The criminal destruction of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine is back in the news in important ways. The association Bellingcat has just released a report with remarkably specific evidence implicating Russia. The Kremlin immediately responded with particularly intense outrage, indicating this new information may indeed be damning.
Bellingcat is a group of volunteers based in Britain who use available news, social media and other sources to investigate stories often related to violence and war. These include the Paris terrorist attack and the ongoing war in Syria. The organization, which was launched with a crowd-funding campaign, uses Google Earth to collect data.
The scheduled Malaysia airliner was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur but crashed in rebel-held territory in Ukraine in July 2014. A total of 298 people were killed. There was desecration of the remains of those killed. The crash site also was severely contaminated.
Sloppy treatment of both the human remains and the aircraft wreckage confirm that committed thugs and killers cannot be trusted to carry out either humane or forensic tasks. We already knew that.
Despite this, U.S. and German intelligence agencies quickly concluded that the Malaysia jet was hit by a missile from a Russian SA-11 anti-aircraft system. Evidence included missile fragments, sensors following the missile flight, intercepted voice communications and postings to social media.
Bellingcat has combed through masses of information seeking more specific detail. Social media postings and photos from Russian soldiers proved especially helpful.
The Bellingcat report reconfirms a Buk missile launcher was responsible for the crime. The 53rd Air Defense Brigade of the Russian Army, and specifically launcher Number 332, is indicted.
The launcher was in position in Eastern Ukraine on the day the airliner was destroyed.
Moscow condemns the report as the work of speculating amateurs, for good political reasons.
Putin’s government has consistently denied their military forces are in Ukraine, describing separatists as “volunteers.”
Russia clearly is committed to remaining a major military power. According to the respected International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), national defense spending as a percentage of Russia’s gross domestic product has steadily grown, from 2.76 percent in 2010 to 3.15 percent in 2013, and a projection of 3.89 percent in 2016. Defense spending is now dominated by a handful of large, predominantly state-owned corporations. As under the Soviet regime, the military remains a high priority.
In addition to the human tragedy involved, the Malaysia Airlines disaster and aftermath underscores both dangers and promise of technology. Almost certainly, the civilian aircraft was misidentified as military. Russian public posting taking credit were taken down once the aircraft was identified as civilian.
We are in the midst of the 100th anniversary of World War I, fought from 1914 to 1918. That conflagration was sparked by an assassination in the Balkans. Thereafter, military plans and machinery took over, and vast killing became self-reinforcing. New generations of devastating weapons, particularly the machine gun, changed the nature of the battlefield. In effect, technology seized control.
A more subtle lesson about technology and war also relates to Eastern Europe. The Enigma was an exceptionally complex electro-mechanical encryption machine developed in Germany.
Just before Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Polish agents delivered a working Enigma to British and French intelligence pros. Through World War II, the Allies had this crucial intelligence source, code named Ultra.
Technology can both drive and undercut war. Human imagination is pivotal, as Bellingcat currently is demonstrating.
— Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact firstname.lastname@example.org