Fred Kaplan writes: Apart from its tragic horror, the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 has two strategic consequences. First, it reveals that the Russian military—and, therefore, President Vladimir Putin—is deeply involved in the separatists’ fight against the Ukrainian government. Second, it transforms that fight from a confined civil war to a clash affecting the whole continent; Europeans can no longer so easily ignore it or avoid holding Russia accountable.
The proof of Russian involvement lies in the weapon used to down the plane. The SA-11 radar-guided surface-to-air missile is not like the shoulder-mounted rockets that many rebels use to fire against low-flying aircraft worldwide. Rather, it’s a complex system that requires three vehicles and about a dozen personnel, most of them specially trained as a team. The system’s warning-radar detects an incoming plane; calculates its speed, range, and altitude; and passes that information to the missile battery’s “acquisition radar,” which tracks the plane. When the plane is within ideal range, the missile is fired. Then, the “target-tracking radar” guides the missile to the target.
A U.S. Air Force officer familiar with the SA-11 says, “There is no way that some guy, who was a miner or truck driver before the war, can all of a sudden operate this system.” It takes several weeks to learn how to use it, six months or so to get proficient. John Pike, a weapons specialist with GlobalSecurity.org, puts it this way: “If some separatists had started learning how to use the SA-11 late last year, by now they might be up to speed.”
Since the conflict with separatists in eastern Ukraine started just this past spring, this raises the question: Are the people who shot down the Malaysian airliner pro-Russian separatists—or are they Russian air-defense officers who trekked across the border to assist their ethnic brethren? Either way, it’s not the case that Putin simply encouraged the rebels to fight and supplied them with missiles, making him indirectly responsible for the shoot-down; it’s that his officers are directly responsible, either by training the separatist shooters or by being the shooters themselves. [Continue reading…]