by Derek Davison
When flight MH17 was hit with a missile over eastern Ukraine on July 17, US officials immediately blamed pro-Russian separatists for bringing the plane down. Secretary of State John Kerry said the evidence “obviously points a very clear finger at the separatists,” using “a system that was transferred from Russia.” The preliminary evidence — including photographs allegedly showing a Buk system in the area where the aircraft was shot down, satellite imagery supposedly showing a missile plume that trailed back to separatist-controlled territory, and intercepts of separatists purportedly discussing the shooting — supported Kerry’s assertion, but was at best circumstantial (Kerry himself called it “extraordinary circumstantial evidence”), and in the case of the missile plume, has not been made public.
Doubts have been raised about the veracity of the initial MH17 story, particularly by independent journalist Robert Parry, who claims that a reliable (though anonymous) source told him that US satellite imagery actually suggests the flight was shot down by a Buk battery under the control of Ukrainian forces. Parry’s reporting initially suggested that the battery fired on MH17 accidentally, or due to carelessness on the part of its crew, but he has since reported (based on additional anonymous sourcing) that the attack may have been a deliberate attempt to assassinate Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was returning from the World Cup in Brazil that day and whose plane may have resembled MH17 in both physical appearance and flight path.
Obviously Parry’s story suffers from its reliance on anonymous sources and the lack of any publicly available evidence supporting it. However, it remains a plausible alternative to the Western narrative about MH17, in large part due to the failure of the US government to bolster the initial circumstantial evidence it raised against the separatists with anything more substantive (it claims doing so would compromise its intelligence-gathering capabilities). Parry is certainly not the only journalist to notice this failure, as shown by a heated July 25 exchange between AP reporter Matt Lee and State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf. As Gawker’s Matthew Phelan points out, the evidence that has been made public so far is hardly impressive considering the massive US intelligence apparatus that is supposed to be investigating what really happened to MH17. Yet for the most part, American mainstream news outlets have hardly challenged the US’ official MH17 story.
Others have publicly raised questions. A group of former intelligence and foreign service officials called Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) released a public memo on July 29 to President Obama via Parry’s website. The authors argued that “the charges against Russia should be rooted in solid, far more convincing evidence” and asked that “if you [Obama] indeed have more conclusive evidence, you will find a way to make it public without further delay.” VIPS has also critiqued Colin Powell’s February 2003 speech to the UN Security Council making the case for the Iraq War, the Obama administration’s unwillingness to investigate and prosecute those behind the Bush-era torture program, and last year’s plans to launch cruise missile strikes against Syria. Granted, some of this group’s claims have been seriously challenged.
In any case, if VIPS demand for more conclusive evidence seemed premature early on, their demands seem considerably more reasonable now that Russia’s supposed culpability in MH17’s downing has been used to justify additional US and EU sanctions. Yet there has still been no effort by the Obama administration to release more substantive evidence to support allegations of the separatists’ culpability. Gawker spoke to members of VIPS, who argued that given all the assets that must have been sent to eastern Ukraine in the midst of the ongoing fighting, the US government probably has substantial evidence showing what really happened to MH17. They also said that the seriousness of the deteriorating US-Russia relationship warranted releasing that evidence even if doing so would compromise intelligence-gathering operations. “We’re talking about the possibility of an armed confrontation with Russia. I mean, you couldn’t think of higher stakes,” retired CIA analyst Ray McGovern told Gawker.
Barring a massive escalation by Russia, the separatist war in Ukraine is nearing its end. Ukrainian forces have reached one of the two remaining rebel strongholds, Luhansk, where “street fighting” is said to be ongoing between the army and the remaining separatist resistance. The other stronghold, Donetsk, has been taking heavy shelling from Ukrainian forces and is unlikely to hold out much longer. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is due to meet with Putin in Minsk next Tuesday, in an effort to reach an agreement that would end the fighting.
At this critical juncture, one hopes that Western media will keep a watchful eye on events in eastern Ukraine as they unfold. Poroshenko, and his supporters in Europe and America, must be held accountable for the treatment of defeated rebels and the Donetsk and Luhansk civilians who have been essentially caught in the crossfire over the past several months. He must also be held accountable for the actions of neo-Nazi militias like the Azov Battalion, which continues to serve openly on the front lines of the Ukrainian advance despite its extremism and the potential threat it poses to post-war reconciliation. When civilians are targeted, as in the August 18 shelling of a refugee convoy fleeing Luhansk, the true story about such incidents must be told. The failure of leading news media outlets to get more answers from Washington about what really happened to MH17 does not bode well for future coverage of this conflict.
Photo: A memorial at the Amsterdam Schiphol Airport for the victims of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, which was reportedly show down while flying over Ukraine on 17 July 2014, killing all 298 people on board.