelligence agencies, and certainly not by wandering the internet and watching media.

We do say, however, which has been our point all along, that the world deserves to know the answer, if only to lay the blame where it accurately lies.

In the meantime, therefore, we urge caution.

Cui Bono

In particular, we would also urge consideration of the Latin phrase Cui bono /kwˈbn/ “to whose benefit?”, literally “with benefit to whom?”. It is also rendered as cui prodest.

This Latin adage is used either to suggest a hidden motive or to indicate that the party responsible for something may not be who it appears at first to be, or to argue that the way to find out who perpetrated a crime can be determined by asking ourselves “Who benefits?” Or equally, “Who is harmed?”

We confess that one nagging thought eats away at us. If you wanted to gain traction for a push back against the pro-Russian rebels, and in general terms to stymie the expansionist tone of Russian rhetoric and behaviour after their successful annexation of Crimea, (and noting the lascivious glances they are casting towards the now-independent Baltic states, for example), then what better means than to create an incident of such transcendent horror as to shoot down a civilian plane and blame the rebels directly and Russia by association?

We note, also, that while the world is focused on the crash site and the event itself, the Ukrainian government forces have seized the opportunity to mount a full-blown assault on Donetsk, moving from their foothold at the airport to assault the railway station and surrounding areas, as the first step in what may be a bloody battle to recover the whole city, which is the “second city” of Ukraine and a key target for the Government.

Too bizarre? Maybe. At the Wellthisiswhatithink desk we are not, by nature, enthusiastic supporters of conspiracy theories. We have even seen it suggested – follow this if you can – that the extremist lunatics of ISIS murdered the three Jewish teenagers to provoke Israel into attacking Hamas in Gaza (and effectively destroying Hamas) while simultaneously causing huge outrage both locally and worldwide at the civilian casualties, so that ISIS (or their fellow travellers) can take over in Gaza when Hamas is basically marginalised.

The Israelis know the invasion of Gaza is wildly popular inside their own country, and the Americans, playing a long game, believe that the Israelis can effectively defeat Hamas and then resist ISIS incursion (probably by effectively re-occupying Gaza, which we must remember they left voluntarily, using the region’s strongest army and navy, unlike the weak resistance to ISIS put up by the Iraqi central authorities) so they arrange, via the Ukrainians, to shoot down Malaysian 17 because it takes the world’s attention off Israeli aggression in the key early days of the ground invasion of Gaza, and gives Russia a bloody nose at the same time. Winner winner chicken dinner thinks the CIA and the shadowy forces in the military-industrial regime.

Could such a hideously realpolitik and convoluted scenario ever possibly be true? The answer is, it could. Anything could be true. False flag attacks are common throughout recent history. (Just Google them.) We pray it is not, because what it says about the nature of governance in the world (and especially our bit of the world) is chilling indeed.

The cock-up theory of events

But in the final wash up, we are more pragmatic. Our instinct is always to accept the cock-up theory of international relations – essentially, anything that can go wrong will go wrong –  and we still hold to that view in this case, which is why we tend towards the “idiot Ukrainian rebel makes mistake on the readout on the Buk system and fires missile at Malaysian airliner”. Especially as we know the system had been used to attack military aircraft within the last two weeks. The Buk system “reads” the transponders of the aircraft it is tracking and theoretically identifies that aircraft to the man with his finger on the button. But we know to our cost that transponders on aircraft can give false readings.

Cock up. Bang. Right there. Three hundred bodies fall from the sky.

The absolute need for clarity

However, although that’s our best guess, we nevertheless urge all the authorities concerned to tackle the mysteries involved in this case as speedily as possible. As the Independent (amongst other people) pointed out yesterday, the really bizarre thing about conspiracy theories is that just occasionally, very occasionally, they are actually true. And if this was a false flag attack, then the world assuredly needs to know. Can you just imagine the Governments that would tumble? That’s why, above all, the truth would probably never come out even if it was, improbably, the case. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and find out.

But if it wasn’t, as we suspect, then we need to know who was responsible for this act: fast, and with certain proof. The level of international tension currently exhibited on all sides demands it. In California, Diane Feinstein opined that the level of tension between the West and Russia is now as high as at the height of the Cold War. That’s an exaggeration, to be sure, but it’s not a happy thought even if it’s only half true.

And for that reason alone, before the world stumbles ever closer to the precipice of conflict between its major powers, even the craziest of conspiracy theories need putting to bed, and right now.

    • Thank you Simon, and thank you for your continuing interest in the story. Little doubt, certainly, that MH17 was downed by a missile. What the world needs to know is “what missile, from where”. The blast pattern is not unique to Buk systems.


  1. Simon O says:

    sorry should have added that this is whatthe Age is now reporting – this is entirely consistent with the belief it was a BUK missile – and once independent investigations take place they should be able to accurately identify the source of the missile


    • Indeed, Simon. The moment it can be confirmed that it was a Buk missile, the sooner we can dismiss some of the wilder theories. However, the real danger is that two days on non-access to the site might have allowed to site to be cleared of crucial evidence. We shall see, we shall see. Whatever happened, this terrible event is a fascinating example of the role of information and mis-information in international affairs, played out in the media.


  2. Miles says:

    A few thoughts. On cui bono, why did the pro-russian militia (for want of a better term) block access to the site for 4 days to international investigators, making use of the time to destroy evidence.

    On the flight path, a look at the flight density pattern while the route was different from the day before…it’s a pretty commonly used corridor, so the ‘deliberately put off course into danger’ doesn’t stack up in my view.

    You also haven’t anywhere presented evidence that supports the pro-russian hypothesis. Audio transcripts, deleted social media posts boasting of downing a plane:

    Fair enough it’s your blog and you can choose to write what you want, but the conspiratorist refrain of ‘these questions need to be answered’ sits ill at ease with me when it’s not acknowledged that answers exist. It’s a bit like saying the link between vaccines and autism needs to be investigated (as antivaxxers still say) despite the fact that it has, completely and convincingly.


    • I’ll take those points in order, Miles.

      Why would they block access? Because they’re a yumpy, paranoid and badly organised rabble in the middle of a hot war zone. Because there is no mutual respect or trust between the rebels and the Ukrainian Government forces, and they won’t concede ground even to have a plane crash site inspected.

      Or because they want to cover up their liability for the crash. Everyone will make their own judgements: personally I am reserving mine for a day or so, that’s all. Note also, though, that the Russians in the UN (this morning, Australian time) agreed to the call for immediate unimpeded inspection of the site, and repatriation of the bodies to their respective countries as soon as practically possible.

      The point about the flight path is not that it was an unusual place for a civilian jet to be. The plane was about 10 miles off course, but that can be accounted for by a variety of reasons, such as weather. As the Wall Street Journal reports, Gen. Makushev said the Malaysia Airlines plane deviated from its course by close to 9 miles near Donetsk but then attempted to return to its course, crashing shortly after. Russian radars spotted the Flight 17 rapidly descending 32 miles away from the Russian border, Russian officials said. if it DID deviate, suddenly, the question is “Why”.

      As to whether the Russian information can be relied upon, I guess we will see, won’t we? The General said Russia is prepared to hand all of the information it has to the European authorities, which included satellite imagery and data from its own radar.

      Russian defense ministry officials also claimed that a U.S. satellite was spotted at the time of the Flight 17 crash and asked that the U.S. release the satellite images from that time. The U.S. didn’t immediately comment on the claim.

      Also, you need to look at all three of the articles on the tragedy on the blog, not just this one. Some of the conspiracy theories are discussed in much more detail on the previous blog.

      The difference between what I am saying and the point you make about vaccines is the points raised by the conspiracy theorists and the Russians have NOT all be satisfactorily explained. Until they do, we are relying on the assertions of the Ukraine and America that their version of events is supportable. In a geo-political sense, that is unwise. We need to be SURE what happened.

      One of the most important ways that the riddle will be solved is when the debris from the jet can be examined, because the “signature” of the weapons system used will be all over the fuselage. I have little doubt that enough of that evidence still exists for a decision to be made. Just not today. Or maybe, tomorrow, or even, soon. In the meantime, we need the world to avoid going into meltdown, no matter how horrible the event that just occurred.

      We should remember, for example, that when the Soviet’s shot down KAL 007 over the Sakhalin peninsula, they actually went to considerable effort to identify the plane and force it to land before shooting it down because it was flying over a highly sensitive area. The plane did not respond to visual challenges from the Soviet pilot wagging his wings in front of the cockpit. It did not respond to radio messages. It’s transponder was not working. An American spy plane had been in the area shortly before.In the end, the order to shoot was given, and the rest is tragic history. At the time, and despite the Americans knowing all these details, the Reagan administration trumpeted the incident as a disgraceful example of Russian warlike intent.

      We know that such awful errors can occur. The American ship Vincennes shot down Iran Air Flight 655 in Iranian airspace traveling from Teheran to Dubai. The airliner was transmitting the correct transponder “squawk” code typical of a civilian aircraft and maintained English-speaking radio contact with appropriate air traffic control facilities. According to the Iranian government, Vincennes negligently shot down the civilian aircraft: the airliner was making IFF squawks in Mode III (not Mode II used by Iranian military planes), a signal that identified it as a civilian craft, and operators of Vincennes mistook for Mode II. According to the United States Government, the crew incorrectly identified the Iranian Airbus A300 as an attacking F-14A Tomcat fighter, a plane made in the United States and operated at that time by only two forces worldwide, the United States Navy and the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force. But as the Americans should have known, the Iranian F-14s had been supplied by manufacturer Grumman in an air-to-air configuration only and had no known anti-ship capabilities.

      Bad things happen. Mistakes happen. What happens next is politics.

      Thanks, as always, for stopping by and commenting.


  3. […] The fog of war gets foggier every day – who really shot down MH17? (Part 2). […]


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